Leaving Timber Behind, An Alaska Town Turns To Tourism

May 17, 2017
Originally published on May 18, 2017 2:13 pm

What happens to a town when a key industry collapses?

Sometimes it dies. But sometimes it finds a way to reinvent itself.

Case in point: Ketchikan, Alaska, where the demise of the timber industry has led to a radical transformation.

Many people who used to earn their livelihoods through timber have now turned to jobs in tourism.

It's an identity shift that makes the city far different from what it was in the logging heyday.

"It was this boomtown!" says longtime Ketchikan resident Eric Collins. "It was just a crazy, wild frontier place."

Now, it's a tourism magnet. Ketchikan is expecting 1 million visitors this summer. They'll flow into town off as many as six giant cruise ships a day.

To give a sense of scale, figure that the borough of Ketchikan is home to about 13,000 people. In just one day, Ketchikan may see 13,000 cruise ship visitors.

"We'll double in population for eight hours," says Harbormaster Dave Dixon as he waits dockside for the morning's first arrival.

Each season, he braces for the tourists' questions that might come his way:

"Can we see polar bears here?" (Um, no, that would be more than 1,000 miles away, in the Arctic.)

And this humdinger: "Is Alaska part of the United States?" (Well, yes, since it became a state in 1959.)

"Kind of unexpected that someone would ask me that," Dixon says with a chuckle, noting that he's pretty sure the question came from an American. "Maybe geography class was not their high point."

Ketchikan sits on an island at the southernmost end of southeast Alaska, a prime spot for cruise ships navigating Alaska's Inside Passage. The landscape is spectacular: snow-capped mountains, glaciers descending into narrow fjords, and all around, the dense Tongass National Forest. At 17 million acres (bigger than West Virginia), the Tongass is the largest national forest in the U.S.

For many decades, the spruce, hemlock and cedar trees of the Tongass have also been a source of timber for the logging industry. At its peak, logging camps dotted the islands of southeast Alaska, and pulp mills were robust economic drivers of the region.

One by one, those pulp mills shut down, faced with global competition, new environmental regulations, lawsuits and fines for pollution violations.

Ketchikan's pulp mill was the last one still operating in Alaska when it shut down in 1997. Hundreds of good-paying jobs and the businesses that supported them went with it.

For some, it's been an uncomfortable transition. "We don't know who we are anymore," Collins says. "We had shoe stores in Ketchikan. We had work clothes stores in Ketchikan. We had a Chevy dealer and a Ford dealer. They're all gone."

What's replaced them? Lots of jewelry and watch stores, some of them owned by the cruise ship companies themselves. Also, souvenir and gift shops, as well as local tour operations.

The newer businesses provide seasonal retail work, but it's nowhere near as well paid as the old jobs: Those were year-round, "family-sustaining jobs," Collins explains.

Now, he says, at the end of September, "within a few day period, the town will be boarded up downtown. Literally, most of the businesses will be closed. And then the people will leave town." The workers will head on to their winter seasonal work, maybe in Colorado or the Caribbean.

Collins has a long view of the logging industry, and of Ketchikan.

Some of his earliest memories are of the nearby logging camp where he lived with his family in the late 1960s.

They moved to Ketchikan when he was 9. It was the heyday of timber, and Collins knew that a good job in the industry would be waiting for him after high school.

It was. He started working on tugboats, bringing supplies to the logging camps and the Ketchikan pulp mill, and eventually he worked his way up to captain,

When the pulp mill shut down in '97, "it was crazy," Collins says. "People were leaving town as fast as they could. Property values plummeted. I remember foreclosures, auctions at the courthouse, people losing everything, not being able to get a job, and selling their houses and leaving town."

The company Collins worked for was in charge of cleaning out the logging camps and the pulp mill, and shutting them down.

"I ended up being the last employee, and I shut the lights out, " he says. "Left the office, turned out the lights and went home, started my new job."

Collins is now a cruise ship pilot, steering those giant tour vessels into Ketchikan.

He loves his work, but still, he says, "I miss tugboats. Tugboater at heart."

Back on the Ketchikan dock, Harbormaster Dave Dixon spies the morning's first arrival hoving into port.

"Yep! There they are," he says, as he watches Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam cruise ship sidle to the dock, with some 2,000 passengers aboard.

The ship looks like a floating skyscraper, the length of three football fields.

When the gangplank is lowered, the tourists march ashore and find a gaggle of tour operators waiting to entice them with local offerings:

"The world's largest totem poles!"

"An all-you-can-eat Dungeness crab feast!"

"Active eagle nests, seals, a chance for killer whales and humpbacks!"

And if the tourists want a theatrical taste of the industry that used to fuel Ketchikan, they can go watch timber sports at the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, where burly competitors in flannel shirts and suspenders chop stumps, saw logs, and heave axes at a bullseye.

The "Our Land" series is produced by Elissa Nadworny.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now we're going to hear a story of reinvention. When a city or town sees its main industry collapse, it can die or learn to survive in a new way. Ketchikan in Southeast Alaska used to depend on timber. In 1997, Ketchikan's big pulp mill shut down. Hundreds of good-paying jobs went with it. The city found new life by embracing tourism. NPR's Melissa Block has this report for her series Our Land.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: When we first get there, Ketchikan's a really sleepy place. Jewelry and gift stores are closed, their windows papered over.

SARKES SOLOMON: We're not open.

BLOCK: But in just another couple of days...

SOLOMON: It's going to look like Disneyland for grown-up people.

BLOCK: I find Sarkes Solomon in a last-minute frenzy, unpacking cartons of fur coats at the store he manages.

SOLOMON: Because everybody's last hope is to make it to Alaska. And usually this is either their first stop or their last stop.

BLOCK: On a cruise ship, that is. This borough of about 13,000 people will welcome 1 million cruise ship tourists this season alone, as many as 13,000 visitors in a single day.

DAVE DIXON: We'll double in population for eight hours.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: That's Ketchikan harbormaster Dave Dixon. I find him out on the dock, waiting for the morning's first cruise ship to pull into port.

I'm picturing this as, like, a tidal surge. The - a ship comes in, a tide of tourists disgorges into the town, and then the tide goes out and off they go.

DIXON: Yes, it's very much like that.

BLOCK: It used to be so different here.

ERIC COLLINS: It was this boomtown. It was just a crazy, wild frontier place.

BLOCK: Eric Collins has a long view of the logging industry and Ketchikan. Some of his earliest memories are of the nearby logging camp where he lived with his family in the late '60s. They moved on to Ketchikan when he was 9. It was the heyday of timber.

COLLINS: We had shoe stores in Ketchikan. We had work clothes stores in Ketchikan. You know, we had a Chevy dealer and a Ford dealer. They're all gone.

BLOCK: What's replaced them? Well, jewelry stores - lots and lots of them, some owned by the cruise ship companies - souvenir and gift shops. It's seasonal retail work and nowhere near as well-paid as the old family-sustaining jobs, Collins tells me. At the end of September...

COLLINS: Within a few-day period the town will be boarded up downtown. I mean, literally most of the businesses will be closed. And then the people will leave town.

BLOCK: Collins' former job? He worked as a tugboat captain.

COLLINS: I miss tugboats. Tugboater at heart.

BLOCK: Yeah?

COLLINS: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah.

BLOCK: His job depended on the logging industry. The tugboats supplied the logging camps and the Ketchikan pulp mill. It was the last pulp mill left in Alaska when it closed in '97. It was facing global competition, as well as new environmental regulations, lawsuits and fines for pollution violations. More than 500 workers lost their jobs.

COLLINS: It was crazy. People were leaving town as fast as they could. Property values plummeted. I remember foreclosures, auctions at the courthouse, people losing everything, not being able to get a job and selling their houses and leaving town.

BLOCK: Collins' company was in charge of cleaning out the logging camps and the pulp mill, closing them down. He was the last one on the job. He tells me about an old company photograph that showed him and the other managers.

COLLINS: As things were declining and we were all going out of business, one of our engineers, Lyle (ph), started coloring the faces black as people lost their jobs and went away.

BLOCK: On that photograph.

COLLINS: On that photograph. And I symbolically colored my face black and shut the lights out and left the office, went home, started my new job.

BLOCK: That new job for this former tugboat captain?

COLLINS: So now I'm a cruise ship pilot.

BLOCK: That's right. Now Eric Collins steers those giant tourist ships into Ketchikan. Back on the dock...

DIXON: Yeah, there they are.

BLOCK: ...Harbormaster Dave Dixon spies the morning's first arrival hoving into port, Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam cruise ship. It looks like a floating skyscraper set against the snowy mountains that line Alaska's Inside Passage. The gangplank is lowered and 2,000 passengers march ashore with a gaggle of tour operators there to greet them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Welcome to Ketchikan.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We have two shows today, one at 11:15...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The world's largest totem pole.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: ...And one at 3 p.m.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: A chance for killer whales and humpbacks. It's way too early for bears this time of year.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You'll eat there. It's all-you-can-eat Dungeness crab feast.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: There's a good chance of seeing bears, eagles...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's a great way to see a little bit of everything.

BLOCK: And if the tourists want a taste of what Ketchikan used to be, they can go watch timber sports, where competitors chop, saw and throw axes at the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Here we go. Sawyers, ready? One, two, go.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAWS REVVING)

BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News, Ketchikan, Alaska.

(SOUNDBITE OF ISAAC HAYES' "HUNG UP ON MY BABY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.