Alaska's Heritage


Ocean shipping is Alaska's main link to the rest of the world

Ocean shipping was Alaska's only link with the rest of the United States in 1867. It remained so for many years thereafter. Even in the 1980s more than 90 per cent of all goods shipped to Alaska arrived on sea-going vessels. This dependence on ocean shipping has made that activity an important factor in Alaska's history.

Alaskan shippers faced many problems. These included the difficulty of navigating in Alaska's uncharted and stormy waters, inadequate port facilities, widely varying seasonal tonnage requirements, and a lack of cargo to be shipped south from Alaska. All contributed to the difficulty of providing adequate service to a small population living in a remote land.

Alaskan waters are among the most challenging in which to sail

Alaskan waters are said to be one of the three most challenging areas in the world for sailors. Thus navigation aids-buoys to mark channels, lights and beacons to mark key landmarks and dangers to ships such as reefs and submerged rocks, and good charts-have been important in the history of Alaska shipping.

Navigation aids are critical for safe travel in Alaskan waters

In 1869, the United States Senate asked the President to have a survey completed of potential lighthouse and beacon sites on the coast of Alaska. Shortly thereafter, George Davidson of the Coast Survey recommended the establishment of light stations near Sitka, near Kodiak, and near Unalaska.

The stations that Davidson recommended were not built, but between 1867 and 1877 the United States Light-House Board arranged for the U.S. Army to keep a beacon burning atop Baranov's Castle at Sitka. When the army withdrew from Alaska in 1877, the light went out. Two years later, the U.S. Navy placed an unlighted beacon-an iron spindle mounted on a log triangle-on Vitskari Island in Sitka Sound. In 1884, the Light-House Board sent 14 iron buoys to Southeast Alaska. The navy placed them along the Inside Passage. Other unlighted beacons and buoys followed, but it was not until 1895 that a lighted beacon was again placed on Sitka's Castle Hill. Only a rash of wrecks during the 1898 to 1900 gold rushes to Canada's Klondike and to Alaska raised public interest high enough to result in placement of light stations along Alaska's coast.

Following the gold strikes, entrepreneurs scoured Pacific coast harbors for vessels that could take gold seekers to Alaska. The vessels were often unsafe and their crews inexperienced. Wrecks occurred at the rate of three a month for the entire year, an all-time high.

Americans begin to build lighthouses in Alaska

Forty-five years after Americans took over Alaska, the first two permanent lighthouses were established on Alaska's coast. The first was at Five Fingers Island on the northern part of Frederick Sound. The second was at Sentinel Island marking the north end of the Favorite Channel into Lynn Canal. Other light stations followed.

In 1914, the business of locating underwater hazards to navigation began. The government started wire-drag surveys of Alaska's coastal waters. In such surveys, ships cruised in pairs dragging wire cables between them. The cables trailed through the water at adjustable depths to locate such obstructions as pinnacle rocks. These rocky spires rise from sea bottom to just beneath or above the sea's surface with the potential of ripping and tearing the bottoms out of unwary ships.

Even though navigation aids such as light beacons and lighthouses were built all along Alaska's coast in the twentieth century, losses still ran to about 24 ships a year until after World War II. Then depth finders and radar became commonplace on large ships and loran beacons became available. Since then, large ships have been only in-frequently lost in Alaskan waters although smaller craft founder each year in heavy seas, burn, or collide with one another.

Other factors also make Alaskan shipping difficult

In addition to the technical problems of operating ships in Alaskan waters, several other factors have made ocean shipping to Alaska difficult. Only ports south of the Aleutian Islands remain open in winter. For many years there was a decline in Alaska's population and activity during winter months. This meant that shipping lines serving Alaska had to have more ships available to serve Alaska in summer months than they needed in winter months. Also, ships usually had to return south with light loads. The dispersed nature of Alaska's population meant that ships had to call at many ports to pick up or deliver small portions of their cargo and passenger loads. Loading and unloading facilities in small ports tended to be in-adequate. This increased the time ships had to sit in port.

All of the above factors decreased the profitability of Alaska shipping. As a result, the history of Alaskan shipping is usually the story of only one or two shipping lines operating at any one time. Although over 130 shipping companies have attempted to operate in Alaskan waters since 1867, only a few remained in the business for very long.

American shipping to Alaska begins with monthly service

A lack of good ports increased the expense of shipping goods to Alaska. Off Nome, shallow water made it necessary for cargo to be transferred from ocean-going vessels to barges before it could be brought ashore.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, B B. Dobbs, Photographer.
Identifier: PCA 12-59
After America's purchase of Alaska in 1867, shipping to Alaska began with occasional service from California and Oregon. In 1887, the North Pacific Railroad was completed to Seattle. This relatively in-expensive overland transportation link to the eastern United States meant that Seattle could compete with San Francisco and Portland as the principal port of departure for Alaska.

In 1889, the Pacific Coast Steamship Company bought out one of its major competitors, the West Coast Steamship Company, for $700,000. For the next several years Pacific Coast Steamship and a few independent packets-liners carrying both freight and passengers-seemed adequate for the Alaska trade.

A new shipping company enters the Alaska trade

In 1894, a new shipping line began to compete in the Alaska trade. The new line, called the Alaska Steamship Company, put the Willapa in service. The ship ran every 16 days between Seattle and Southeast Alaska ports. A rate war followed as the Pacific Coast Steamship Company tried to drive the newcomer out of business.

Pacific Coast officials said, "We will carry people to Alaska for nothing before we will let the opposition (Alaska Steamship) do any business." Fares fell dramatically. First class tickets from Seattle to Alaska dropped from $52 to $20, second class fares followed suit, and freight rates dropped from $11 to $3 per ton.

Klondike gold strikes cause shipping boom

When, in July of 1897, 68 miners from the Canadian Klondike reached Seattle on the steamer Portland, they brought with them $964,000 in gold dust and nuggets. People immediately swarmed north by ship. Between July and December, 1897, more than 8,000 people took passage from Seattle to Alaska. While between January and March of 1897, only 18 vessels had cleared Seattle for Alaskan ports, in the same period in 1898, 173 vessels cleared Seattle for Alaskan ports. The Alaska shipping trade, previously handled adequately by Pacific Coast Steamship Company's four ships and the single vessel of Alaska Steamship Company and one or two other carriers, required a lot of new vessels. Both existing and newly-organized firms scrambled to find vessels to send to Alaska.

Two principal ports served the gold rushers. These were San Francisco and Seattle. The Pacific Steam Whaling Company's Excelsior had arrived at San Francisco a day or two before the Portland had reached Seattle. Miners who had boarded the Excelsior at St. Michael carried with them over $500,000 in gold. Carriers such as the Alaska Commercial Company, which used St. Michael as a port to serve its Yukon River trading posts, built up their fleets.

New companies joined Alaska Steamship and Pacific Coast Steamship in the Seattle to Southeast Alaska trade. The larger firms soon drove out the small newcomers. Fares dropped by mid-April when the anticipated shipping boom proved to be less than expected. By 1899, the original gold rush shipping boom had peaked, only to be revived in 1900 when new strikes were made at Nome. This boom, too, quickly subsided.

After the booms, major American shipping companies surviving in the Alaska trade were the Alaska Coast Company, Alaska Commercial Company, Alaska Steamship Company, Humboldt Steamship Company, La Conner Transportation and Trading Company, Pacific Alaska Navigation Company, Pacific Coast Steamship Company, Washington and Alaska Steamship Company, and White Star Steamship Company. Two Canadian companies, Canadian Pacific Navigation Company and Union Steamship, also served Alaskan ports.

Although competitors, the various shipping companies cooperated `to maintain high rates, an action bitterly resented by travelers. In 1902, however, Alaska travelers gathered at Seattle and threatened to buy and operate their own ship if the established companies did not keep fares reasonable. A temporary victory was achieved when the shipping companies lowered the cost of tickets to Alaska for the rest of the season.

Guggenheims buy Alaska Steamship Company

The next major event in the history of ocean shipping to Alaska occurred in 1908, when the powerful Guggenheim financial empire needed to ship ore mined in its Alaskan copper deposits. To get the shipping, it bought the Alaska Steamship Company. The Guggenheims then merged Alaska Steamship with their previously-acquired Northwestern Steamship Company. This created a fleet of 18 vessels serving Alaskan ports from Ketchikan to Kotzebue. The new shipping line had a major advantage over its competitors. Copper ore solved the back-haul problem for Alaska Steamship, while ships of competing lines often sailed south empty.

Private fleets also decreased potential back-haul cargo and passenger loads for all lines. One such fleet, operated by the Alaska Packers Association between 1893 and the 1950s, took workers and supplies to canneries at the beginning of the salmon fishing season and took the workers and canned salmon away at the end of the season. By 1919, 75 per cent of the tonnage entering Alaska was private shipping.

Alaska Steamship and Pacific Steamship continued to dominate Alaska shipping. By 1919, these two companies accounted for 32,444 net tons of shipping registered for Alaska trade. The next two commercial carriers in the trade accounted for only 4,970 net tons combined. A "ton" measured 100 cubic feet of cargo space available in a ship. Other significant public carriers had been forced out of the trade.

Jones Act strengthens shipping monopoly

The monopoly was furthered in 1920 when the Jones Act was passed. Intended to strengthen the United States merchant fleet, the act prohibited shipping between any two United States ports in any but American-built vessels. This particularly irked residents of Alaska and Hawaii because of their dependence on water transportation.

A new shipper entered the Alaska trade in 1923 when Northland Transportation began service to Southeast Alaska from Seattle. Another carrier, Alaska Transportation, soon joined Alaska Steamship and Northland as the principal lines serving Southeast Alaska. In 1933, Alaska Steam eliminated a major competitor. 1t paid Pacific Steamship Lines, Ltd. (which had evolved from Pacific Coast Steamship Company) $300,000 for its Alaska properties. Also in 1933 the federal Intercoastal Shipping Act placed common carriers on water under government regulation. This eliminated competition of tramp vessels without definite schedules and previously-approved cargo rates.

This decrease in the number of shipping companies affected Alaskans in several ways. There was a smaller choice of shippers. Alaskans complained that the lines that did operate took advantage of the lack of competition by offering poor service and maintaining high rates.

It also was clear that when labor disputes interrupted service, Alaskans suffered. An 84-day strike in 1934 left Alaska without ocean shipping service until the Victoria was permitted to carry supplies to Southeast Alaska communities and the Northwind, at the personal request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was permitted to carry supplies to northern Alaska communities. Only in mid-June 1934 was a temporary labor agreement reached that allowed resumption of regular shipping to Alaska. Another strike in 1939 halted all shipping to Alaska for two weeks.

World War II affects Alaskan shipping

World War II dramatically impacted shipping to Alaska. World-wide Allied shipping requirements meant that the federal government took control of most ships registered in the United States for the war effort. The United States Maritime Administration took over 15 vessels of the Alaska Steamship Company. The government also took over and reallocated ships from other companies. Alaska Steamship was given 65 ships to operate in world-wide routes as a part of the war effort.

As the war came to an end, the Alaskan shipping industry underwent a series of major changes. In 1944, G. W. Skinner of Seattle's Skinner and Eddy Corporation bought the Alaska Steamship Company from the Kennecott Copper Corporation. The U.S. Maritime Administration, which still regulated all shipping, assigned the Northland Transportation Company to handle trade into the Kuskokwim River region. Congressional hearings in 1947 revealed that many companies did not want to provide shipping service to Alaska. More than 25 companies asked about service to Alaska responded with answers that ranged from laughter to "nuts."

When conditions settled down after World War II, it turned out that two major shipping companies served Alaska. These were the Alaska 'Steamship Company, operating 16 ships, and Northland Transportation, operating six ships. Both were owned by the Skinner family. Both gave preferential rates to their largest customers, the canneries. Canneries paid freight rates of $14.23 per ton. Other customers paid double. There were only three other regular carriers in Alaska shipping.

By 1948, the pre-war Alaska shipping industry, which had included 42 vessels with a total of 172,000 gross tons, had shrunk to seven vessels with a total of 28,000 gross tons. This came about partly because the federal government, which had subsidized Alaska shipping at a loss of $2.5 million in 1946 and $4 million in 1947, cancelled the subsidies in 1948. Labor costs had risen by 150 per cent over pre-war rates. Also, a shipping strike in 1948 caused liquidation of the Alaska Transportation Company. At the same time, the Alaska Highway was in operation and non-scheduled and scheduled airlines began service to Alaska. For this combination of reasons, all lines but the Alaska Steamship Company stopped service to Alaska. With a nearly complete monopoly on Alaska shipping, Alaska Steamship did its largest volume of business ever in 1949 but still lost over $50,000.

Seeking ways to reduce costs, Alaska Steamship investigated the use of tugs and barges and container ships to replace the break-bulk freighters it was left with after World War II. Use of tugs and barges to supply Alaska had been pioneered during World War ll as a way to meet the shipping shortage and also to avoid routing freighters through what were believed to be submarine-infested waters. Tugs and barges turned out to have peacetime advantages, too. They could travel at twice the speed of some of the older conventional self-propelled vessels such as the World War II Liberty ships in the Alaska Steamship fleet. While tugs and barges could be operated with crews of only 5 to 7, conventional freighters required crews of 30 to 40. In the post-war period, freighters cost about $1,500 a day to operate. Another post-war innovation, container ships, cut down on the length of voyages. In these ships, all freight was packaged in containers-ultimately the size of regular trucking vans--that could be trucked to, lifted on, lifted off, and immediately trucked away. Container ships required large crews, but allowed faster loading and unloading and also discouraged pilfering of cargoes. Would-be Alaska Steamship competitors such as Alaska Ship Lines began tug and barge and container ship service to Alaska in 1951.

Increasingly costly ocean ship service faced a new competitor too, as airline passenger service to Alaska became routine. In 1952, air fare from Seattle to Seward was $105 for a trip that took only a day. Ocean liner fare between the same points was $115 for a trip that took about a week.

Alaska Steamship now faced alone the problems that it had shared with earlier competitors. These were inadequate port facilities in the smaller Alaskan communities, widely varying seasonal tonnage requirements, and a lack of back-haul tonnage. Cannery shipments of fish south provided back-haul, but only for a few months of the year. Alaska Steamship tried to solve the varying seasonal tonnage requirements by using its passenger liners on Seattle-to-Hawaii routes in winter when the ships were not needed on Alaskan routes. Labor difficulties prevented this, however.

In 1953, the Alaska Steamship Company began container ship service. Another major change occurred in Alaska shipping in 1953 when the tug Justine Foss inaugurated rail car barge service to Alaska from Puget Sound. In this service, special barges carried railway freight cars from one port to another. This significantly decreased shipping costs as the cars were delivered to a port by train, run onto barges, taken by sea to another port, run off barges, and taken by train to their destinations.

In 1954, Alaska Steamship ended ocean passenger service to Alaska. Although the numbers of passengers carried had not declined much, the company had lost $1.5 million on its passenger operations between 1949 and 1953. Rising labor costs and airline competition were the chief reasons why passenger service had lost money.

In 1957, after containerization, Alaska Steamship sent two vessels each week from Seattle to Southeast Alaska and two vessels each week from Seattle to Southcentral and Southwest Alaska. Alaska Steamship also sent smaller ships to 23 ports in Southeast Alaska too small for its container ships. Northern Alaska, which had been served by ships of Nome's Lomen Commercial Company, became an Alaska Steamship area when Alaska Steamship bought the Lomen shipping operation in 1957.

In 1960, Alaska Steamship was operating 14 freighters making 170 voyages per year to over 60 Alaskan ports. Its fleet included seven World War II-vintage Liberty ships and seven smaller motor vessels, each ship and vessel requiring a crew of about 40. Already suffering from competition by tug and barge, railbarge, and other container ship service, Alaska Steamship soon faced new threats to its business.

Alaska starts a state ferry, Sea-land begins Alaska service

Not long after achieving statehood in 1959, Alaskans authorized a publicly-owned and operated ferry system to serve Alaskan communities. The ferries, known as the Alaska Marine Highway system, began operating in 1963. Three ferries, the Malaspina, the Matanuska, and the Taku, ran from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, to Skagway, Alaska. Each ship could carry up to 500 passengers and 108 vehicles. The marine highway was soon extended to serve communities on Cook Inlet, Gulf of Alaska, and Prince William Sound, as well as Southeast Alaska towns and villages. In 1967, the Malaspina made a Seattle to Alaska run. As the years went on, existing vessels were improved and additional vessels were added to the ferry fleet. By the early 1980s, service was even extended on an occasional basis to Aleutian Island communities.

Even as Alaska Steamship had to deal with publicly-supported competition, the company was also faced by innovative private competition. In 1961, Sea-Land Service, a major inter-coastal shipper, entered the Alaskan market with container ships. Its large and relatively modern vessels, converted World War II Victory ships, could carry up to 360 containers each. In 1962, the Canadian Pacific Railway entered the Alaskan market with rail-barge service between Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and Whittler. Alaska Steamship attempted to meet this threat by purchasing a Japanese-built rail car carrier, but was unable to operate the ship itself because of hones Act restrictions. Eventually an Alaska Steamship subsidiary was established to operate the ship, called the City of New Orleans, from Wesminster, British Columbia, to Whittler, thus avoiding Jones Act restrictions. Registered under the Liberian flag and renamed Alaska, the ship made 500 round-trips carrying up to 56 rail cars on each voyage between 1964 and 1974.

Also in 1964, Alaska Steamship began its first full container ship service to Alaska. Its Tonsina carried only containers on a bi-weekly Seattle to Seward schedule. At the same time, its Chena, Fortuna, and Iliamna continued to handle conventional (break-bulk) cargo while being able to carry up to 90 vans on the deck of each ship. Sea-Land Service began direct weekly Seattle to Alaska container ship service in the same year. By 1967, 15 trainships and vanships were sailing to most of the ports of Alaska.

Hampered by old equipment, Alaska Steamship had difficulty competing. By 1969, Alaska Steamship had ended its service to most Southcentral Alaska ports. It also sold its Southeast Alaska business to Foss Tug and Barge. In 1970, Alaska Steamship's operation was reduced to two ships serving Kodiak, Adak, and small intermediate ports. Even on this route, Alaska Steamship had to compete with the Pioneer Alaska Line operating the MV Western Pioneer between Seattle, Kodiak, and western Alaska ports. On January 16, 1971, Alaska Steamship announced it was going out of business. The Alaska Steamship owners at first retained their Alaska trainship service from British Columbia to Whittier; even this was sold in 1974 to Crowley Maritime. The following year Totem Ocean Trailer Express (TOTE) entered the Alaska market with roll on/roll off service from Tacoma to Anchorage. In this new innovation, tractor-trailer vans were driven onto ships at the port of departure and unhooked. Other tractors hooked up to the trailer vans at the port of arrival and drove them off the ships. While break-bulk freighters usually take several days to load and unload, and container ships require a minimum of 24 hours to load and unload, roll on/roll off ships can be loaded and unloaded in 12 hours.

The 1970s see major changes in Alaska shipping

An era ended when the Alaska Steamship Company went out of business and new shipping technologies replaced conventional service. But old patterns continued. Alaska remained dependent on ocean shipping for delivery of necessary goods. As the state's population rose, the tonnage required rose. The Port of Anchorage, through which most freight for Southcentral and Interior Alaska passed, saw a nearly 200 per cent rise in tonnage delivered. About 60 per cent of the total was containerized. Fully half of all ocean freight shipped to Alaska crossed Anchorage docks. Sea-Land container ships arrived twice each week at Anchorage, as did TOTE roll on/roll off ships. Pacific Western Barge Lines also served Anchorage, providing twice-monthly Seattle to Anchorage deliveries on barges used mostly for non-containerized shipments.

Valdez, the port at which the Trans-Alaska Pipeline ends, became a major port in the 1970s. With two to three supertankers, some so enormous that it can take up to an hour for them to come to complete stops, arriving and departing daily, Valdez's port tonnage rose from 208,728 in 1971 to 85,973,086 in 1980. Almost all of this was out-going crude oil delivered to Valdez by the pipeline and taken from there by supertanker to California ports.

Also in the 1970s, Ketchikan became Southeast Alaska's largest port. Consumer goods arrived there in 24-foot containers carried on barges from Seattle, while pulp and chemicals used in manufacturing arrived in rail cars barged from the Pacific Northwest. Petroleum products, the other major commodities delivered to Ketchikan, were transshipped from Ketchikan by barge to other Southeast Alaska points. Juneau, Alaska's capital, was served by twice-weekly barge service from Seattle and by ships of the state ferry system. Service to other Alaskan ports, except Valdez which was unique for its tanker traffic, was only occasional. Kodiak, for instance, was visited once each week by Sea-Land ships returning from Anchorage to Seattle. Cordova and Aleutian ports were, in turn, served by a feeder ship from Kodiak and by state ferries.

Shipping remains important to Alaska

In the early 1980s, ocean shipping continued to be the major way in which goods came to Alaska. Alaskans depended on it for delivery of three of the necessities of life: food, shelter, and energy. Alaska itself provided the other two: clean air and water. Almost all food and materials to build houses and other buildings were imported to Alaska by sea. Even energy, produced by oil from Alaska's vast reservoirs, required that petroleum products be shipped at least from one Alaskan port to another, if not to Alaska from outside the state.