Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
About three and a half miles southeast of Ketchikan, along the South Tongass Highway, lies a narrow stretch of a beach. The scenic view and picturesque mossy rocks punctuated by tidepools make it a favored destination for locals and tourists alike. In 1928, the Rotary Club of Ketchikan leased the property with the hope of transforming it into a park. Two years later, several Ketchikan social clubs worked together and raised $2,500 (roughly $45,000 in 2022 dollars) to purchase the land. For this reason, some call the destination Rotary Beach. In the way of old Alaska towns, many locals have maintained the previous name, Bugge Beach. Who were the Bugges? That is an Alaska love story.
Magnus J. Bugge was born in 1875 in Norway. By 1880, his family had relocated to rural Douglas County, Minnesota, where they were surrounded by many other Scandinavian immigrants. Some authors claim his first name was formally anglicized from Magnus to Martin upon entering the country. While most Alaskans knew him as Martin, his official name remained Magnus. This was the name he used on his draft registration for the Census, and that which is on his gravestone.
Growing up in Minnesota, he fell in love with the girl next door, Emma Halvorson. But Magnus had yet to make his mark, let alone his fortune in the world. He had little to offer the woman of his dreams. Then, news of the Klondike gold rush struck like a bolt of lightning. His chance had arrived. He asked Emma to wait for him and departed for Alaska.
In his early 20s at this time, Magnus at least was young and, as a Minnesotan, familiar enough with cold winters. These basic qualifications placed him above many of the thousands of naïve fortune hunters, men and women who made the trip north to Alaska and Canada fueled more by ignorant, desperate ambition than any concrete understanding of what they were getting themselves into. The journey itself was fraught with peril. Some would-be prospectors died on the overpacked steamers that sank along the rocky Inland Passage. Others froze to death on the trails. Targeted by criminals and winnowed by the terrain, only about half of the 100,000 members of the Klondike gold rush actually reached the gold fields. And even there, they endured food shortages and rampant diseases like cholera.
By the time the rush had truly begun, most of the profitable sites had already been claimed. The fortunate few found a way to mine the miners, selling gear, alcohol, drugs, flesh, or other services to the prospectors. Among the gold rushers that survived the experience, the far majority returned home with less than they had started. Magnus Bugge beat the odds. By 1901, he had washed up in Ketchikan. From there, he was finally able to establish himself.
Per Ketchikan historian June Allen, none of Magnus’s own mining claims ever panned out. However, he became wealthy by diversifying his opportunities and minimizing the personal risk, by managing and financing more successful operations. He had interests in mines, hotels and construction. And he was willing to work hard and keep quiet about his fortunes, a rare enough combination. No one in town knew the extent of his wealth.
Though he managed to avoid the criminal and physical hazards that hindered many during the Alaska gold rushes, he endured any number of little adventures. In one painful anecdote, he was visiting the Mount Andrew Mine on Prince of Wales Island. In keeping with the nature of his commercial empire, he was a stakeholder without the risks of being a full owner. An aerial tram carried passengers from the beach to the mountain operation. When he was halfway to the mine, the machinery broke down, leaving Magnus in a bucket 30-40 feet in the air with no way of reaching the ground. For a while, he perhaps enjoyed the view. Then, the flies and mosquitoes found him. For too long, he was forced to endure their assault, and by the time the tram was working again, his face was a swollen, near-unrecognizable mass of bites.
Still, he never forgot sweet Emma Halvorson back in Minnesota. No sources describe what she must have thought as the years piled on. If she had her doubts, they are lost to history.
Some fortune hunters abandoned their Lower 48 families over the course of their adventures. Fellow Ketchikan notable Judson Lathrop is a case in point. Like Magnus, Lathrop left Minnesota for opportunities in Alaska and eventually established himself in Ketchikan. Unlike Magnus, Lathrop was already married and had produced three children before he left for the north. Fourteen years later, Lathrop finally returned to his family. Except, both he and his wife had by then remarried. There was no joyful reunion.
Magnus’s promise to Emma could have withered like a dream deferred. Instead, he kept his word and returned to Minnesota 15 years after setting out for Alaska. During Bugge’s absence, both his father and mother had died, but Emma, who had been teaching, was still single. He was 38, and she was 32. On Sept. 3, 1913, they finally married.
They returned to Ketchikan, where they lived above the intersection of Main and Dock Streets in a house formerly owned by Stedman Street namesake John Stedman. No longer able to teach — married women were then typically barred from the profession — Emma settled down as a homemaker though she still taught Sunday school lessons at their Lutheran church. Three years later, Magnus bought several gold claims, land that included Bugge Beach.
Eighty years after their deaths, no one alive knew the Bugges as peers, as fellow mature adults. There is little evidence as to the quality of their marriage except for the delayed nature of their union and its endurance. Like all couples, they undoubtedly disagreed on occasion, but despite a late start, they traveled their lives together. And similarly, when they left this world, they left together.
The 1943 Fourth of July weekend in Ketchikan was, as usual, a wet one. Emma had been dealing with health issues for some time, and that Saturday, July 3, she checked into the hospital. At 6 a.m. on July 5, she died. The hospital dispatched a family member to carry the sad news to Magnus, but he was nowhere to be found. A search party was organized, and around 3 p.m., his body was finally discovered within a patch of berry bushes at the bottom of some stairs that led to his house. Upon examination, officials determined that he had likely slipped on the wet stairs and suffered a heart attack. In fact, he had been dead for around 12 hours and thus had died before his wife.
Magnus and Emma Bugge died on the same day, with the saving grace that neither had to learn of the other’s passing. They were buried together in Ketchikan’s Bayview Cemetery. And, of course, the beach with their name endures.
Allen, June. “Martin Bugge’s Beach: Part of the 1915 Gold Nugget Claims.” Sit News, October 9, 2002.
“Double Funeral on Thursday for Mr.-Mrs. Bugge.” [Ketchikan] Alaska Fishing News, July 7, 1943, 6.
“Martin Bugge Found Dead Yesterday.” Ketchikan Alaska Chronicle, July 6, 1943, 4.
“Mrs. Bugge Dies at Hospital.” Ketchikan Alaska Chronicle, July 5, 1943, 1.
“Mrs. M. Bugge Pioneer Passed Away Today.” [Ketchikan] Alaska Fishing News, July 5, 1943, 6.
“Steadman House Sold.” [Juneau] Alaska Daily Empire, November 3, 1913, 6.
“Territorial News.” [Juneau] Alaska Citizen, August 14, 1911, 13.