Sitnews - Stories In the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


The when, where and why of it

By June Allen


April 09, 2003
Wednesday - 10:45 pm

It's an honest question: "Why does Ketchikan have a tunnel that has a street running around the side of it? And houses on top of it?" Tourists rarely notice the tunnel, except to ask what's on the other side. And unless it's pointed out to them, tourists don't notice that the houses perched atop the tunnel are obviously much older - some of them half a

South portal of the Tunnel during construction, 1953
Donor: Evelyn Valentine, THS

Photo Courtesy Ketchikan Museums
century older - than the tunnel directly beneath their foundations. Maybe locals don't notice that curious fact either.

It really is a bit odd: Which came first, the tunnel or the street? The street came first, 52 years before the tunnel. But maybe it would be more exact to call that short stretch of Water Street around the side of the tunnel a "viaduct," or maybe a "bridge," because it is built over water.

But Ketchikan's unique 274-foot tunnel, with its completion date 1954 incised above its concrete entrance, is much more than one of the town's landmarks and a tourist curiosity. It is also a stone and concrete monument to the memorable mid-'50's. The tunnel and its companion little street are just a small parts of a much larger story, the tale of a little town that was changed completely - physically and economically - by a stroke of President Harry S. Truman's fountain pen!

That shoulder of rock that divides Downtown from Newtown (originally New Town) is called Knob Hill. Newtown c1900 is almost as old as Downtown c1890. Downtown had the deeper water and thus the docks that could service ocean vessels. Newtown got even with the first small boat harbor. But for both sides of the city, the Knob Hill shoulder jutting out into the water was an obstruction, a barrier and a hurdle to commerce and cooperation. There were only two ways to get from one side of town to the other: Via boat, or via the Skyline trail across the top of the knob - a once much-used trail that still exists.

By 1902 the differences between the two sides of town had been smoothed out via the Incorporation of Ketchikan as a city and by mutual cooperation. The new common council voted to build a 10-foot sidewalk from the intersection of Grant and Front Streets to Newtown, a distance of about 1200 feet. Property owners along the right-of-way were assessed at the rate of 25 cents per foot of frontage. The job was let for $1210.

That 10-foot-wide planked sidewalk was adequate for horse-drawn drays and foot traffic. But by 1916 Henry Ford had infiltrated Ketchikan and "the sidewalk" was improved and shored up to accommodate motor traffic. The new plank street was inaugurated during a ceremony in which then-Mayor Heneghan was a passenger in one of the town's first Model Ts, a horseless carriage that chugged from downtown to Newtown in a celebratory parade. Also that year, the stretch of new Tongass Avenue from Talbot's corner to join with the West End was completed. It was named for Tongass Trading Co., which had opened a branch store just beyond Talbot's. This was all called Progress, and it was, for the times.

By the 1920s, the progress celebrated in 1916 had come full force to Ketchikan. Not only were women's ankles being seen, so were their knees, knees that kicked and shimmied in the newest dance crazes - and all that jazz! There was a section of Upper Creek Street that became an intellectual hotbed of young men devoted to the muses of the modern world - of pot, poetry, music and song. The movies had become big business! Every home had a radio!

The times were prosperous. Mining struggled to make a comeback, but meanwhile commercial fisheries and seafood canneries were booming. Captain's Hill was created along upper Water Street and the town grew along a new Park Avenue. Much-increased tourism had grown as World War I vessels were converted into cruise ships; passengers trooped through Ketchikan, staring at totem poles and ogling the boisterous ladies along Creek Street - Ketchikan's notorious red-light district along Creek Street had never been busier. And Alaska's 1917 Prohibition had a created an entrenched and prosperous if illicit industry of its own.

There is a saying that all good things must come to an end. And it was the stock market crash of 1929 that ushered in the end of all that national and local affluence. The economic downturn was slow to move north but by 1932 Ketchikan was in the grips of the worst of the Depression. Fish piracy picked up as people struggled to make ends meet. Ketchikan folks said they ate so many clams that their stomachs could tell if the tide was in or out. Ketchikan had faced hard times before, but the Great Depression tested the strength of everyone. Spirits were low. And to make matters worse, the end of the fabulous salmon runs and cannery heydays were just around the corner.

With the end of Prohibition in 1933, a few bars opened their doors, but few people had the money to spend for drink. To try to encourage patrons, the bar owners tried radio music to cheer them up. But the city fathers banned radios as they would later ban juke boxes, believing that music would lead to rowdy and unacceptable behavior. Only Creek Street's red-light businesses continued at their own merry pace, but the bulk of Creek Street's patrons came from in-port fishing vessels. Ketchikan's gay blade youth couldn't afford that sinful luxury.

North portal of the new Ketchikan Tunnel, 1954
Photographer: Paulu Toivo Saari
Donor: City of Ketchikan, THS
Photo courtesy Ketchikan Museums

There was only one hope. The 17-million-acre Tongass forest - the largest of the nation's national forests - had been created in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt. The Forest Service had been a welcome presence in Ketchikan since early in the century, the first pair of Rangers and their boat based first in the old building that now houses the Arctic Bar on Water Street. A modest forest products industry was necessary to the canned salmon industry. Through the prosperous '20s and into the Depression years of the '30s the U.S. Forest Service had struggled hard to initiate a forest products industry in the new Tongass National Forest.

The Rangers faced a tough task trying to create such an industry in Alaska, of all places. When the Depression hit, there were fewer than 60,000 people in all of Alaska, and only 3,800 in Ketchikan. By the time a second world war threatened, the 1940 census count for Alaska was only 72,000 and 4,700 or so in Ketchikan. With the exception of a handful of years after the Alaska Gold Rush, the federal government had cared little or nothing about far-distant Alaska or Alaskans since the days of "Seward's Folly" and "Walrussia." Politicians tend to measure populations in the volume of votes (and Alaskans couldn't even vote for President before Statehood in 1959!)

Then came World War II. It is hard for anyone born after that war to grasp the enormity of the changes it made in American life! Technology grew by leaps and bounds during the war, even beyond imagination. And after the war, American lifestyles changed, became increasing mobile. The extended family became the individual family as people moved to new locations to settle and raise families. There would be rapid and challenging changes in occupation, in dress and deportment, in music and literature. There also came the Baby Boom, when populations grew at an unprecedented pace. And all those changes reached right into Alaska, too.

After a European and a Pacific war, Alaska didn't seem nearly so far away to Congress! That was especially true after the shock of seeing Japanese forces invade and occupy two of Alaska Aleutian Islands - mere stepping stones to the Pacific Northwest coast. That Alaska theater of war was short-lived, but it made it clear to the nation that the world was indeed much smaller than before. It became important for Alaska to grow, for industry to be developed to aid that growth.

Ketchikan desperately needed industry! The fisheries had declined to dangerous levels, mining was merely a memory, and tourism was limited to calls from a few ships per month. Ketchikan's population showed little growth. But in 1947 President Harry Truman signed the Tongass Timber bill. It meant that a pulp products industry was coming, to be established at about Mile 5 North Tongass. And gears began to turn. Rapidly.

In anticipation of a population explosion not only temporary construction workers but also of permanent mill workers, there would be a need for housing, new streets for that housing, a large new school and other facilities. Construction vehicles were much larger and heavier than those of pre-war days. Ketchikan's wooden streets would have to be improved, paved and made able to carry more and heavier traffic. Even paved Front Street, the first paved street in all of Alaska back in 1920, had been designed to be just wide enough for two Model Ts. Newtown's Water Street had a sign that suggested going slow and honking for oncoming traffic.

There was much to be done and the Forest Service got busy. Before the end of 1947 residential North Point Higgins and its spur roads had been punched through the woods. In 1948 work began on South Point Higgins and its spur roads and was completed in 1949 by Art Almquist Construction. Plans were in place to continue spur roads at Pond Reef and Totem Bight.

In July of 1949 a public drawing was held and beach lots were awarded. Recreational sites, school sites, and church and public service sites were set aside and accessed. During that year, 164 miles of foot trails were maintained, recreation improvements made at Bugge Beach, Ward Lake, Knudson Cove, and Saxman. Parking places were made at all those sites plus at Clover Pass Church. In those short years before the opening of the pulp mill, the three high rise apartment buildings were built - the West End's Marine View and Tongass Towers, and downtown the Mary Frances Apartments as well as the Deer Mountain Apartments. Dock facilities were being improved, a new West End high school was under construction, and work was ready to begin on the tunnel.

A change had suddenly come to Ketchikan that caught the city off guard. The economy of Ketchikan experienced a sudden, complete change! What had been a charge-book economy with payment due at the Labor Day end of the season had become a cash-on-the barrel-head financial system that would never go back to the old ways. The easy-going small town ways became a thing of the past.

The tunnel was built not to replace but to augment and share increased and heavier traffic around the small portion of Water Street at the base of Knob Hill. That short Water Street viaduct would serve traffic while the tunnel was being blasted through the rock and then a completed tunnel would carry traffic while the Water Street section's foundation was strengthened. Work began. The houses atop Knob Hill were temporarily vacated and their windows boarded up before the blasting began. Families moved to temporary quarters.

And of course, as with any such project, there was considerable discomfort for the citizenry! The town's first traffic light was installed at the mouth of the tunnel-to-be. Work began on the underpinnings of Water Street - a seawall had to built beneath it. There were times during the construction period when traffic would be halted at either end of the tunnel for long periods of time. People began to carry blankets, reading material and snacks in the their cars. The downtown corner of Front and Grant Streets became a sort of gathering center, with people switching from one halted car to another, to visit with friends during long delays. KPU maintained a "tunnel hotline" telephone line on which an operator could tell callers the latest estimates of delay time on the project.

All these jobs, high wages and activity were not without their downsides. The cramped Creek Street red-light district spread out into the city proper and business boomed. Prostitution brings with it its own kinds of problems, like pimps, muggings, thefts and assaults. At the same time, a number of brand new licensed beverage outlets - bars - opened to serve the increased population. That in itself increased the need for a larger police presence.

But in that year of 1953, while the tunnel construction was under way and the mill at Wards Cove was due to open during the following year, something else happened. The red-light district and any other like entrepreneurs found themselves out of business, permanently. Part of the city rejoiced and part mourned the passing of an era - yet another change of the coming of the mill.

The logging on the forest and the operation of the pulp mill in Ketchikan lasted for almost 50 years, for almost the length of the original mill contract with the Forest Service. However, in 1970 a national Earth Day heralded the beginning of a brand new era of conservation and then preservation. The mill closed in 1997. Ketchikan's economy sagged and still hangs suffering except during the cruise ship tourist summer seasons.

But Ketchikan will survive as it always has, with the cooperation and support of a positive, cooperative, open-minded populace. The town's only enemies are anger, suspicion, prejudice and selfishness. Like a literary hero, Ketchikan will prevail.



Heidi and Dave: Is this what you wanted to know when you asked me the questions about the tunnel?



Copyright © 2003 June Allen
All rights reserved.
Not to be reprinted in any form without the written permission of June Allen.


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