An Alaska Steamship Company vessel docks in Ketchikan in the 1930s.

By Tim Bradner

Most Alaskans think cruise tourism to the state is something relatively new. Indeed, the big and shiny ships bringing thousands of visitors to Alaska each summer are a relatively new sight in Alaska’s coastal waters, but tourists have actually been coming north on ships to sightsee for more than a century.

The business, which first bonded Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, was actually pioneered in the 1880s by the Pacific Coast Steamship Co. of San Francisco, which launched monthly voyages to Southeast Alaska in 1881, with two ships, the Ancon and the Idaho. A third ship, the Eureka, joined the company later.

Pacific Steam wanted to challenge a monopoly held by the Oregon Steamship Co., which had started service to Alaska in 1875. Oregon Steam had offered the first scheduled service to Alaska, but Pacific Coast was the first to pioneer pleasure travel.

Alaska cruise becomes trendy

Early on, Alaska cruises became a hit among the West Coast moneyed set.

Even then, the Inside Passage was a hit.

“Quite a few pleasure travelers discovered that this route possessed some of the grandest scenery on the continent,” according to the Alaska Geographic’s history of the Alaska Steamship Co.

Cruise tourism was certainly different in the early days. Sailing schedules were uncertain in the late 19th century, and Pacific Steam’s Idaho usually announced its arrival near a community by firing a cannon. The company’s Ancon was a picturesque side-wheeler, built on the East Coast in 1868, that must have been quite a sight churning its way up the Inside Passage.

The ships carried various cargos as well as prospectors heading north, and passengers enjoyed experiences that today’s cruise passengers are denied.

In one 1885 account, an enthralled tourist watched cattle being herded aboard at the dock in Victoria, British Columbia in Canada, with the ship’s crew temporarily becoming cowboys.

Passengers enjoyed, occasionally, the spectacle of an interception by a U.S. revenue cutter, with federal agents climbing onto the ship to look for smuggled opium. On one raid in 1881, several hundred pounds of opium were found hidden in barrels under the ship’s cargo.

A shore excursion was certainly different. Another writer told of a stop at Taku Glacier, near Juneau, where passengers were rowed from the ship to shallow water near the beach and carried the final distance by able-bodied seamen.

Once ashore, there was a hike and a picnic lunch at a scenic viewpoint overlooking Taku Glacier, but if the tide timetable was off on the return hike, passengers had to muck it through the mud for a distance to the waiting seamen and longboats.

Tourism economy begins

Tourists were a good source of revenue in the early days, when there was hardly any economy in Alaska and not much freight moving in or out.

Pacific Coast Steamship, which pioneered the business, advertised fine staterooms and table accommodations, and unsurpassed scenic grandeur along the route.

A standard cabin rate was $30 to Sitka; steerage, for the backpacker set of the day, was $15.

Rates dropped as competitors entered the market. The ships went to Glacier Bay, as they do now, with stops at Juneau, Taku Glacier, Sitka which was still Alaska’s capital and Wrangell, as well as several small towns that don’t exist today.

In 1882, some 1,800 summer tourists visited Sitka, and even more by 1885, according to the Alaska Geographic article.

“The Pacific Coast Steamship Co. had developed a considerable summer tourist trade to Sitka,” the Geographic said.

The company laid on two more ships, the City of Topeka and the Mexico, to help handle the business. In 1894 the Queen was added, with 250 first-class staterooms.

Competitors horned in by 1892, when the Chilkat was constructed for passengers and went into business luring cruise passengers with discounted rates.

Tourists were important because the Klondike gold rush hadn’t happened yet and the other passengers were typically a motley mix of fortune seekers and prospectors.

There wasn’t much in the way of business activity. There were Alaska Native communities that were clusters of bark huts, tents and a wooden house or two. There were canneries, too, with Chinese and Indian workers.

Navigation wasn’t all that safe, either. The captains used charts that were mainly based on those prepared by Capt. George Vancouver, Captain Cook’s navigator who later charted Southeast Alaska for the British Admiralty. Wrangell Narrows, for example, today a major passage-way for cruise ships and state ferries, was avoided then because Vancouver had not charted it on his voyage and Alaska’s new American owners hadn’t made the investment yet.

Alaska by sail and rail

In 1894, a new competitor entered the trade with the incorporation of the Alaska Steamship Co., although its business was initially focused on freight. The company was independent, but several of its owners had connections with major railroad companies, and in fact the Northern Pacific Railroad was very interested in Alaska Steamship because of its potential for channeling Alaskan freight business to the railroad.

Promotion of pleasure cruises took a back seat during the gold rush years, when ships headed to Alaska were packed with gold-seekers and freight, but the companies resumed tourism promotion after the excitement over gold died down.

In 1901, having profited from the gold rush, Alaska Steam made its entry into the tourist trade with its passenger ship, the Dolphin.

The Alaska-Yukon Exposition in 1909, held in Seattle, provided an opportunity for the steamship companies to promote Alaska, and they offered special excursions. Alaska Steam, by then owned by the company also building the Kennecott copper mines, arranged trips to Cordova, where visitors could view the Miles and Childs glaciers and even visit construction camps where they could watch the Copper River railroad being built to the copper deposits farther north.

Alaska Steam also outfitted one of its ships, the Yucatan, for some of the most upscale of travelers. Brass beds were put in some of the staterooms, extra baths were installed, the observation room was given plate-glass sides; the dining room was refurbished with green plush cushions and drapes. New cold storage rooms were added, as well as an ice machine.

Chuck Hawley, an Alaska geologist and author, said many of the competitor steamship companies fell by the wayside as freight and passenger business to Alaska fell off.

But Alaska Steam was able to stay in the business because it enjoyed the financial benefit of freight moving south out of Alaska with the “back-haul” of ore from the mines at Kenncott and in Prince William Sound.

Alaska Steam could do this because it was owned by the Alaska Syndicate, the Morgan-Guggenheim combine that also owned the Kennecott mines, Hawley said.

Alaska Steam also developed close a relationship with the government-owned Alaska Railroad during the railroad’s construction (it was completed in 1917). Alaska Steam promoted Alaska cruises and even advertised special “combo” tours with the newly built Alaska Railroad that combined land and rail travel in the state, a harbinger of things to come.

The sea-rail travel package was called the “Golden Belt” tour, with the first joint-ticketing sold in effective in 1922.

“For years (the railroad and steamship company) joined to promote travel with coordinated schedules to serve vacationers. They advertised loop trips in which some passengers went inland, and Seward and others in Valdez, visited Fairbanks, and then came out through the opposite port,” according to the Alaska Geographic.

The railroad operated differently in those days. Before the end of World War II, trains did not run at night, for example. Trains typically stopped at Curry, where passengers got off for a leisurely dinner and spent the night at the railroad’s hotel. They had breakfast the next morning and then reboarded the train.

The Kennecott mines, the source of the “backhaul” cargo, closed in the late 1930s and Alaska Steam was sold to the Skinner family of Seattle, which focused on the passenger and freight business.

World War II intervened, putting a temporary halt to tourism. Many of Alaska Steam’s ships were requisitioned for the war effort and when the company got them back, they badly needed refurbishing.

Still, cruise tourists were more important than ever as freight volumes plummeted in the immediate post-war years.

Steamship fizzles out

Shipboard routines for passengers were more casual than in the early days, but men were still asked to wear ties for dinner and women were asked not to wear slacks or shorts in the dining room.

Also, Alaska Steam and the railroad began working with Chuck West, the pioneer in Alaska’s modern tourism, in arranging hotel accommodations in Fairbanks for the company’s cruise passengers. West went on to found Westours, a well known name today’s industry.

Changes were coming, however, and the company, now over half a century old, was having difficulty. Airplanes took over the passenger business, and Alaska Steam’s last passenger ship sailed from Alaska in 1954.

The company struggled on as a freight carrier and helped develop containerized shipping to Alaska, but still faced serious competition from SeaLand Services, which had faster ships. The company finally called it quits in the 1970s.

Older Alaskans mourned the passing of the passenger steamships as a way of life. Life moved at a different pace back then. According to Alaska Geographic, passenger agent Robert Rose recalled that, “Until the second world war there wasn’t any way to get to Alaska except by ship. People from Ketchikan, Juneau and Anchorage, aboard for several days, got to know residents of other regions. They danced, had a drink and dined with those from distant sections of Alaska. A great many families are the result of a shipboard romance, when boy met girl on board the Northwestern or the Victoria.”

There were other legacies of the era. Alaska Steam hired Alaskan artist Eustace Ziegler to paint Alaskana scenes for its offices and ships, and for reproduction to help promote tourism. Copies of Ziegler’s iconic paintings, particularly a series on sled dogs, remain popular today.

Source: Alaska Journal of Commerce

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