Note: Paperback includes map, Kindle digital version does not, suggest getting map below.
Don’t be fooled by the restaurants and jewelry boutiques along the waterfront here; until relatively recently, this was a full on rough and tumble logging and commercial fishing town. Right where the cruise ships now tie up used to be a big sawmill and a three story smoky sawdust burner, and canneries, cold storages, and fish processors lined the waterfront. Fishing boats, headed up to Alaska from the lower 48, and bound for other parts of the remote Alaska coast would always stop here to let the crew wet their whistles. And the next morning the skipper would just hope that they all made it back aboard.
Saturday nights in those days were particularly rough. Out in the channel floatplanes would start to land, big twin-engine Grumman Geese, and the slow, lumbering Stinsons, bringing in loggers from Prince of Wales Island and Tsimshian Indians from the village of Metlakatla. Then the fishing boats – big seiners and tenders – would start to arrive from the outer districts, the crews with a few bucks in their ass pockets, ready for a big night, drinking and carousing at Dolly Arthur’s and the other brothels along the boardwalk at Creek Street, known as the only place in Alaska where the fish and the fishermen both came to spawn.
The history of Ketchikan is deeply intertwined with the three major native tribes of the region, the Tlingits, Haidas, and Tsimshians. Natives traditionally fished commercially and worked in the canneries as well as the sawmills.
When the whites arrived, there were numerous native villages throughout the area, but over time some of these settlements were depopulated primarily because of the diseases that the first whites brought to the area. The first whites arrived in the 1870 to salt salmon. Next, as the technology to put fish in cans was developed, the first of many canneries were established, and Ketchikan became a primary fishing center.
Big industry came to town around 1950, in the shape of the big Ketchikan Pulp Company mill out at Wards Cove, eight miles north of downtown.
Conceived as a way to utilize some of the vast spruce and hemlock forests of the region, and generate good paying, year round jobs (most fish and fish processing jobs were seasonal) the mill got a sweet deal from the U.S. Forest Service, and quickly became the largest employer in town.
But by the 1960s and 70s, salmon fishermen began to complain that logging practices like driving bulldozers down the middle of salmon streams and indiscriminate clear cutting was reducing the salmon runs on which they depended. The mill operators wanted to cut when and how they pleased, were backed up by the Forest Service, and for years there was ill feeling between these two factions in town.
Eventually more responsible logging practices reduced the timber available to harvest and much to the surprise of its employees, the mill closed its doors in 1997. Today, a smaller plywood mill operates on Gravina Island, but employs just a fraction of what the big Louisiana Pacific owned mill did.
A few years after the mill closed, salmon prices took a big tumble as well when the economy of Japan, our largest seafood customer, hit the skids. This hit the coastal communities, where there was little work except for fishing and processing, very hard.
About the same time, the cruise industry was beginning a major expansion, building much larger ships, and building lodges and infrastructure to transport, entertain, and house their passengers after they left the ships. Within a few years major changes came to Ketchikan, Skagway, and Juneau, the major cruise ports, as entrepreneurs created new excursions to offer the many new visitors off the ships, as well as new shops.
The rapid growth was not without its blemishes as Caribbean based chain jewelry stores began to drive smaller, local stores out of business. Additionally, the downtown shopping areas on the main streets that used to be primarily focused on services and products for locals became primarily oriented to visitors. These stores would close up quickly after the last ships of the season, leaving deserted streets with window after window, covered over with plywood for the winter.
Visitor to Ketchikan child: “How long has it been raining?”
Child: “I dunno; I’m only four.”
For the visitor, there’s a lot to see and do here. First, if catching a salmon is on your Alaska ‘to do’ list, Ketchikan and Sitka are probably the best places to go on a fishing charter. Native culture is very visible, with numerous totem poles around town, and Saxman Native Village, with an ongoing totem carving project and native dancers, is just two miles south of downtown. To the east of Ketchikan is the vast Misty Fjords National Monument, with both boat and floatplane excursions available. Ketchikan is often drizzly or cloudy, so if you do arrive on a rare blue sky day, taking a floatplane excursion up over Misty Fjords would be very worth while. Creek Street, the old red light district, now an eclectic collection of shops and eateries, is a short walk from the dock. A short tram goes from Creek Street up to the Westmark Cape Fox Lodge, with a restaurant overlooking the water, and lobby with some fine native art displays. Even closer, next to the Great Alaska Lumberjack Show is the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center operated by the Alaska Department of Public Lands, with excellent exhibits, bookstore, etc.
A good walk is right or south along the waterfront, past boat harbors, canneries and the Coast Guard Station two miles to Saxman Native Village. You’ll see plenty of eagles along the way. At Saxman there is a carving shed as well as a native lodge and plenty of totems. There’s a public bus stop as well – information at the Saxman visitors center.
In addition, Ketchikan is a major commercial fishing port – primarily for salmon in the summer months. Most of the crews live on board for the summer season, and spend most of their season scattered among the wilderness waterways of Southeast Alaska. Take some time to just walk along the waterfront and have a look at the fleet.
Ketchikan offers many excursions. They change frequently, so check with with tour vendors.
Misty Fjords – by air or sea, or a combination.
Bering Sea Fishermen’s Tour
Coastal Wildlife Cruise
Wilderness Exploration and Crab Feast
Rainforest Wildlife Sanctuary Hike
Neets Bay Bear Watch and Seaplane Flight
Rainforest Ropes Course and Zipline Park
Bear Creek Zipline
Adventure Kart Expedition
Back Country Zodiak Expedition – U Drive
Flightseeing and Crab Feast
Totem Bight Park and Town Tour
Totem Bight and Lumberjack Show Combo
Saxman Native Village tour
Town and Harbor Duck Tour
Motorcycle Tour (as driver)
Sportsfishing & Wilderness Dining (of your catch!)
Alaskan Chef’s Table
City Highlights Trolley Tour
Mountain Point Snorkeling Adventure