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M/V Malaspina Officially Retiring to Ketchikan, Alaska

Former 'Queen of the Fleet' will stay in Alaska, become centerpiece of historic park.


June 02, 2022

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska -   It's official. The state of Alaska is selling the retired state ferry Malaspina to the developers of Ward Cove for $128.500.

A new group, M/V Malaspina LLC, plans to restore the vessel and turn it into a museum celebrating the maritime and logging history of the community. John Binkley has said that it will also be used for worker housing and hopes to use it as a training platform for the students working towards a career in the maritime industry.

jpg M/V Malaspina Officially Retiring to Ketchikan, Alaska

M/V Malaspina 2018.
Photo credit Frank P. Flavin.

The Malaspina has been docked at Ward Cove since it was taken out of service at the end of 2019. Selling it will save the State the $425,000 is has been spending each year for wharfage and upkeep, according to a press release from the ADOT.

Four years ago, another one of the original AMHS mainliners, the Taku, was sold for scrap and that was not the best outcome, according to AMHS general manager John Falvey.

"This is the fifth ship that the AHMS sold over the past 20 years," Falvey said in a press release announcing the sale. "And we've learned a thing or two about how to dispose of a ship that has sailed its twilight cruise. As the former Queen of the Fleet, and the first mainline vessel built, we didn't want just any future for the Malaspina, and we certainly did not want her sold for scrap metal."

The Malaspina was the first three $4.5 million mainline ferries that would tie the communities of Southeast together and eventually provide service to Prince Rupert, B.C. and Seattle, Washington. Year-round passenger steamship service had ended in Southeast in the early 1950s and the state was looking to boost economic development in the region by creating a ferry service that would tie the communities in Southeast together and also eventually link up the state with Prince Rupert, British Columbia and Seattle, Washington. There was also a tourism component as people from outside Alaska were encouraged to "drive" the Marine Highway.

The arrival of the Malaspina in January of 1963 was a very big deal in Southeast. The Ketchikan Daily News estimated that approximately 3,000 people turned out to greet the ship, blocking Tongass Avenue for several miles in either direction. Alaskan Governor Bill Egan was in town to great the ship and city mayor Louis Glatz proclaimed Jan. 23 as "Alaska Marine Highway Day."

There was an even bigger crowd in Juneau, estimated by the Juneau Empire at 4,500 people. Eventually, the Taku and the Matanuska joined the fleet and were followed by a dozen other ships of various sizes. Service was also expanded to Prince William Sound and the Aleutian Islands.

Both the Malaspina and the Matanuska were eventually expanded in size. The Taku was sold for scrap in 2018, but the Matanuska continues to operate, nearly 60 years after it was built. At the time of construction, the mainliners were expected to have 30-year life spans, but all nearly doubled that.

Over the years, the Malaspina traveled some 4.5 million miles and carried approximately 2 million passengers. Like the other vessels of the fleet, it was a common site in regional waters, but it did take part in two major events.

In May of 1971, the cruise ship Meteor caught fire 60 miles north of Vancouver. Although the fire killed 32 crew members, the Malaspina's crew was credited with rescuing the 67 passengers on board the ship.

Then in 1997, the Malaspina was at the center of an international incident when it was blockaded at the Prince Rupert ferry terminal for three days by Canadian fishermen protesting American fishery policies.

In 2013, when the Alaska Marine Highway System celebrated its 50 th Anniversary, the Queen of the Fleet was gussied up with a new paint job - most notably a yellow smokestack like in the early days of the system - and served at the center celebrations in each community.

But,in recent years, budget cutting at the AMHS meant the ferry system had to perform vessel triage and decide which ships it could afford to repair and keep online. The Matanuska was repaired and put back into service, but both the Taku (2018) and Malaspina (2019) were laid up, permanently.

The Taku was eventually sold to a scrapping company in India. But now it appears that while the Malaspina will never sail again, it will have a future in the First City.

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