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How The World Wags

Progress is the root of all evil, progress is the cause of it all! - Lil Abner, The Musical.
By Dave Kiffer

May 21, 2005

Ketchikan, Alaska - Without progress Ketchikan would look something like Loring. Not that that would necessarily be a bad thing - depending on whom you talk to - but it would certainly be a different thing.

jpg Dave Kiffer

I was thinking about progress earlier this week when I was at a presentation on the history of Ketchikan schools. There was a list of the course offerings for one of the first high school classes in Ketchikan in the early 1910s and it was interesting what was on the list: Bookkeeping, classics, geometry, business, history (current and ancient) and such languages as German and Latin.
I don't know the last time that either of those languages was offered in the Ketchikan School District, but I'm sure it wasn't in my lifetime. Of course, there are a lot of classes available to Ketchikan's students that weren't available in 1915: Computers, auto shop, band, resume writing, etc. But I can't help but wonder how life would be different if students were still required to pass classes in Latin and German to graduate from Kayhi. Notice, I didn't say "better" I said "different."
And that brief musing got me thinking about other things that are ­ or are becoming ­ different in our fair Salmon City. For example, the stretch of North Tongass Highway from Refuge Cove to Totem Bite. Once upon a time, it was one of the most scenic stretches of the highway.
Especially right at the north end of Sunset Drive. There was an overhang of trees that created a vehicular arbor that opened up into the sweeping corner of Mud Bay with the handful of super scenic float houses. Then another sweeping tree lined section leading past D-1 Loop Road to the Totem Bite. In the old days, we'd stop a water pipe there and gather a coffee can of water or two to take to a picnic at the Bite.
But not anymore.
First, the float houses went away. Some of them followed the time honored Ketchikan tradition of rotting into oblivion. But the others were removed because it was determined that they were "damaging" the gentle mudflat ecosystem by resting their floats on the beach when the tide went out. Progress.
Now we have the state Department of Transportation improving the safety of the area with a little "widening" and "straightening." That would be government's version of "just a little off the top, please."
There's no question that the corner at Mud Bay was unsafe. There have been several traffic fatalities there over the years and I can attest that there was something about the banking of that curve that always made it seem like the centrifugal force was always trying to send you out of your laneeither into the oncoming traffic or the guard rail. I know it's not possible for a single curve to want to send you in two different directions at once, but there was something not right about that stretch of road.
So in the name of progress, it is being fixed. It is being fixed in much the same way as the Federal Government once proposed using atomic weapons to blast out a harbor in Northwest Alaska years ago. DOT's motto is "Never use a ball peen hammer when a jackhammer will do."
The vehicular "bower" is gone because the hillsides that supported it have been stripped back several hundred feet. The curve is being significantly reduced as the roadbed is being built out onto the mudflats (submerging the same mudflats that were being "damaged" by the float houses, go figure!). The entrances to both D-1 loop and south Sunset Drive are being changed to perpendicular to prevent dangerous "merges." Progress.
Aesthetically, it looks as though a bomb went off and wiped out a big section of the highway and surrounding landscape. I'm sure that the project calls for some form of final  landscaping, but the end result will be "different." Progress.
I also see "progress" in the changes in downtown Ketchikan. In the past two years, the year-round economic activity in that area appears to have breathed its last and the movement of the "Downtown to the West End" ­ first ominously forecast 20 years ago when the Plaza was built ­ has finally come to fruition. Dock Street was kind of the last holdout and now it has given over to the "gallery-ification" of the Downtown. A while back, I read an article about how communities like Carmel, California and Santa Fe, New Mexico were looking at ways limit "gallery" sprawl. In Ketchikan, such a "business unfriendly" attitude would certainly be anti-progress.
On the other hand, Ketchikan is constantly reinventing itself. Once upon a time, mining was the big dawg in the local economy. Then it was salmon canning. Then it was timber. Now, it is the cruise ships. Twenty years from now, I will probably be bemoaning some other "big dawg" industry that is squatting on the community threatening to squeeze the "life" out of it. 
By then Ketchikan will probably be a big time water "producer" for the rest of the country. We will have giant rainfall "collectors" and huge Valdez sized water "terminals" and the cruise ships will be replaced by Exxon Valdez sized water "tankers." And I will be bemoaning the good old days, when we had all these interesting "visitors" wandering our fair city during the summer rather than all the scientists, quality testers and hydrological engineers!
During the Centennial celebrations in 2000, I suggested that because of our constant need to change and rebuild that the community flag should have a scaffold on it. Someone else noted that scaffolding sometimes looks like the "gallows."  Once again, change is always a matter of perspective.
Which gets me back to that Ketchikan high school class list. Ketchikan was certainly "different" back then. But maybe they were thinking ahead after all. On an average day Downtown, I am just as likely to hear German spoken as I am English. Now, that's progress.


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

Dave Kiffer ©2005

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