The McKanna House and Family History

(Click images to enlarge the pictures.)

Click to enlarge pictureIn August of 2005 my wife and I visited Juneau, Alaska for the first time, where we saw the house built by my grandparents, James Adelbert McKanna and Francis Gaines Morrissette, probably between 1911 and 1912.  The McKanna house sits on a bluff at 126 W. 7th Street overlooking the town and facing out on the Gastineau Channel.  It has passed through several hands over the years and has been owned since the 1980’s by Marcia Nye and Mark Badger.  Thanks to their efforts, the McKanna house is in excellent condition and is greatly appreciated by them and by others in the community as the home of one of Juneau’s pioneering families.


Click to enlarge picture. How the McKanna house came to be built involves a bit of history as the McKanna family moved from Ireland to Canada, through Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, and eventually to Alaska.  James Adelbert’s grandparents, Miles McCanna and Briget McDevit, emigrated from Ireland (possibly Waterford) to Canada sometime between 1847 and 1849, bringing their four children including the youngest, Michael Bernard, age one.  The family farmed in Ontario for about 20 years but by 1868 had moved south to Minnesota, possibly attracted by the public land grants of the “Homestead Act” of 1862.  Miles became a naturalized citizen of the United States on October 14, 1873.  Miles homesteaded a 160 acre farm in Polk County, an area with other Irish immigrant families including the Rooney’s.

Click to enlarge pictue.James Adelbert’s other grandparents, Michael Rooney and Catherine Caulfield, also emigrated from Ireland (Galway) to Canada around 1845, bringing their nine grown children including the oldest son Patrick, his wife, Ellen Tracey, and their eight kids.  The families settled near Farrellton, Quebec, where Michael and the three oldest boys had their own farms. Two more children were born to Patrick and Ellen in Canada, including Katherine Ann on April 5, 1852.  “Daddy Mick” died in 1857 and by 1868 the widow Catherine and eight of her nine grown children had also moved to Minnesota to what became known as “Rooney’s Settlement” near present day Padua.

Click to enlarge picture. The families settled in Minnesota, where in 1872 Katherine Ann became the first teacher in a one-room school house in nearby Raymond Township.  Two years later, on April 9, 1874, she married Michael Bernard McCanna.  A grasshopper plague devastated Minnesota that year forcing many settlers including the new couple and their first child to move on.  Michael and Katherine arrived in Bismarck, North Dakota in 1876, where their second child, James Adelbert, was born on December 16 that year.  Michael, James, and their families together with then unmarried sister Bridgette moved on to Miles City, Montana.  Bridgette married and became the first family member to move to Alaska, when she and second husband, Patrick H. Fox, a baker, took their family to Douglas in 1885.  In 1886 the U.S. Government started an active campaign to draw homesteaders to Alaska.  Michael and Katherine responded, following sister Bridgette to Douglas in late 1876, bringing their four children: Elizabeth Eleanor, James Adelbert, Emmet Joseph, and Philip Francis.  Robert James was born in Douglas May 2, 1889, the first white child to be born there, and their last child, Hillary Morrissette followed on June 11, 1892.  James, the eldest son, attended school in Victoria, BC, from about 1889 until retuning to Alaska in 1896.

Although Miles spelled his name, “McCanna” (The letter “K” being not present in the Irish alphabet), It was not long after the family’s arrival in 1886 that newspapers in Douglas were speaking about the “McKenna’s” and by 1896 the name had settled down into its current form, “McKanna”.  The Alaska Searchlight of Friday, March 20, 1897 reported that Mike McKanna and son Jim left on the steamer Rustler on Tuesday for Skagway and Dyea, bound for the Yukon gold fields.  Son Emmet soon followed, and that spring they passed over the Chilkoot Pass to Lake Bennett and the Yukon waterway to Dawson. Katherine Ann stayed in Douglas with the younger boys and Elizabeth, who had become the Douglas postmistress in May of 1895.

Click to enlarge picture. The McKannas made it to Dawson the summer of 1897 before the news of the Klondike gold fields startled the outside word in August.  They staked a number of claims, including one by 18 year old Emmett on a gulch just off of Eldorado, the creek which flows into the famed Bonanza Creek where Carmack and his companions made the discovery which started the gold rush.  In 1899 Michael came down with Bright’s disease and he and James sold their claims and headed home to Alaska.  Mike did not make it and was buried in June by James and Elizabeth in a small miners’ graveyard near the terminus of the Chilkoot Trail in British Columbia.

Jim McKanna returned to Alaska where he became warfinger and genereral manager at the Juneau Ferry and Navigation Company’s wharf in Douglas.  The Douglas Island News of December 28, 1910 reported that “Jim and A.B. Callahan left Douglas last week on the steamer Georgia headed toward Sitka and that there are some serious rumors as to the intentions of these two old bachelors”.

Click to enlarg picture. Francis Morrissette was born in Lower Peach Tree, Alabama, the daughter of Edmund Pendelton Morrissette and Katherine Hutchinson.  Francis was raised in a comfortable home, attended the University of Chicago, and was able to travel to Europe.  According to her son, James McKanna Jr., she was on her way to tour the “Alaska Frontier” with some other college girls when she met James McKanna on a north bound steamer.  She returned to her Alabama home and James followed.  The May 10, 1911 Douglas Island News reported that “Cards were received on the last mail announcing the marriage of Francis Gaines … to Mr. James Adelbert McKanna, on Wednesday, April 26, 1911 at Lower Peach Tree, Alabama.  The groom is our own versatile ‘Jim.’  The news extends best wishes.  The couple will live in Douglas.”

Click to enlarge picture. The building of their Juneau house, according to family history, was financed with a $10,000 wedding present from Francis’ family, a princely sum in those days.  Jim’s and Francis’ first child, Edmond Pendelton was born on April 11, 1912.  The Douglas Island News of October 23, 1912 reported that the couple moved to Juneau, presumably into their new house.  James Adelbert Jr., was born May 31, 1913, and my mother, Christine Bibb and her twin Catherine were born December 9, 1914.  The last child, Colin, came along in 1915 but died that year, as did baby Catherine the following year.  The McKanna family occupied their big new house, which Marcia Nye believes was originally painted bright yellow, at least through 1918 when James Sr. died on December 20 of that year while traveling to Portland, Oregon.

At some point, the big McKanna house was rented, and the family moved to smaller quarters in Juneau.   The three surviving children all attended Juneau Elementary School and the boys worked for the Juneau Empire.  The family left Juneau in 1926 and moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where Francis worked for the state, and then to Aberdeen, Washington, to be near son Philip McKanna and then to Los Angles, California, where Francis died in July, 1956, and where the three McKanna children, Edmund, James Jr., and Christine, married and raised families.

After the McKanna family left the house, it was occpied by various others before being acquired by Marsha Nye.  James McKanna Jr. recalled that delegates to congress had moved into the McKanna house.  Another tenant during some part of the 1920’s and 1930’s, according to a document titled, “Chicken Ridge Historic Building Survey”, was a government weather station; the meteorologist Ralph C. Mize and his family lived there also.  Yet another tenant was Juneau’s colorful Marshall White.

Click to enlarge picture.Click to enlarge picture.Much of the above information is based on the work of Robert John Willis, III.  Some information also comes from letters written by James Adelbert McKanna, Jr. and from my own limited research in Juneau and elsewhere.

James McKanna Gregory

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