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The Ferries To Gravina


November 17, 2005

Ketchikan, Alaska - While the "Bridge to Nowhere" steals all the headlines, Ketchikan's airport ferries continue to chug back and forth to the Ketchikan International Airport as they have a dozen or more times a day for the past 30 years.

For the record, although there is much talk of the bridge replacing a "five" or "seven" minute ferry ride, it actually only takes between two and three minutes most days for the airport ferry to traverse the quarter-mile stretch of Tongass Narrows. The "five" to "seven" minute figure applied years ago, when the airport ferry left from a ferry slip closer to the Alaska Marine Highway terminal.

From the time in 1967 when Gravina Island was chosen for the site of the new Ketchikan International Airport, it was clear that access would be an issue. The floatplanes and amphibians that had ferried passengers back and forth to the Annette Island airport for three decades would be shifted to other routes or retired. Most residents assumed a bridge would connect Revillagigedo and Gravina islands in the near future, but in the meantime some form of ferry service would be needed.

jpg Ferry Abnaki

The 80-foot Abnaki.
The Abnaki was renamed the Dick Borch - after the longtime
leader of the Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad.
Photo courtesy Lake Champlain Transportation Company

Initially local officials looked to private industry to provide a ferry service but it quickly became apparent that the scope of the operation - a ferry big enough to carry large vehicles and dozens of passengers - would require the resources of local government, specifically the borough.

The borough went on a nationwide search and on August 12, 1971, nearly two years before the airport was completed, it agreed to purchase the Lake Champlain vehicle and passenger ferry Abnaki for slightly more than $100,000. Another $30,000 was budgeted for modifications and delivery from the East Coast. Originally, the borough had considered having a new ferry built but the cost would have been more than $215,000.

The 80-foot Abnaki - named after an Algonquin Indian tribe - had a capacity of 60 people and 12 vehicles and had been built in 1967 by Blount Marine in Rhode Island specifically for service on New York's Lake Champlain. The Abnaki plied the southern waters of the 108 mile long lake from Charlotte, Vermont to Essex, New York. It took the Abnaki approximately 20 minutes to traverse the five mile width of the lake between the two cities just south of Burlington.

But in only three years, its owners were looking for a larger replacement.

"The increased popularity and majestic beauty of the Charlotte-Essex crossing rendered the Abnaki too small to handle the increased traffic," according to a history of the Lake Champlain ferry system on the company website.

The ship was sold to the borough for $5,000 down with the remaining $99,000 due on delivery. But first the ferry needed a modification.

"In order to pass under the low bridges in the Champlain Canal the top half of the pilot house was removed and lowered onto the main deck," according to the company history. "The Abnaki began its 7,600 mile journey down the Champlain Barge Canal, on the Hudson River to Albany, New York, where the top half of the pilot house was reinstalled."

jpg Ferry Algonquin

The Algonquin.
The Algonquin was renamed the Ken Eichner - after the founder of Temsco Helicopters.
Photo courtesy Lake Champlain Transportation Company

The Abnaki sailed on to Blount Marine for additional work that included expanding the crew area and fitting the ship with a false bow for ocean travel. An enclosed area for walk on passengers was also added.

In an August 12, 1971 article in the Ketchikan Daily News, Borough Chairman Bob Boomer said that buying the used ferry would accomplish two things, save $80,000 and get the ferry to Ketchikan quickly so it could used to carry supplies in the final phase of the airport construction project.

After being modified in Rhode Island, the Abnaki proceeded down the East Coast, through the Panama Canal and up the West Coast to Ketchikan, where it arrived in early December of 1971.

As planned, the Abnaki was used to ferry supplies across the Narrows for the next year and a half as the airport was completed. At the same time, ferry slips were built on each side of the Narrows for the new ferry.

Less than two months before the opening of the airport in August of 1973, a problem was discovered.

"Airport Ferry Doesn't Fit" trumpeted a headline in the June 23, 1973 Ketchikan Daily News.

During the trial run of the ferry into the new slip on the Gravina side, it was determined that the ramp did not properly overlap the end of the ferry. Since ramps on both sides of the channel were designed the same way, modifications had to be made to both. At that point it was feared that the problems with the ferry slips would delay the opening of the airport which was then scheduled for June 29. But the oft delayed airport opening ended up being delayed until August anyway, for reasons unrelated to the airport ferry, according to later reports in the Daily News.

No sooner than the airport opened and the Abnaki began operating, it became clear that a second ferry would be needed when the Abnaki was getting maintenance or was out of service for mechanical reasons.

For example, the Abnaki had mechanical trouble twice (cracked cylinders and shaft coupling repairs) in December of 1973 and the Daily News reported that that the School District's Sea Ed boat was used to ferry passengers and a private barge was used for cargo.

jpg Ferry Mt. Marcy

Mt. Marcy
When Mt. Marcy arrived in Ketchikan, it was
rechristened the Bob Ellis after the local aviation pioneer.
Photo courtesy Lake Champlain Transportation Company

In April of 1974, the borough purchased another ship - the Algonquin - from the Lake Champlain ferry company. The Algonquin was nearly identical to the Abnaki, having also been built by Blount Marine a year later in 1968. It operated on the Grande Isle-Cumberland crossing on Lake Champlain. It also had to have its top chopped off and then put back on its trip down from upstate New York. The total cost for the Algonquin was $185,000

With two ships in operation, it was also possible to start offering service every 15 minutes during peak periods.

In the early 1980s, it was decided to rename the ferries. The Abnaki was named the Dick Borch - after the longtime leader of the Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad. The Algonquin was renamed the Ken Eichner - after the founder of Temsco Helicopters.

By the mid 1980s, the borough was looking for a larger ferry to handle the increasing traffic to the airport. Once again, it looked to the Lake Champlain Transportation Company.

For just under $750,000, the Mt. Marcy, a 100 foot, 21 car capacity ferry was purchased in and brought to Ketchikan. It also underwent the same cabin chop off and replacement that the other two ferries had undergone. It was christened and went into service in January of 1988.

The borough also spent nearly $500,000 to purchase part of a floating bridge from Washington, which was brought up to Ketchikan to be used as the dock for the airport ferries on Gravina

Ironically., the Mt. Marcy was one of the ships built by Blount Marine to replace the Abnaki on the Charlotte-Essex route on Lake Champlain. When it arrived in Ketchikan, it was rechristened the Bob Ellis after the local aviation pioneer. The Dick Borch (the Abnaki) was then sold to a local entrepreneur and then resold to a British Columbia barge and tug company.

jpg Ferry Oral Freeman

Ferry Oral Freeman (lower front) and
the Alaska Marine Highway System's Fast Ferry Chegena.
Dan Hart ©2005

In the late 1990s, it was decided to obtain another ferry to replace the aging Ken Eichner. This time, rather than purchase an existing ferry, the borough decided to have a new ferry built. The contract for the $3 million, 116 foot ferry was given to Ketchikan Ship and Drydock.

On Oct. 14, 2001, the new ferry was christened the Oral Freeman in honor of the former mayor and longtime state legislator who had died the previous week. The ferry began regular service in February of 2002 and the Eichner was sold to a local businessman shortly thereafter.

With the Ellis approaching its 35th birthday next year, the borough is pondering its replacement. It has asked the state Department of Transportation for a several million dollar grant to cover the costs of a new ferry because even if the bridge is built it won't be completed before the Ellis replacement is needed to go on line.


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

Dave Kiffer ©2005

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