SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


A Prince of Wales Canal?

A train was also considered to bridge SE's biggest island


November 15, 2020
Sunday AM

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska - At more than 130 miles in length, it takes a long time for a boat to get around Prince of Wales Island when it travels from Ketchikan or Wrangell to communities on the western side of the island.

Although float planes have now reduced that trip to roughly an hour, at one time it took days for boats to make the trip and the southern route, in the open ocean around Cape Chacon, was especially challenging and frequently dangerous in stormy weather.

Coastal Real Estate Group - Ketchikan, Alaska

Legacy Real Estate - Ketchikan, Alaska EST 1970

"The closest business center to Sulzer (a Prince of Wales mining camp in the first two decades of the 20th Century) was Ketchikan and the trip between the two by boat was well over a hundred miles in length and required the rounding of Cape Chacon, exposed to the ocean and beset by tide rips," wrote historian Pat Roppel in an article on the history of Sulzer in the Alaska Journal in 1983. "At times, it was days, even weeks, before a small craft could double the dangerous cape and cross Clarence Strait to the sheltered waters at each end of the passage."

Not surprisingly early travelers looked for an overland route. Eventually, when the timber industry developed at mid-century, a road was punched through from Hollis on the eastern side of the island to Craig and Klawock on the western side. As the timber industry continued to grow the road was expanded to include communities from Hydaburg in the south nearly to Point Baker and Port Protection in the north and included western towns like Naukati and ones on the east side including Kasaan, Thorne Bay, Coffman Cove and Whale Pass on the east side of Prince of Wales.

But long before that, another - shorter - road was pondered to bridge the island at its narrowest point, the Portage Divide. A railroad was even proposed to cover the four-mile gap between Cholmondeley Sound on the east and Hetta Inlet on the west.

It makes sense. If you look at a map of Prince of Wales, the place to go from one side of Prince of Wales to the other is obvious.

Cholmondeley - or Chomly to the locals - is a deep inlet on the east of Prince of Wales that extends more than 16 miles in from Clarence Strait, ending in West Arm.

On the other side of the island is Hetta Inlet, which extends about 10 miles from Cordova Bay into the center of the island, ending in the appropriately named Portage Bay. Although both Hetta and Cholmondeley are ringed by 3000-foot mountains, there is a "divide" between the two that is no more than 200 feet high and just about four miles long. In fact, after the Panama Canal was built in 1914, prominent Ketchikan businessman J.R. Heckman proposed a similar canal that would connect Hetta and Cholmondeley through the divide to replace the plank road that was completed several years before.

"The portage from the head of Hetta Inlet to the head of Cholmondeley Sound is probably an ancient one, used by generations of Indians," Roppel wrote in 1983, noting that a trail in use around 1900 allowed for monthly freight and mail shipments to become weekly ones. "At Ketchikan, the Mining Journal reported on Sept. 14, 1901 that E.A. Von Hasslocher, agent for the Alaska Launch and Tugboat Company and mail contractor on the route had a survey made of the portage with a view to building a narrow-gauge railroad as soon as more mining developed in the area."

Most of the mining in that area was copper mines and although the Jumbo Mine at Sulzer and the Copper Mountain mine at Coppermount were two of the larger copper producers in Southeast Alaska, the rapid fluctuation of copper prices early in the century kept other mines from developing and the "divide" train stayed on the drawing board.

But that didn't stop efforts to build a road from Chomley to Hetta over the divide. Besides Sulzer and Coppermount there were numerous other smaller communities in the area and when it was proposed that three smaller Haida villages - Howkan, Klinkwan and Sukkwan - be merged into a single new village - Hydaburg - just a few miles from the entrance to Hetta Inlet, plans were made to expand the rough trail into an actual road. Hydaburg would be established in 1911.

In April of 1905, the Mining Journal reported that the divide trail was in bad condition as it ran through the lower part of the dive that was wettest and covered in muskeg. The paper reported that a petition had been sent to the Alaska Road Commission asking for a road across the four-mile portage. The Road Commission had just been formed a couple months before but it acted quickly and sent Lieutenant G. B. Pillsbury and D.S. Whitfield down from Juneau to survey the portage.

A report by the Road Commission in 1906 indicates the project had gone out to bid but that none were received "except an informal bid for the construction of a railroad, which it was not thought proper to consider."

In June of 1906, the Commission had found a contractor, F.H. Sylvester, for the project. A 24-foot right of way was cleared and corduroy wood was laid for a 13-foot-wide road. The road was half completed when work stopped for the winter in November.

Roppel said the project was hampered by rainy weather.

"Out of the one hundred and twenty-six days since the beginning of the work, there had been but twenty during which there was not a decided rain, and but sixteen of sunshine," she quoted from the Road Commission report.

When work on the divide road resumed in April of 1907, George Pulham and J.S. Hayes were in charge of the project.

"On arriving at the work, considerable snow was found on the ground," the Commission's 1907 report noted. "But to utilize the equipment properly during the season the work could not be delayed and the snow was shoveled off. The cost of laying corduroy during the preceding season had been so high that it was decided to use plank on those parts where an earth road would not serve."

Meanwhile parts that had been finished in 1906 were now found to be unstable and unable to support the loads expected on the road and had to be redone. Still, the report declared the road was completed by June 12. In addition, a foot trail had to be to constructed along Cholmondeley Sound to a point that was open year around because the head of West Arm froze over each winter.

On July 1, 1907, Major Wilds P. Richardson of the US Army and chairman of the road commission traveled the road. Richardson - who would later build the highway from Valdez to Eagle that bears his name - was not happy to only a few people using the highway on foot and no vehicle traffic.

Back in Ketchikan, he told the Ketchikan Miner newspaper that "the improvement cost was more per mile than any other the commission has yet undertaken, and that, unless it soon begins to develop the traffic he was led to expect, he will feel that the commission made a mistake in undertaking its construction. It is up to those who were urgent in their demands for the road to now satisfactorily  demonstrate that it was not built in vain."

He said the cost of the 3+ mile road had been slightly more than $30,700.

Roppel wrote that the while the road was used a bit more in the years that followed, it was never clear that the commission felt it had gotten its money's worth.  In the meantime, the commission continued to pour maintenance money into the project.  By 1915, the road had been lengthened nearly another mile to replace the footpath to the point when West Arm didn't freeze up.

Meanwhile, there must have been enough traffic on the road because two entrepreneurs stepped up to provide service to the travelers.

At the east end, Mrs. A.E. King who had a nearby saltery at Sunny Point in Cholmondeley built a small cabin and looked after passengers who arrived on or waited for the weekly mail boats from Ketchikan. Several different boats made the run, according to Roppel, including the Uncle Dan, the Roughrider and the Teddy. In his 1951 history of mining in Alaskan John Bufvers noted that Chris Copstead, a longtime fixture at Ketchikan's Miners and Merchants Banks, got his start in the area at Jumbo Mine and was in charge of the freight operation over the divide.

On the west end of the road, the Alaska Industrial Company  - which operated the Jumbo Mine and the small community of Sulzer - had a small cabin to accommodate passengers heading between Portage Bay and Sulzer.

Unfortunately, a crash in the copper market at the end of 1910s brought development in the area to halt. Sulzer was abandoned and the Jumbo mine was sold by 1920 and the portage road fell into disuse and deteriorated. It eventually returned to the its previous state as a portage trail that was occasionally used over the years.

But maps of the area still show the town of Sulzer and the four-mile Portage Road from Cholmondeley Sound to Hetta Inlet.

In the current world, you can cross Prince of Wales Island in an hour or so along the Hollis-Klawock highway. The Hetta-Cholmondeley portage is now land that is owned by the regional Native corporation Sealaska and there has been logging in the area and roads have been built. Sealaska has not announced any plans to connect Hetta Inlet and Cholmondeley Sound anytime in the near - or long term - future.




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