Castle Hill also known as the American Flag-Raising Site and now as the Baranof Castle State Historic Site, is a National Historic Landmark and state park in Sitka, Alaska.
Many people forget that Alaska was once a Russian territory before being transferred to American possession in the 19th century. Though no structures from that period are standing, one historic site in Sitka holds the foundation of the ancient Baranof Castle, the home of Russian royalty who kept watch over their impressive lands after wresting them from native Tlingit tribesmen. When the United States’ purchase of the territory was finalized at Baranof Castle, the family in residence sailed away from their stately home.
Soon after the family’s departure, newspapers began to report the presence of a ghost – a beautiful and doomed Russian Princess haunting the site. Decked in a black robe of mourning and opulent jewels, the princess drifted through the castle during the night, sadly bemoaning her fate. Rumors and even news reports circulated that the princess had killed herself on her wedding night in order to avoid an arranged marriage with a man who was not her true love. Today, “Castle Hill” State Historic Site is a great place to catch a glimpse the ethereal Lady in Black.
But the account was not a true story according to John Alexander who published a novel in 1911 called The Lady in Blue, a Sitka Romance. According to him, the tale of the Baranof castle ghost came earlier than 1840, and the ghost was the beautiful daughter of a manager for the Russian-American Fur Company. She killed herself in the glass-enclosed cupola in the observation tower on the castle roof.
The story has been told by many at different times and is one of the romantic tales that cluster around the old metropolis of the fur trading days. Her lover was sent away or killed through the influence of an ober offitzer who sought her hand in marriage. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, who wrote so delightfully of Sitka in her journeys in Alaska in 1883, says that, “By tradition the Lady in Black was the daughter of one of the old governors. On her wedding night she disappeared from the ballroom in the midst of the festivities, and after a long search was found dead in one of the small drawing rooms” (Andrews, 1922, p60).
Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the area, Castle Hill was occupied by families of the Kiksadi clan of Tlingits. Alexander Baranov, a leading figure in the Russian-American Company, arrived in the Sitka area in 1795, and sought to establish a trading post on the hill. He ended up establishing Redoubt St. Archangel Michael several miles away in 1799; this trading post was destroyed by the Tlingit in 1802. Baranov returned to Sitka in force in 1804, seized Castle Hill, from which the outnumbered Tlingit had withdrawn. After the six-day Battle of Sitka, the Tlingit formally ceded Castle Hill to the Russians.
In 1806 the Russians transferred the headquarters of the Russian-American Company and the seat of government of Russian Alaska to Sitka, and Castle Hill was the focal point of the company and government facilities until 1867. They destroyed the Tlingit houses on the hill, and built a succession of structures on the hill’s summit. The last of these, a two story brick building with a cupola on top known as the Governor’s House, was built in 1836 and was destroyed by fire in 1894.
In 1867, after the Alaska Purchase was negotiated, Russian Alaska was formally transferred to the United States in a ceremony held on Castle Hill. The Russian-built Governor’s House was occupied by United States Army commanders until 1877, and remained a center of US government administration until the building burned. In 1898 the hill was transferred to the United States Department of Agriculture, which built a structure on the hill which served as its Alaska headquarters until 1932. This building was then used for a variety of commercial purposes before it was demolished in 1955. The site was then designated a territorial park