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How The World Wags

The beginning
By Dave Kiffer

June 05, 2005

Ketchikan, Alaska - It was a rare sunny summer day in June of 1970 and I was with my father on his trolling boat, the "Gony." We were headed down to the New England Fish Company dock to get ice for a trip to chase salmon on the back side of Gravina.

jpg Dave Kiffer

It was a very low tide and the Bar Harbor breakwater obscured the view down the channel, but as we pulled through the breakwater and into the channel, we saw an amazing sight. Anchored in the harbor not far from the downtown area was the future.
The future was 721 feet long. It was 11 stories high. Its smokestack was yellow with a black top and looked sort of like the beehive burner at the Ketchikan Spruce Mill. It was the RMS Arcadia , the largest cruise ship to ever come to Alaska - up to that point.
As we passed it, I was struck the by its immense size. It seemed like we were passing along side it for at least a half a hour. Considering the dear old Gony barely made six knots on a good day, we may have been.
The Arcadia cast a long shadow over the harbor, seeming to almost stretch all the way to the docks. I tried counting the dozens of port holes. I kept getting lost. We waved at the passengers high above on the upper decks. I'm sure we looked like ants. They looked as small as the eagles soaring above on the thermals.
I was used to seeing cruise ships in the harbor. I grew up wanting to glide the Inside Passage on the Prince George or the Princess Patricia. But those ships were really little more than the state ferries. They were around 300 feet long and had four or five decks. They carried around 350 passengers. They were low and sleek and cut through the water beautifully. They belonged to a more genteel era of travel.
Not so the P&O Line Arcadia. It could hold nearly 1,800 passengers and crew. It was too big to use the old Alaska Steamship dock downtown. It would anchor in the harbor and use smaller boats to transfer the passenger ships to town.
This anchoring in the harbor did not please my father. I remember he had more than a few, choice, salty words for the giant ship swinging at anchor in the harbor. He liked to travel in as straight a line as possible and it offended his sense of order to have to go out of his way get around that "gawd-awful big thing."
But in those days, the cruise industry's only significant effect on the fishing industry was the waves from the occasional passing ship that rocked our boats as we trolled back and forth. Ketchikan was still a fishing and timber town. When visitors arrived at the dock, they were treated to a handful of curio stores. Downtown Ketchikan was still a "working" town.
The Arcadia heralded a change in that. According to newspaper reports, the number of cruise visitors in the early 1970s was around 10,000 a season. By the end of the decade it was closer to 80,000 as newer and bigger ships began arriving in greater numbers. After the Arcadia came the Spirit of London, the Fairsea, and the first of the Holland American "Dam" ships. Soon it was not unusual to see two or more of the big ships anchored off downtown and the city scrambled to retro fit the docks enough to allow the big ships to tie up.
It seems surprising now but the Arcadia was nearing the end of the line when it arrived in Alaskan waters in the early 1970s. It was only five years younger than the Princess Patricia and was nearly 20 years old. Plans were already being made to replace it and by the end of the decade it had been scrapped.
Both the Prince George and the Princess "Pat" outlived the Arcadia and continued servicing Southeast Alaska into the 1980s, but eventually they succumbed to the bigger is better credo of modern "industrial" cruise ship touring.
Last month, the new P&O Arcadia went into service replacing the 1997 version of the ship. The 4th Arcadia carries nearly 2,600 passengers and crew. It is nearly 950 feet long. At 83,000 tons and 11 (nearly 14 stories high overall) passenger decks it would tower over the old Arcadia the way that ship dwarfed the Prince George and Princess Pat. It does - however - retain the neat yellow smokestack with the black top.
The new Arcadia has every amenity known to modern man. If my Father were still around, he'd be very interested to know that the new ship has 14 bars and a 24 hour food court. He'd be less interested in the "relaxation lounge," "life enrichment suite," or "the most hedonistic spa afloat."
At any rate, the new Arcadia apparently won't be gracing local waters any time soon. Its cruise itinerary over the next two years includes the Caribbean, South America, the Mediterranean, and the Canary Islands. Lots of warm and sunny places.
It will be visiting fjords later this month. But those fjords are Scandinavian and Baltic, not Misty, so we locals are left with the ghost of the old Arcadia hovering over the downtown and the echoes of whomever was the first person to refer to a cruise ship as "the tallest building" in town.
Still when I reflect on these leviathans that lurk about our fair Salmon City in the summer time, there remains a faint echo of the fine old Princess Patricia.
A Seattle entrepreneur by the name of Stan McDonald began chartering the "Princess Pat" during the winter months in the early 1960s when she idle. He established a lucrative run from Los Angeles to Mexico. Eventually McDonald moved on to bigger ships which he also named "Princess" and so today's Princess Cruises was born.


On the Web:

RMS Arcadia Photo

RMS Arcadia 1954 Photo


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

Dave Kiffer ©2005

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