SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Ketchikan Borough Celebrates 50th Birthday



October 11, 2013
Friday PM

Ketchikan, Alaska - When the Ketchikan Gateway Borough was created in September of 1963, as one of the first boroughs in the state it was big news, right?

Editor's Note: Although Dave Kiffer is the 12th mayor of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, this article is entirely his opinion and does not represent an official borough history nor is it even remotely sanctioned by the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly.

Not exactly, not even in Ketchikan.

If you look at the Ketchikan Daily News front pages from mid September of that year, there is barely a peep about the new form of local government, which was formally created on September 13.

Big news that week was a meeting of the British Columbia Chambers of Commerce, here in Ketchikan because the local chamber was, at that point, affiliated with the Canadian group. Several hundred delegates from the across the region were arriving in Ketchikan, many on the brand new Alaska Marine Highway ferries that had begun operation earlier in the year.

Other big news that week? Five US Coast Guard admirals were in town on an inspection tour, visiting the local base.

Also a very rare form of "ragfish" was caught by a local gillnetter.

jpg Ketchikan Creek. Ketchikan Alaska. Oct. 7, 1905.

Ketchikan Creek. Ketchikan Alaska. Oct. 7, 1905.
William R. Norton. Photographs, ca. 1890-1920.
Courtesy Alaska State Library - Historical Collections

And Dwight Cramer, who had been a doctor in Ketchikan for nearly three decades, died suddenly.

The formation of the Ketchikan Borough wasn’t even big news compared other borough news throughout the state. Just days after the first Ketchikan Borough Assembly was seated,  the Ketchikan Daily News, in banner headlines, reported Anchorage and Fairbanks voters dramatically said “no” to borough creation.

That same week, Sitka overwhelmingly said yes to a borough and Juneau voters barely approved a borough plan. That was long before any of those communities even began the controversial discussions about combining city and borough governments.

In Ketchikan the vote to create a borough, on September 9, had easily passed by a 1,155 to 125 margin, according to the Daily News. Bob Ward received 767 votes to be the first Borough Chairman, the forerunner of the position of Borough Mayor. Other successful candidates for the first Assembly were Don King, Dean Morgan and Carl Porter.

The other three Assembly seats were to go to members of the current Ketchikan City Council. The process of filling those seats turned out to be more difficult than expected as several council members initially declined to sit on both bodies.

Eventually, Council members Norman Gerde, Bob McKinley and Ted Ferry were named to the Assembly. Then McKinley said he was “going hunting for a month” and abruptly resigned. McKinley was replaced by Harry Ludwigsen on the first Assembly.

jpg Ward Cove before the mill.

Ward Cove before the mill.
"A $40 million pulp mill (Ketchikan Pulp Corporation), which would produce 550 tons of high grade dissolving pulp daily rose during 1952 at this site near Ketchikan."
Courtesy Alaska State Library - Historical Collections

In 1980, the make up of the Assembly was changed to include seven at large members chosen from all borough citizens. The mayor was chosen separately.

Another issued addressed early in the process was whether the Borough government should be a strong chairman (mayor) form of government or a strong manager form of government. The current borough manager is Dan Bockhorst who was hired in 2007.

Voters initially approved the chairman format by a wide margin, but by the 1970s, the borough government had shifted to a form where a manager exercised powers to administer the government, under the direction of the Borough Assembly, and the mayor became more of a ceremonial position.

Government has always a challenging proposition in Alaska, where many residents believe that the best government is no government.

But after Statehood in 1959, the new state government was faced with the challenge of implementing Alaska’s constitution, which called for maximum local self government with a minimum number of local government units and and tax levying jurisdictions. Early organized boroughs came about through an effort to provide for the orderly transition of special service districts into constitutional forms of government.

Unlike most states where counties form the intermediate government body between communities and the state, Alaska has significantly large spaces of unpopulated area. In the early years of statehood, it was believed, at least initially, some of those areas would never have the population or economic base to support regional governments.

jpg Thomas Boat Basin Ketchikan: 1949-1951

Thomas Boat Basin Ketchikan: 1949-1951
Lawrence Eastman photographs, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage
Courtesy Alaska State Library - Historical Collections

So, rather than just divide the state into contiguous counties or boroughs like all other states have done, Alaska made the decision to “create” Boroughs in a handful of areas where the population was large enough to support a regional government. Ketchikan was one of the first boroughs in the state of Alaska, becoming an official borough on September 13, 1963.

Initially, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Government cover Revilla, Gravina and Pennock islands but it now encompasses approximately 6,900 square miles of territory from the Canadian border to the Cleveland Peninsula.

At that first organizational meeting in September of 1963 Robert Ward was also named the first borough clerk. Within a year Ward went back to simply being the chairman, and Judi Slajer became the first official employee of the Borough, the Borough Clerk.

State law required boroughs to assume taxation, planning and zoning and education funding powers. Later on, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough took on powers such as animal control, economic development, transportation and parks and recreation.

jpg Miss Ketchikan Pam Steven 1966

Miss Ketchikan Pam Stevens crowned by Miss Alaska Nancy Lowell Wellman.
Dec. 28, 1966
Steve McCutcheon, McCutcheon Collection, Anchorage Museum, B1990.14.5.TV.94.184
Courtesy Alaska State Library - Historical Collections

In the beginning, borough offices were in the School District offices in Masonic Building. Eventually the borough purchased the Reid Building on Front Street and operated there until moving into the renovated White Cliff School Building in 2008.

One of the first actions of the Borough was planning and a comprehensive community plan was developed by 1965. Subsequent "Comp" Plans were approved in 1977, 1990, 1996 and 2009.

In 1965, it was also decided that the Borough and City would share legal services, with Harris Burwell tabbed as the first joint attorney. In the past 50 years, the City and Borough have shared an attorney for 22 years, but since 1995 they have had separate attorneys. Scott Brandt-Erichsen has served as the Borough Attorney since 1995.

An early challenge for the Borough was the operation of the Ketchikan International Airport, when the federal government moved the regional airport from Annette Island to Gravina Island in 1973. Ketchikan is the only local community that operates a state owned airport and part of that operation has been the access, which includes the operation of ferries across Tongass Narrows to Gravina,

The first airport ferries were purchased from companies in upstate New York. The Abnaki came in 1971 and the Algonquin arrived in 1974.

Over the years, the borough government has led local efforts to get a bridge constructed to the airport.

jpg Ketchikan, Alaska - 1896 to 1913

Ketchikan, Alaska - 1896 to 1913
Paul Sincic. Photographs, ca. 1898-1915. ASL-PCA-75
Alaska State Library - Historical Collections,

Also in 1974, Georgianna Zimmerle went to work for the Borough. She would serve as deputy clerk, clerk and borough manager for more than 25 years. The current Borough Clerk is Kacie Paxton who began serving as Deputy Clerk in 2002 before becoming Borough Clerk in 2009.

In 1976, Terry Carlin went to work for the Airport and became a ferry captain. He remains an airport ferry captain 37 years later.

In 1980, a fire department was organized for the South Tongass Area. At the time there was a private fire department operating on North Tongass. When the private Pond Reef Fire Department went out of business, the borough formed the North Tongass Volunteer Fire Deparment in 2003 for residents on the north end of the community. For many years, the Shoreline area of Ketchikan, from the northern city limits to Ward Cove, also had its own fire department, but that department was merged with the city fire department when Shoreline was annexed by the City of Ketchikan.

In addition to the north and south end fire departments, residents in several areas outside of the city limits have created "service areas" that levy taxes to fund such things as fire service, road maintenance and water and sewers where applicable.

The Pat Wise Animal Shelter was built in 1983. Animal adoptions have increased to a record number of 224 in 2012-2013.

In 1986, the borough became responsible for public transit in the community. Initially there was a single line on Tongass Avenue. Now there are three separate routes, in addition to a summer downtown shuttle, that carry more passengers than all but two other bus systems in the state. Ridership in 2012 was more than 400,000.

jpg Front of small wooden building that housed Ketchikan's newspaper "Mining Journal"

Alfred P. Swineford, 1834-1909
Front of small wooden building that housed Ketchikan's newspaper "Mining Journal", signed "Yours Truly A.P. Swineford". Swineford, of Ketchikan, was the first territorial governor of Alaska from 1885-1889.
Courtesy Alaska State Library - Historical Collections

In 1991, the Borough took over operation of the city Parks and Recreation Department, making parks and recreation an area-wide service. The Borough’s first order of business was to build athletic fields on North Point Higgins. By the end of the decade the Gateway Recreation Center had been built in Bear Valley. The Borough also collects a non-area wide tax for library services that helps support the operations of the Ketchikan Public Library.

Beginning in the mid 1990s and continuing in the 2000s, water and sewer service were brought to residents of South Tongass beginning at Mountain Point and then moving south to Herring Cove and north to just south of Saxman.

Also beginning in the mid 1990s, the Borough took charge of school construction projects including remodels at Valley Park, Houghtaling and Schoenbar and the construction of the new elementary school, Fawn Mountain, to replace White Cliff Elementary which closed in 2003 after nearly 80 years of operation. With the completion of Fawn Mountain in 2008 also came the community’s first turf soccer/football field and running track.

In the late 1990s, the Borough became involved in the redevelopment of the former pulp mill site at Ward Cove. Over the next decade it gradually sold off parcels of the property to the state government and the private sector.


On the Web:

Columns by Dave Kiffer

Historical Feature Stories by Dave Kiffer


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

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