Alaska Destinations

Ketchikan: A Tale of Two Cities

Wednesday, June 10, 2015S.V. CAMBRIA

What can I say about Ketchikan that hasn’t already been said?  Not much, really.  But more than I expected.

For years, all we’ve heard and read about present-day Ketchikan is that it was built to attract cruise ships and once the ships leave port, the town shuts down until the next load arrives.  And in the winter months, it becomes a veritable ghost town.

It’s true.  But it’s only part of the story.

Like most remote communities, Ketchikan’s economy has seen booms and busts over the years:  Settlers built a saltery at the mouth of the Ketchikan Creek in 1883 and before long, there were 12 canneries in the area producing over two million cases of salmon a year and Ketchikan became known as the “Salmon Capital of the World.”  Gold was discovered in the area in 1897, and Ketchikan became a supply center for the mining industry.  Lumber production began around the same time, giving Ketchikan a three-tiered economy.  Life was good.

But the mines dried up and salmon production was on the decline – overfishing nearly destroying the industry.  And when timber rights with the National Forest Service expired in 1997, Ketchikan focused tourism.  And they did it in a big way. 

Newtown, Ketchikan’s revitalized waterfront, was built specifically to attract cruise ships and now the city of 8,313 residents plays host to one million visitors each year.  On any given day the ships, sometimes four deep, tower over the length of the waterfront and the population of Ketchikan more than doubles.  They arrive early in the morning and passengers disembark at their leisure.  Some are bused off to excursions – flights over Misty Fjords National Monument, kayaking, bear watching, fishing – while others browse the souvenir shops that were purpose built for them.

Ketchikan has a proud and colourful history. 

Wherever there was a concentration of miners, fisherman or loggers there was also an influx of prostitutes:  Strong women who helped build wilderness communities.  In 1903, Ketchikan’s city council voted to ban all brothels to the south side of Ketchikan Creek to an area known as “Indian Town” and soon Creek Street was born – the largest red-light district west of the Mississippi . . . where “salmon and men come to spawn.”  During Prohibition, some of the brothels became speakeasies and it wasn’t long before Ketchikan was tagged the “worst pest hole in America” by national newspapers – there were 33 houses in operation. 

Some citizens and religious leaders tried to shut Creek Street down but were unsuccessful, and prostitution remained legal until the 1950s when it was pushed underground.  Today the brothels of Creek Street house souvenir shops, galleries and jewelry stores with a few private homes mixed in between.  Like Newtown, Creek Street’s purpose now is to serve tourists, but it retains much of its early 20th century charm and was added to the National Register of Historic Places last year.

The Totem Heritage Center, also on the National Register of Historic Places, is a short walk from Creek StreetKetchikan is known for its totems and is home to the world’s largest collection of 19th century poles.  The collection is priceless and is comprised of poles that were retrieved from nearby villages that had been abandoned in the early 1900s when residents left for reasons of economy – Ketchikan was booming and offered jobs that paid well in the logging and fishing industries.  It’s customary to allow poles to return to nature like a fallen tree in the forest.  But vandalism and theft threatened the process, so it was decided (with much deliberation) that the poles would be removed for their protection. 

There are two other totem parks near Ketchikan: Totem Bight State Park is the site of a former Tlingit summer camp and has 14 poles on display in an old-growth forest, none of which are heritage poles.  And Totem Park in Saxman has 24 totems that were brought there from abandoned villages.  Some were repaired and restored, while others were replicated. 

The Tongass Historical Museum in Ketchikan’s historic business center tells the story of Ketchikan’s unique and interesting history from native settlements to fishing, mining and logging while the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center covers Tongass National Forest and Misty Fjords National Monument.

The rest of the story.

Today, seventy percent of Ketchikan’s economy is based on tourism with a season that runs from May through September.  During the winter months, many of the jobs that are created over the summer dry up and leave some people without an income.  It’s also very wet.  The annual rainfall in Ketchikan is 154 inches.  July, the driest month, receives more rain on average than Seattle during November, its wettest.  Because of the high rainfall and lack of jobs, many residents leave during the winter months – some to work, others to play. 

So, while it may be true that Newtown was built to attract cruise ships and has all the charm of a strip mall.  And when the ships are gone, that section of the city truly does become a ghost town.  But there’s more to Ketchikan than meets the eye:  It’s a proud community with a colourful past full of friendly people who are willing to do whatever it takes to live there . . . whether it’s for six months or year-round.

Note: This blog was originally written on Friday, May 22, 2015.

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