The name Ketchikan comes from kitcxan, a Tlingit word meaning “where the eagle’s wings are,” a reference to the shape of a sand spit at the creek mouth. The sand spit was dredged in the 1930s to create Thomas Basin Boat Harbor. Rumor has it that several bodies were found then, and suspicious fingers were pointed toward the denizens of nearby Creek Street, the local red-light district.
One of Southeast Alaska’s youngest major towns, Ketchikan began when the first of many salmon canneries at the mouth of Ketchikan Creek opened in 1885. By the 1930s it had become the “Salmon Capital of the World” (13 canneries), and Alaska’s largest town. Overfishing caused salmon populations to crash in the 1940s, and the fishing industry was supplanted in the 1950s by a new pulp mill that turned the town into a major logging center.
For several decades Ketchikan’s pulp mill was the biggest employer in Southeast Alaska, processing spruce and hemlock for the production of rayon and cellophane. The pulp mill closed in 1997, just as Ketchikan’s economy shifted full-bore into tourism.
The big story today for Ketchikan—as in Juneau and Skagway—is cruise ships. More than 800,000 cruise ship travelers step onto Ketchikan’s docks annually, with four or five ships tied up along Tongass Narrows most summer days. The rough old downtown with its sawmill, flophouses, and bars has been transformed into rows of jewelry stores (63 at last count!) staffed by employees from the Caribbean, and trinket shops selling plastic totem poles and stuffed animals made in China.
Crossing guards at the intersections, horse-drawn wagon rides, amphibious “duck” tours, a pseudo-logging show, and thousands of cruise shippies add to what Edward Abbey labeled “industrial tourism.” It makes the cash registers ring, at least for those businesses willing to accept kickback deals with the cruise lines in exchange for promotion on board the ships.
Fortunately, the cruise ships generally depart by early evening, allowing locals and overnight visitors to rediscover this fascinating town.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition