SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


First State Ferry Arrived 50 Years Ago



January 23, 2013
Wednesday AM

Ketchikan, Alaska - Fifty years ago today, transportation in Southeast Alaska changed dramatically.

The Alaska Marine Highway System ferry Malaspina arrived in Ketchikan at 9 am inaugurating ferry service to the region.

Steamship travel had been Southeast Alaska’s main connection to the rest of the world since the days of Russian America, but improvements in air travel had cut into passenger ridership and regular passenger service had stopped in 1954.

jpg First State Ferry Arrived 50 Years Ago

Alaska State Ferry Malaspina arriving at Ketchikan
Donor: Ketchikan Daily News,
Photograph Courtesy Ketchikan Museums

Still, there was a need to greater “connectivity” and that led territorial and later state officials to envision a regular ferry service that would tie the communities of Southeast Alaska with each other and with the road systems in Haines and Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

A private company had begun operating a ferry in Lynn Canal in 1949 between Juneau and Haines/Skagway. The private ferry soon ran into financial trouble and the service was taken over by the territorial government. Eventually a small ferry, the Chilkat, was built to provide the service.

By the end of the 1950s, other communities in Southeast were so interested in expanding the ferry service that they formed a group to promote the interests of the region. The Southeast Conference had representatives of all the communities in Southeast. Its first order of business, when it was founded in 1958, was to push for a marine highway to connect all the towns in the region.

When Alaska became a state in 1959, Southeast Conference gave the new government a big nudge to create the Alaska Marine Highway System. By the fall of 1963, the first “mainline” ferry, the Malaspina was ready to go.

Governor Bill Egan and other dignitaries were on board when the state took ownership of the first of the big “blue canoes” in late January.

The ferry was scheduled to leave Seattle 14 4:30 pm  on January 21st for its inaugural voyage north, but things didn’t go according to plan, according to the Associated Press.

“And like a young actress at a dress rehearsal, the lovely lady had her troubles on a short, slow speed voyage around Puget Sound.”

The AP Reported that the Malaspina was an hour late leaving the Puget Sound Bridge and Drydock dock and then suffered a cracked engine super-charger casing.

“She encountered further trouble at the Black Ball Transport Co. dock when she put in to pick up trucks for the trip north and left some of her bright blue paint on pilings as they backed her into the slip,” the Associated Press reported. “Not built for that service, she ended up a couple of feet short of the ramp and timbers had to be laid to bridge the gap.”

The casing was repaired and the Malaspina, under the command of Admiral B. E. Lewellen, the top officer of the new fleet,  left on schedule for Ketchikan.

On its arrival in Ketchikan on the morning of January 23rd, there was a ribbon cutting at the new Ketchikan Ferry Terminal.

Governor Egan was joined in the ribbon cutting by Lester Gore, past grand president of the Pioneers of Alaska. Gore presented the Governor and the AHMS with a large key inscribed “Alaska’s Marine Highway – Key to Unlock Alaska’s Resources – Tourism, Oil, Timber and Pulp, Fishing, Mining.”

There was an Alaskan National Guard Honor Guard and a flotilla a local boats on hand to greet the 352-foot ferry. Hundreds of residents turned out to see the shiny new ship and several immediately booked passage on it to Juneau where it was scheduled to arrive just in time for Gov. Egan’s second inauguration.

Ketchikan Mayor Louis Glatz proclaimed January 23, 1963 “Alaska Marine Highway Day.”

There was just one slight snafu.

Malaspina was spelled “Malispina” three times  in the city proclamation.



For a more complete history of the Alaska Marine Highway System, please see “The Grand Ships of the Alaska Marine Highway System, SITNEWS, July 8, 2006 by DAVE KIFFER



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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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Dave Kiffer ©2013


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