SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Ketchikan History 101

Four Major Industries Built Ketchikan


May 06, 2009

Editor's Note: This time of year, thousands of visitors descend upon the First City with thousands of questions about Ketchikan's colorful past. Here is a short primer on the town we all call home. For a more in-depth pictorial history visit the Tongass Historical Museum for the "Our Town" display this summer.

Ketchikan, Alaska - The history of Ketchikan can be easily summed up in the history of four industries: Mining, Fishing, Timber and Tourism.

Generations of Tlingit Natives used the area around Ketchikan Creek for summer fishing camps, but archeological evidence indicates that only a handful lived in the area year round.

In the early 1880s, fishermen from the Lower 48 began to come into the area and a short-lived salmon saltery owned by a gentleman from Oregon named Snow was built near the Creek in 1883. Like many early Ketchikan buildings, it burned down and was not rebuilt.

jpg Ketchikan from Inman Hill, 1898

Ketchikan from Inman Hill, 1898
Hunt photo -- Donor: Forest J. Hunt
Photograph courtesy Tongass Historical Society

In 1885, Mike Martin was sent by an Oregon cannery to take advantage of one of the most abundant fish streams in the region. A rival cannery was operating 25 miles up the coast in the village of Loring, but Martin believed that operations nearer the creek would be more profitable. According to local legend, Martin purchased 160 acres at the mouth of Ketchikan Creek from a Native named Papernose Charlie.

Papernose Charlie was actually a Canadian Native, so it's not clear how he was able to "sell" the land that became Ketchikan, but Martin was able to file mining claims on the land and those were upheld later in the court.

jpg Clark and Martin's saltery in Ketchikan, 1898

Clark and Martin's saltery in Ketchikan, 1898
Hunt Photo -- Donor: Forest J. Hunt
Photograph courtesy Tongass Historical Society

The name Ketchikan itself is also shrouded in mystery. Some say it is an obsolete Tlingit word meaning the "spread wings of a Eagle." Others say is actually means the "land of Kitch" reportedly a long ago Native leader. No one knows for sure.

The cannery plan didn't pan out but Martin stayed on and - with partner George Clark - started a saltery and a trading post. Ketchikan remained a small handful of shacks well into the 1890s as Loring grew into a more substantial community.

jpg Beach seining at Ketchikan Creek, circa 1898

Beach seining at Ketchikan Creek, circa 1898
Willis A. Bryant photo -- Donor: Arthur Bryant
Photograph courtesy Tongass Historical Society

But in the by the mid 1890s, the local mining industry began to take shape. Even before the famed Klondike Gold Rush of 1898, prospectors were already probing the hills around Ketchikan for gold, silver and other minerals. When more than 100,000 gold seekers flooded Alaska and the Yukon in 1898-1899, a sizeable number ended up in the Ketchikan area.

By 1900, Ketchikan was the center of the mining operations and nearly 1,000 people lived in the community. A simmering dispute with Loring officials over who would control the Ketchikan area led to the incorporation of Ketchikan as a city. Mike Martin - by now a prosperous saloon owner - was elected the first mayor.

jpg Hadley smelter on Prince of Wales Island, 1904

Hadley smelter on Prince of Wales Island, 1904
Photographer: Harriet Hunt
Donor: Forest J. Hunt, THS
Photo courtesy Ketchikan Museums

Ketchikan continued to grow in the first decade of the 20th Century. Few gold and silver deposits were found, but large copper deposits on nearby Prince of Wales Island spurred the local economy.

The fishing industry also began to expand in this period. The first full sized cannery in Ketchikan was built by Fidalgo Island Packing south of the Creek in 1900.

jpg first paved street in Alaska

Paving Front Street, September 1920
This was the first paved street in Alaska.
Note Forest J. Hunt's stationery/photo store on the left. He occupied this space from 1919 to 1942. The word, "KODAKS" on the sign refers to photos, not cameras.
Forest J. Hunt photo -- Donor: Bert Libe Estate
Photograph courtesy Tongass Historical Society

In 1909, local businessman J.R. Heckman - who had relocated from Loring to Ketchikan - invented the first floating fish trap, a remarkably efficient device that would allow Ketchikan to become the salmon canning capitol of the world. Unfortunately, injudicious use of the traps would later nearly wipe out the region's salmon runs.

Low mineral prices eventually stalled the mining industry but in the 1920s, the fishing industry took over as the area's economic engine. At its peak in the late 1920s and early 1930s, more than a dozen salmon canneries operated along the Tongass Narrows waterfront.

Locals say the "smell" of money was in the air 24 hours a day those summers. Briefly, Ketchikan - with more than 5,000 residents - was the largest city in the state.

jpg Mission Street looking from looking west from Main Street, circa 1930

Mission Street looking at Seamship at low tide.
Mission Street looking from looking west from Main Street, circa 1930
Elliot L. Fisher photo ---Donor: Ralph A. Bartholomew
Photograph courtesy Tongass Historical Society

In addition to the salmon fleet, Ketchikan boasted the one of the world's largest halibut fleets in those days and hundreds of fishing boats packed the harbor during the fishing season.

During this time, Ketchikan also got more than a bit of notoriety out of its "open" nature. Because of its close location to the Canadian border, rum running was easy during Prohibition and Ketchikan's Creek Street Red Light District was infamous up and down the coast as the only place in the world when both "men and fish went up the creek to spawn."

jpg Halibut schooner fleet in Narrows, circa 1925

Halibut schooner fleet in Narrows, circa 1925
Fisher Studio photo -- Donor: Ed Elliot
Photograph courtesy Tongass Historical Society

Creek Street would continue to be the town's most notorious neighborhood until the early 1950s when political scandal closed it down.

Ketchikan's rapid growth in the 1920s also led to Ketchikan having a large number of historic structures - homes and businesses - from that period. Per capita, Ketchikan has the most historic properties in the state.

Standing fish trap, circa 1930
This Sunny Point Cannery Company trap near Ketchikan was typical of standing traps, some-times called pile traps because they "stood" on piling.
Photographer: Elliott Fisher -- Donor: Norman A MacDonald
Photograph courtesy Tongass Historical Society

But over the next two decades many of the canneries closed as consumer tastes changed and the salmon runs began to decrease, primarily because the traps - often placed right in front of fish streams - were allowing too few fish to escape to spawn.

By the early 1950s, the salmon were nearly gone and only four canneries were operating in the Ketchikan area.

Ketchikan had experienced an economic boost during World War II when hundreds of soldiers and sailors were stationed in the community to help bolster Alaskan defenses. A large military airport was also built on nearby Annette Island.

But after the war, things settled back into the doldrums as local residents wondered if the fishing industry would ever rebound.

jpg Thomas Basin, September 1954

Thomas Basin, September 1954
Paulu T. Saari photo -- Donor: Paulu T. Saari
Photograph courtesy Ketchikan Museums 2003.2.63.223

Ketchikan's location within the 17 million acre Tongass National Forest had always interested the national timber industry and several attempts had made in Ketchikan's first half century to take advantage of the billions of board feet of timber in the surrounding forest.

Ketchikan Spruce Mill operated for nearly 80 years along Ketchikan's downtown waterfront and several other sawmills operated in the area.

But in the late 1940s, the federal government began a concerted effort to open up the National Forest to large scale pulp and paper development. Two large corporations were given 50 year contracts to establish pulp mills in Ketchikan and Sitka. The idea was to boost the economy by provided several hundred well-paying year round jobs.

The construction of Ketchikan's pulp mill in 1954, also spurred a major construction boom in the community as roads were widened, subdivisions were built and three, hundred unit, multi-story apartment buildings were constructed.

jpg Ketchikan Pulp Co. photo album, 1954

Ketchikan Pulp Co. photo album, 1954
Donor: Ketchikan Pulp Company
Photograph courtesy Ketchikan Museums

The coming of the pulp mill also signaled a significant shift in Ketchikan's economy. During the heyday of the fishing industry, Ketchikan's economy focused almost entirely on the summer fishing season and residents often lived on credit during the winter. The pulp mill created more than 500 direct and approximately 1,500 other indirect year-round jobs and pumped a hundred million dollars into the local economy each year.

The pulp operations also spread to neighboring communities as logging operations moved throughout the national forest. Ketchikan became a supply center for all those communities in Southern Southeast Alaska.

In 1959, Alaska became a state and one of the first acts of the new state government was to ban fish traps on state land. In the 1960s, the fishing industry began to recover, although Ketchikan would never again be the true Salmon Capital of the World.

The state government also created the Alaska Marine Highway System which soon linked Ketchikan with other communities in Southeast Alaska, as well as Prince Rupert, British Columbia and Seattle, Washington. Ketchikan would not be on the "road system" but regular ferry service was as close as the community could get.

jpg Aerial view of, Ketchikan, Alaska, March 15, 1954

Aerial view of, Ketchikan, Alaska, March 15, 1954
Paulu T. Saari photo
Donor: Paulu T. Saari
Photograph courtesy Ketchikan Museums 2003.2.63.16

In the 1960s, Ketchikan's population continued to grow, topping 10,000. It was the fourth largest community in the state, behind Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. In 1973, a new international airport was built on Gravina Island, just a short ferry ride from Ketchikan. Ketchikan residents had wanted the airport located on Ketchikan's island - Revillagigedo - but federal officials said the Gravina site was closer to town and promised to eventually build a short bridge connecting the two islands.

By the mid 1970s, the timber industry began to wane. Ketchikan's pulp mill was becoming outdated and would need major upgrades to meet newer, tougher environmental laws. The rise of the national environmental movement also made it less likely that another long-term contract would be offered under terms acceptable to the timber industry. The mill continued to operate in Ketchikan until 1997, but the industry gradually began to shrink in influence.

At the same time, the visitor industry began to grow in importance in the local economy.

Alaska had been a "tourist" destination since the 1890s and the steamships that brought the early visitors all stopped in Alaska's "First City" on the way north and south. From the early 1900s, there were curio shops along Ketchikan's waterfront and the first guided fishing and sightseeing tours had started up by the 1930s.

Up until the early 1970s, most visitors either came on the Marine Highway or on small Canadian coastal cruise ships like the Prince George or the Princess Patricia a couple of times a week.

jpg Norwegian Star docking in Ketchikan 2009

Norwegian Star docking in Ketchikan 2009
One of the largest and fastest ships in the Norwegian Cruise Line
Size of Ship: 91,000 tons -- Passenger Capacity: 2,240 passengers
Photograph by Carl Thompson

But that changed in the early 1970s as when 1,000 passenger ships like the Arcadia and the Spirit of London began arriving in Southeast Alaska. Initially, visits were rare, but by the 1980s other cruise lines began to arrive and soon there were usually two large ships in port each day. By the early 1990s, about 100,000 visitors a year were coming to Ketchikan. By the turn of the 21st Century the number was nearly 800,000 and, once again, the local economy had shifted.

Many businesses in Ketchikan's downtown area shifted north to Ketchikan's West End and were replaced by seasonal, tourism related businesses downtown. The local economy - and population base - had taken a hit when the pulp mill closed and most timber operations shut down in 1997, but by 2005 the overall economy was back at pre mill closure levels.

The population was still down 1,500 from its all-time high of 14,500 in 1996 and the economy had shifted toward seasonal rather than year round, but Ketchikan was still maintaining its status as the regional shopping and service hub for Southern Southeast Alaska.

On the Web:

Historical Ketchikan... Historical Alaska - More Feature Stories by Dave Kiffer

Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
To republish this article, the author requires a publication fee.
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Dave Kiffer ©2009

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