Cruising to Alaska has a long history that all started with a single ship, the Willapa.
In 1894, thanks to the growth of Alaska’s fishing and cannery business, the Alaska Steamship Company (ASC) was born. Charles Peabody, Capt. George Roberts, Capt. Melville Nichols, George Lent, Frank Burns and Walter Oakes formed the company that would eventually enjoy a near monopoly of freight and passenger service to Alaska.
The group’s timing was impeccable. Just three years later, Alaska, then an organized territory, began reaping the economic benefits of the Yukon gold rush after gold was discovered along the Klondike River near Dawson City, Canada.
ASC initially ran service between Skagway and Seattle. A second company, the Northwest Steamship Co., serviced Valdez, Cook Inlet and the Bering Sea ports. The Alaska Syndicate, with funds from J.P. Morgan and the Guggenheim Co., bought both companies in 1909 and retained the ASC name, increasing the fleet to 18 ships and expanding service to ports from Ketchikan to Kotzebue.
The ships primarily hauled fish and minerals until the late 1930s, when many of the mines closed and fishing became a seasonal operation.
ASC never quite recovered.
The company’s 15 vessels were taken over by the federal government in 1942 to augment the war effort. In 1953, the company expanded into container service, but due to high fuel and insurance costs, increased competition and union demands, the company was forced to shut down. It officially ceased operations in January 1971.