Ketchikan is a coastal community and U.S. port of entry on the north shore of Tongass Narrows, on the southern coast of Revillagigedo Island, about 88 miles (142 km) northwest of Prince Rupert and 84 miles (135 km) south-southeast of Wrangell, Alaska. Tongass Narrows is a water passage between Gravina and Revillagigedo Islands that extends for 14 miles (23 km) from Clarence Strait in the northwest to Nichols Passage in the southeast. The passage constricts to only 1,056 feet (322 m) wide at the city of Ketchikan. It is part of the Inside Passage, an inland water route through Southeast Alaska and western British Columbia to northwestern Washington State. Many types of vessels operate in the narrows including cruise ships, charter and commercial fishing vessels, as well as commercial freight barges and passenger ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway system. There is also considerable floatplane traffic since Ketchikan is the regional center for air transportation to isolated communities. A small passenger ferry crosses the narrows providing a connection between Revillagigedo Island and the airport on Gravina Island. Revillagigedo Island is about 50 miles (89 km) north-south and 35 miles (48 km) east-west. The island is separated from the Alaska mainland to the east by Behm Canal, from Prince of Wales Island to the west by Clarence Strait, and from Annette Island to the south by Revillagigedo Channel and Nichols Passage. The island is a traditional Tlingit territory, and by the 19th century was divided between the Saanyaa Ḵwáan and Taantʼa Ḵwáan people. The first recorded European to sight the island was Spanish explorer Jacinto Caamaño in 1792. The following year the island was named by Captain George Vancouver for Juan Vicente de Güemes, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo, then viceroy of New Spain (Mexico). The only permanent communities on the island are Ketchikan, Ward Cove, and Saxman, although the historical community of Loring is also on the island. The principal island industries are fishing and fish processing, logging, and tourism. In addition to the permanent communities, several floating logging communities are based on barges, which move about the waterways and connect to the system of logging roads that spread across the island and have access to the waterfront.
Ketchikan Creek is a stream on Revillagigedo Island that starts in Ketchikan Lake and flows 6 miles (9.7 km) to Tongass Narrows. Generations of Tlingit people used the area around Ketchikan Creek for summer fishing camps, but archeological evidence indicates that only a handful lived in the area year-round. The name ‘Ketchikan’ comes from the Tlingit name for the creek, ‘Kitschk-hin’, the meaning of which is unclear. In modern Tlingit, this name is rendered as ‘Kichx̱áan’. At the time of the Alaska Purchase in 1867, the Hudson’s Bay Company had an unoccupied trading post at Wrangell at the mouth of the Stikine River and another at Fort Simpson at the mouth of the Nass River in British Columbia. In 1868, the U.S. Army occupied the post at Wrangell and built Fort Tongass on Tongass Island near Dixon Entrance. In 1879, the missionary Sheldon Jackson, on a canoe trip from Fort Wrangell to Fort Simpson, reported the presence of a white homesteader named Morrison in Tongass Narrows. In the early 1880s, fishermen started arriving to develop the salmon and herring fisheries. In 1883, a man from Oregon named Snow started a salmon saltery in Tongass Narrows but it burned down and was not rebuilt. That same year, a salmon cannery was built in Loring, about 25 miles (40 km) north of Tongass Narrows, and a settlement quickly grew into the dominant community in the area. Also, that same year, M.J. Kinney of Astoria, Oregon built a cannery at Boca de Quadra which operated under the name of Cape Fox Packing from 1883 to 1886. In the winter of 1886, Kinney sold the operation to fellow Astorian Captain A.W. Berry who relocated the entire operation to Tongass Narrows near a large salmon stream, at the time named Fish Creek. In 1888, the cannery was sold and renamed the Tongass Packing Company and packed 11,000 cases of salmon using mostly Chinese labor. In 1889, the cannery packed 13,000 cases before a fire destroyed the facility and its dock in August. The cannery was not rebuilt but its foreman, named George Clark decided to stay on in the tiny collection of shacks that had grown up around the cannery. Clark had reportedly been in Alaska for many years, prospecting before going to work at the new cannery. He teamed with another Oregonian, Irish immigrant Michael Martin, to build a saltery north of the cannery site and a general store. Martin had been sent north by an Oregon cannery company to investigate the potential for fishing operations in the new Alaska territory. At some point, Martin would end up with the legal title to much of the property on the west bank of Ketchikan Creek. Clark would end up with much of the property on the east side of the creek. Clark and Martin gradually expanded their saltery operations and opened a second saltery back in Boca de Quadra. By 1894, both salteries were packing 4,000 barrels of salmon a year, with 2,500 barrels coming from Ketchikan. In 1898, Clark and Martin were using a drag seine and taking as many 500,000 pink salmon a year from the mouth of Ketchikan Creek.
In the mid-1890s, the local mining industry began to develop and prospectors were probing the hills around Ketchikan for gold, silver, and other minerals. Clark and Martin’s store was doing a good business providing supplies for the miners. In 1898, more than 100,000 gold seekers flooded Alaska on their way to the Yukon, and Ketchikan was a regular stopping point for vessels following the Inside Passage. Also in 1898, the Seattle Hardware Company sent Willis Bryant north to take over the operations of Clark and Martin’s store and it became the Tongass Trading Company. In 1899, Clark deeded his property on the east side of the creek to Henry C. Strong. By 1900, Ketchikan was the center of the area mining operations and nearly 1,000 people lived in the community during the summer. There was a lingering dispute with fishermen from Loring over who controlled the fish in the Ketchikan area which led to the incorporation of the city, and Mike Martin was elected the first mayor. In 1903, most of the area along Ketchikan Creek was part of the Venetia Lode mining claim that included surface trenching, adits, shafts, drill holes, and geological mapping. In 1911, the mining claim was patented and there were at least seven houses of prostitution within its boundaries. Low mineral prices eventually stalled the mining industry and the area became famous for prostitution and bootleg liquor sales during Prohibition. Salmon canneries proliferated, mostly using fish traps to catch salmon, and at its peak in the late 1920s and early 1930s, more than a dozen salmon canneries operated along the Tongass Narrows waterfront. By 1936, seven canneries were in operation, producing 1.5 million cases of salmon per year. The need for lumber for new cannery construction and packing boxes kept the Ketchikan Spruce Mills operating for over 70 years. During World War II, spruce was in high demand and Ketchikan became a supply center for area logging. In 1954, a pulp mill was constructed at Ward Cove near Ketchikan and its operation fueled the growth of the community. In 1997, the mill’s 50-year contract with the U.S. Forest Service for timber was canceled and the pulp mill closed. See a video of the timber industry in the Ketchikan area here. Read more here and here. Explore more of Ketchikan here: