SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Alaska's Third Largest City!?!
By Dave Kiffer


January 29, 2007

Ketchikan, Alaska - Back when I was a young lad in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a momentous event happened in the First City.

jpg Dave Kiffer

There was a rare stagnant period in what is normally exponential state government growth. When you combined that with a boom in the timber industry, Ketchikan briefly outstripped Juneau as the third largest "city" in Alaska.

It was cause for local celebration and even the "Welcome Arch" was changed to reflect us as "Alaska's Third Largest City."

Of course it didn't last. By the mid 1970s, Juneau was back on the bureaucratic boom town binge and now - three decades later - it has - according to the latest state census stats - even edged ahead of Fairbanks as the second largest city in the state.

Not that that really means much. Being the second largest city in Alaska is an honorific as meaningful as being the largest building in Topeka, Kansas.. After all, both Juneau and Fairbanks (at around 30,000 population each) could fit into one of Anchorage's (282,000) tiniest neighborhoods.

Ketchikan's growth did not keep up, of course, and we were relegated to duking it out with other second tier cities like Sitka, Kenai, Kodiak and Anaktuvuk Pass.

In recent years, Sitka has even shown up ahead of Ketchikan on a lot of population lists. That is only because they cheated.

They consolidated their city and borough areas into a single government and that has allowed their "Bity" or "Corough" to claim a population in the upper 8,000s, where as the City of Ketchikan is still floating somewhere around 7,500 (but it rises to nearly 15,000 when the summer jewelry store employees arrive!).

If Ketchikan "consolidated" we'd have an official population of more than 13,000 and that would leave Sitka in the dust. We'd be Number 4 again!!!!!

Well, not quite.

Unfortunately, when you talk borough populations, we might whip the tar of Sitka but we get clocked by a whole bunch of other places.

After Anchorage (which also consolidated), Fairbanks North-Star comes in at nearly 90,000 people followed by Mat-Su at 77,000; Kenai at 51,000; Juneau at 30,000 and Kodiak at 13,500 more or less.

On that yard stick, "We're Number Seven!"

Not much to shout about.

Sad to say, Ketchikan has had previous experience "dropping off the charts."

Back in the 1920s - when Anchorage was just a collection of huts called "Sheep Dip" - Ketchikan once again briefly outstripped Juneau in population as the salmon canning industry took hold locally.

In that brief, halcyon time, Ketchikan was "The Largest City in Alaska!"

In those days, being largest city in Alaska (5,000 whole residents!) was indeed on relative par with being the tallest building in Topeka but you take whatever advantage you can get.

Naturally, within a few years the Federal Government pumped up its presence in the Capital City and they edged ahead of us again.

Juneau also "cheated" by later merging with Douglas to cement their lead on us. We could have countered by absorbing Wacker City, but it probably wouldn't have made much difference (except to the Wackers, of course).

I guess this really doesn't amount to a hill of beans anyway. Ketchikan has been leaking population since the timber industry got pulped in the mid 1990s. It took a couple of years to be felt after the mill closed in 1997, but any measuring stick you use shows the local population dropping more than 1,000 folks since 2000.

Interestingly enough, even Juneau is a little smaller now compared to 2000 and Sitka is as well.

In fact, if you take a gander (how come no one ever says 'take a goose'?) at the latest state census stats you learn something surprising. If you take Anchorage and Mat-Su out of the mix, Alaska - which seems to be quickly gaining population compared to other states - is actually losing people. If it wasn't for Los Anchorage and its scruffy little neighbors, Alaska would be more like Wyoming or North Dakota, but without the "good" weather.

Not that I want to feel all "warm and fuzzy" here about Los Anchorage's necessity to the state. The best thing about :The Railbelt" remains the fact hat it's still only a half an hour drive away from Alaska.

But maybe we need to re-evaluate its importance. After all, I'm not convinced that we need those all those extra folks that it is attracting. They seem to arrive hear without any visible means of support. Some of them seem to think "The Pipeline" is still hiring. Others come here because it is the end of the road and they literally have no place to go. Just the type of person you want to invite over for Sunday dinner.

If Los Anchorage is dead set on pumping up its statewide hegemony by importing anyone with a pulse maybe it's time to call a spade a spade and return to the popular notion that briefly crossed Ketchikan's lips when it edged out Juneau in the 1920s.

In those days, there wasn't much going on statewide north of Yakutat and the people of Southeast - all 20,000 of them - thought that the inability of the northern part of the state to get organized was acting like a big ball and chain to efforts to get statehood considered by the Feds.

There was even a political conference in Ketchikan - led by Mayor Thomas Torry - to talk about whether the territory of Alaska should be split into three parts to recognize the political realities. Initially it was suggest that Southeast territory go from Cape Chacon to Mount Saint Elias, but then Cordova and other parts of Prince William Sound asked to be let in too.

Then Homer and the Kenai decided they wanted to join "our" club as well. By the time Kodiak said "me too" it was pretty clear that all of Alaska was going to end up in the same territory after all.

Too bad it didn't work out. We could be now "Number Two" in the state of Southeast Alaska.

Or number three, depending on how you count those "cheaters" in Sitka. Oh well.



Statewide, Alaska's Population Increased; No longterm growth in Southeast - Alaska's statewide population increased by 6.6 percent, or 42,520 people, in the six years from July 1, 2000-July 1, 2006, based on new population estimates released in December 2006 by the U.S. Census Bureau. - More...
Thursday - January 25, 2007

Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2006

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