The story of the Alaska Marine Highway System starts with three men who had a dream to provide dependable marine transportation between Alaska's coastal communities. That dream expanded to become the only marine route recognized as a National Scenic Byway and All-American Road. The system currently extends across 3,500 miles of scenic coastline and provides service to over 30 communities, each with their own unique intrinsic qualities.
The Founding Years: 1948 - 1962
MV Chilkoot (+)
MV Chilkoot (-)
In 1948, Haines residents Steve Homer, Ray and Gustav Gelotte set up a company named Chilkoot Motorship Lines and purchased the MV Chilkoot, an ex-US Navy landing craft. Their first year proved challenging, but they were able to haul the first bus north as one of the first charters over the highway to Anchorage. The Board of Road Commissioners supported Chilkoot Motorship Lines and provided funding for three wood ramps to be built at Tee Harbor, Haines, and Skagway. The ramps were in service at the beginning of 1949.
Territory Purchases Business (+)
Territory Purchases Business (-)
After a couple years of service, Chilkoot Motorship Lines faced bankruptcy. Due to snow levels closing the road to Haines between October and May 15 they were not able to operate year-round. They tried to secure contracts with mines in the winter months in order to be profitable; however, these contracts fell through. As news traveled that the service may be discontinued, the Territorial Government came forward and offered to purchase the business. After thoughtful consideration the owners decided to sell Chilkoot Motorship Lines to the territory of Alaska in June 1951.
MV Chilkat (+)
MV Chilkat (-)
The MV Chilkoot soon proved to be too small. On April 18, 1957 the MV Chilkat began daily service between Juneau, Haines and Skagway. On January 3, 1959 Alaska became the 49th state, making MV Chilkat the first state-owned ferry. The first Alaska Legislature meeting in 1959 approved the Alaska Ferry Transportation Act. That same year, voters approved bond issues totaling $18 million to expand the ferry fleet. These bonds enabled the state to commission four new vessels and build docks throughout Southeast Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula.
The Beginning of AMHS: 1963 - 1964
MV Malaspina, MV Taku & MV Matanuska
MV Malaspina, MV Taku & MV Matanuska (-)
In 1963 the Division of Marine Transportation was formally established, founding the Alaska Marine Highway System, three ships were added to the fleet and five communities gained service. The MV Chilkat was joined by the MV Malaspina, MV Taku and MV Matanuska and ferry service extended to Ketchikan, Petersburg, Sitka, Wrangell, and Prince Rupert, BC. In January, MV Malaspina was brought online with primary routes in Southeast, followed by MV Taku in April and MV Matanuska in June. This increased service gave Alaskans access to goods and services of neighboring communities and the Canadian connection provided a link to the railroad and highway.
First Port Calls (+)
First Port Calls (-)
On January 23, 1963, MV Malaspina arrived in Ketchikan causing a traffic jam as residents clamored to see their first ferry. Betty J. Marksheffel, a Ketchikan resident, wrote, "I was looking out the window and saw the Malaspina in Tongass Narrows. Something happened at that moment – THE FEELING OF ISOLATION WENT AWAY! – as I watched the ship coming up the channel. We could take our car, or walk onboard, and GO SOMEWHERE!!!! Our highway had arrived!" As the Malaspina headed north through Southeast Alaska the excitement swelled. In its first year the fleet successfully transported 16,000 vehicles and 83,000 passengers.
MV Tustumena (+)
MV Tustumena (-)
By 1964 the focus turned to providing service to Southwest Alaska. The fourth new ferry MV Tustumena "Trusty Tusty" came online with a home port of Kodiak. It was built with an elevator capable of loading and unloading vehicles without a ramp, regardless of tide levels, and is used in communities where a dedicated ramp loading directly into the car deck is not available. The MV Tustumena is the smallest AMHS vessel with cabins and is accredited as an ocean-going vessel, a classification it shares only with the MV Kennicott.
Adding South Central & Southwest Alaska (+)
Adding South Central & Southwest Alaska (-)
In 1964, Kodiak, Cordova, Homer, Seldovia, Valdez, and Seward were added to the system and serviced by the MV Tustumena. As service extended to additional communities, Alaskans gained access to not only their coastal neighbors, but to other parts of North America – and at a price that was often more reasonable than other forms of transportation. In 1964, the first year of service for both Southeast and Southwest Alaska, AMHS had a total of 5 ferries and 16 ports of call and provided service to more than 100,000 passengers and nearly 22,000 vehicles.
Expansion: 1965 — 1973
Expanding South (+)
Expanding South (-)
By 1967, the state of Alaska was looking to expand service down to the "Lower 48." The southern terminus of the original route was Prince Rupert and the state was not interested in expanding further south since the Canadian ferries served this purpose. However, problems with the Canadian ferry system and rockslides on the highway out of Prince Rupert finally convinced Alaska to create an alternate route and move the terminus south. Seattle and Bellingham held a spirited battle to be the terminus of the new service and Seattle won the bid.
Expanding North (+)
Expanding North (-)
In 1968 Port Lions, Tatitlek and Whittier were added to the system and on May 21, MV Chilkat began a Valdez to Whittier run. This created a ferry-rail link with the Alaska Railroad in order to shuttle vehicles between Portage and Whittier, allowing access to the highway system closer to Anchorage. It also provided a connection for Anchorage residents to the Richardson Highway via Valdez. By 1968, traffic levels exceeded 130,000 passengers and 39,000 vehicles.
MV Wickersham (+)
MV Wickersham (-)
In 1968, the state purchased a new ocean-going vessel for just under $7 million to run between Seattle, Washington and Southeast Alaska. It was originally built by A/S Langesund Mekaniske Verksted in Norway and was called the Stena Britannica. Once purchased by the state of Alaska, the ship was rechristened the MV Wickersham, after Alaska judge and political leader James Wickersham. Due to complications of operating this foreign built vessel, she was put up for sale in 1973 and sold to Rederi AB Sally (Sally Line) in 1974 who renamed her Viking 6. MV Wickersham was scrapped in 2001.
MV E.L. Bartlett
MV E.L. Bartlett (-)
In 1969, the MV E.L. Bartlett was added to the fleet and reached Prince William Sound on July 1. During its years of service, its primary ports were Valdez, Whittier, Tatitlek, and Cordova. It was named after Senator Edward Lewis "Bob" Bartlett who served as Alaska's Territorial Delegate to Congress from 1945-1959. The MV E.L. Bartlett was 177'1" long and had a beam of 53'. Its service speed was 12 knots and could carry 236 passengers and 29 vehicles.
Lengthening Vessels (+)
Lengthening Vessels (-)
In 1969, MV Tustumena was expanded by 56 feet to make her overall length 296 feet. This enabled the vessel to better handle rough waters and to increase the number of staterooms and vehicle capacity. The expansion included bow thrusters, larger electrical generators, and an enclosed sundeck. Similarly, in 1972 the MV Malaspina and in 1978 the MV Matanuska, were lengthened by 56 feet to make their overall length 408 feet, increasing both passenger and vehicle capacity on these vessels.
Increased Capacity & Additional Ports: 1974 - 1989
MV LeConte, MV Columbia & MV Aurora (+)
MV LeConte, MV Columbia & MV Aurora (-)
Due to the passage of bonds in 1966 and 1970, the state expanded the fleet to include MV LeConte and MV Columbia in 1974, and MV Aurora in 1977. MV LeConte was commissioned with a homeport of Juneau and MV Aurora with a homeport of Hoonah. The small size of these vessels made them able to provide service to small ports such as Angoon, Pelican, and Tenakee Springs. On July 5, 1974 MV Columbia was acquired with a homeport of Ketchikan. MV Columbia is the largest vessel of the fleet, and until 2004 was also the fastest.
New Southeast Ports & Aleutian Chain Run (+)
New Southeast Ports & Aleutian Chain Run (-)
New ships and increased capacity meant new ports of call. Therefore, the communities of Hoonah, Kake, Metlakatla, Pelican, Angoon, and Tenakee Springs were added to the system in 1970 through 1979. In 1979, MV Tustumena initiated service along the Alaska Peninsula to False Pass, King Cove, and Sand Point. In 1983 and 1984, Chignik, Cold Bay and Dutch Harbor were added to the system. In 1993, Akutan was added, completing the Aleutian Chain run.
MV Chilkat Sold (+)
MV Chilkat Sold (-)
After a long history serving the communities of coastal Alaska, the original "Blue Canoe", the MV Chilkat was sold in 1988. The MV Chilkat was 99 feet long and could carry 59 passengers and 15 vehicles and served the coastal communities of Alaska for over 30 years. After being anchored in different harbors and sold several times over the years, sources indicate that the MV Chilkat is currently being used as a scallop boat.
New Southern Terminus (+)
New Southern Terminus (-)
On September 29, 1989, MV Columbia made its last sailing from Seattle's Pier 48. On October 4, the Washington port and southern terminus moved to Bellingham and the MV Matanuska made the first service call from that port. The ship carried the body of the founder of Chilkoot Motorship Lines, Steve Homer, to his final resting place in Haines. On October 6, 1989, MV Columbia made the first scheduled sailing out of Bellingham.
National Acclaim: 1990 - 2012
MV Kennicott (+)
MV Kennicott (-)
In 1998, MV Kennicott was commissioned with the homeport of Valdez. The MV Kennicott can be transformed into a command center for emergency teams responding to an oil spill, something that was essential following the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster. The unique vessel design includes a helicopter landing pad, a floating dock that's stored below deck, decontamination showers, and additional communications. The MV Kennicott proved to be a very seaworthy and versatile vessel, and for the first time connected the "Lower 48" with South Central Alaska. Due to the addition of the Cross Gulf route, the community of Yakutat gained service in 1998.
National Scenic Byway & All-American Road
National Scenic Byway & All-American Road (-)
The Alaska Marine Highway gained federal recognition in 2002, when it was named a National Scenic Byway for its scenic, cultural, and archaeological qualities. The Alaska communities served by the byway each have their own indigenous and modern culture, fascinating history and beautiful scenery. In 2005, the Alaska Marine Highway was named an All-American Road by the Federal Highway Administration, the highest designation awarded by the National Scenic Byway Program. It is the only marine route with the designation of National Scenic Byway and All-American Road.
MV E.L. Bartlett Sold (+)
MV E.L. Bartlett Sold (-)
In 2003, MV E.L. Bartlett was decommissioned and sold to All Alaskan Seafoods on eBay. It would have cost between $5 million and $6 million to outfit the ferry to satisfy new federal safety regulations that were to take effect on October 1 of that year. The regulations would have required the MV E.L. Bartlett to be outfitted with evacuation chutes and motorized rescue boats. In 2008, the vessel was donated by Lloyd Cannon to the Seattle Maritime Academy.
MV Lituya, FVF Fairweather & FVF Chenega (+)
MV Lituya, FVF Fairweather & FVF Chenega (-)
In 2004, MV Lituya was commissioned with a home port of Metlakatla making it the first shuttle ferry dedicated to a single route. In that same year, FVF Fairweather began service with a homeport of Juneau. Then in 2005, FVF Chenega was commissioned with a homeport of Cordova. FVFs Fairweather and Chenega were the first all-aluminum high-speed vehicle and passenger ferries built in the United States, as well as the first vehicle ferries built in the U.S. to comply with stringent International High Speed Craft code.
Additional Ports (+)
Additional Ports (-)
On November 23, 2010, Gustavus, the Gateway to Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve, was added. On April 27, 2012 Ouzinkie, located on Spruce Island just north of Kodiak, became part of the system. And, on June 18, 2012 Old Harbor, an area that is thought to have been inhabited for nearly 2,000 years, also gained service. The addition of these communities meant that the Alaska Marine Highway System provided service to 35 communities going into its 50th Anniversary.
50 Years & Counting: 2013 - Present
Celebrating 50 Years (+)
Celebrating 50 Years (-)
To commemorate the 50th Anniversary, the Alaska Marine Highway embarked on a year-long celebration highlighting the history of the system including the vessels operated and the communities serviced. Overall, celebrations were held in 15 communities, including Cordova, Prince Rupert, Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau, Haines, Skagway, Pelican, Seldovia, Unalaska, Valdez, Whittier, Bellingham, and Sitka, as well as in Fairbanks and Anchorage. In addition, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough kicked off the anniversary with a proclamation honoring 50 years of service, and Alaska's congressional delegation also entered statements into the Congressional Record.
In the Spotlight (+)
In the Spotlight (-)
Throughout the Golden Anniversary, the Alaska Marine Highway received incredible press coverage. Providing public television programming throughout Alaska, 360 North and KTOO helped launch the 50th anniversary with a new documentary featuring the history of AMHS from its inception. From local Alaska outlets such as the Juneau Empire, Alaska Journal of Commerce, Petersburg Pilot, and KTVA Channel 11 to farther reaching sources such as The Oregonian, The Bellingham Herald, Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times the coverage was overwhelmingly positive. Additionally, Lands' End featured the crew of the MV Malaspina in their business outfitters catalogue which launched in October.
Alaska Class Ferries (+)
Alaska Class Ferries (-)
The State of Alaska is well on its way to building two new Alaska Class Ferries. The keels were laid at the Vigor Shipyard in Ketchikan on December 13, 2014. The ferries are scheduled for delivery in the spring and fall of 2019. The Alaska Class Ferry will serve Juneau, Haines, and Skagway and operate as a day boat, with the second one based in Prince William Sound. The vessels will be 280 feet long and carry 300 passengers and 53 vehicles.
MV Tustumena Replacement Project (+)
MV Tustumena Replacement Project (-)
In 2014, the Alaska Marine Highway began the process to design a MV Tustumena replacement vessel. The importance of building a replacement vessel for the MV Tustumena became a focus for the state following a major service interruption in 2013. Retiring and replacing the MV Tustumena with a vessel that is at least as versatile and seaworthy is vital for the future of the communities, residents, and businesses it serves.
Looking forward the Alaska Marine Highway System continues to stay committed to maintaining the infrastructure of the system and the condition of the ships. We are grateful for the support that Alaskans and visitors have shown us throughout the years.