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Preserve America is a national initiative in cooperation with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation; the U.S. Departments of Defense, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, and Education; the National Endowment for the Humanities; the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities; and the President's Council on Environmental Quality.

Preserve America Community Close-ups: Ketchikan, Alaska

The history of Ketchikan, Alaska (population 7,662) is intimately connected to its location, the surrounding environment, and the natural resources of the area. Ketchikan is located on the western coast of Revillagigedo Island, near the southernmost boundary of Alaska. It is 679 miles north of Seattle and 235 miles south of Juneau. The 2.2 million acre Misty Fiords National Monument lies 22 air miles east of Ketchikan. It is the first Alaska port of call for northbound cruise ships and state ferries. The area encompasses 3 square miles of land and 1 square mile of water.

Dreamboat Anne at City FloatNative Alaskan peoples, including the Tongass and Cape Fox Tlingits, historically used Ketchikan Creek as a fish camp which they called “kitschk-hin,” meaning creek of the “thundering wings of an eagle.” The abundant fish and timber resources eventually attracted non-natives to Ketchikan. In 1885, Mike Martin bought 160 acres from Chief Kyan, which later became the township. The first cannery opened in 1886 near the mouth of Ketchikan Creek.


After their cannery burned following the second season, Martin and his partner George Clark bought the land and established a ‘saltery’ (for salting and preserving fish) and general store. The Ketchikan Post Office was established in 1892. In the late 1890s, the Yukon gold rush led to extensive prospecting in the Ketchikan region as well as the town’s use as a mining supply center. The town of Ketchikan was incorporated in 1900. As mining activity declined, fishing became the leading industry. By the early 1930s, 13 canneries in Ketchikan produced more than 1.5 million cases of salmon a year. In this period, Ketchikan acquired the nickname “The Salmon Capital of the World” and was the largest city in Alaska. However, by the mid 20th century, overfishing depleted the salmon runs, but a large pulp mill helped rejuvenate the Ketchikan economy. Ketchikan is surrounded by portions of the Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest national forest (17 million acres), which was established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1907-1908 and expanded several times since. The need for lumber for new construction and packing boxes spawned the Ketchikan Spruce Mills in 1903, which operated for more than 70 years. Spruce was in high demand during World War II, and Ketchikan became a supply center for area logging. A $55 million pulp mill was constructed at Ward Cove near Ketchikan in 1954. Its operation fueled the growth of the community. Then the mill’s 50-year contract with the U.S. Forest Service for timber was canceled, and the pulp mill closed in March 1997.  

Ketchikan is the fifth largest city in Alaska, with fishing and seafood processing still a part of the local economy. Today, however, cultural arts and tourism are the major contributors to Ketchikan’s economy, with more than 1 million visitors arriving on cruise ships every summer. The nearby Misty Fiords National Monument, created in 1978 and mostly wilderness, is within the boundaries of the Tongass National Forest.  It is called “the Yosemite of the North” for its similar geology and glacier-formed valleys along the Pacific coast. 


Although tourism, including ecotourism, is the growing industry in Ketchikan, the community recognizes the need to respect and maintain the history and heritage of Ketchikan in order to make it a viable tourism destination. A public-private partnership in Ketchikan has recognized the need to highlight Ketchikan history and its Native art legacy, and support the local economy through cultural heritage, the arts, and the cruise ship industry. Ketchikan has been identified as one of the “Top 100 Small Arts Communities in the U.S.” by author and national community arts advocate John Villani. The city of Ketchikan itself is described as being “three miles long and three blocks wide,” as everything is close to the waterfront. The Waterfront Promenade project is a joint venture between Historic Ketchikan and the City of Ketchikan. The goals of the project include highlighting the maritime history of Ketchikan, providing a pleasant way for visitors and residents to transit from the waterfront to the downtown, and helping to accommodate the increased tourists brought to the city from the cruise ships. Along the promenade are historic structures that tell the history of Ketchikan from the early to mid 20th century. 

The City of Ketchikan received a Preserve America Grant in 2007 to assist with the Waterfront Promenade project. The grant, titled “Ketchikan Waterfront Wayfinding Project,” is aimed at enhancing awareness and understanding of Ketchikan’s past while providing orientation and direction to arriving visitors. The project includes informational kiosks located at each of the four cruise ships berths to provide walking times to historic sites, maps, and historic information. A second component of the project is wayfinding signage for eight major routes to major historic sites in Ketchikan. By making information about historic resources more visible and understandable, the project is expected to help increase visitor access and appreciation for the entire community and its heritage.  

Historic Ketchikan is a non-profit organization dedicated to economic development and historic preservation. It sponsors community development projects designed to preserve Ketchikan’s historic structures and historic character. Each year, Historic Ketchikan prints and distributes 150,000 walking tour brochures that highlight historic resources. In conjunction with the walking tour, Historic Ketchikan works to develop signs, information kiosks, and tour amenities to coincide with the walking tours.  


Historic Ketchikan’s Paint Up/Fix Up program provides direct assistance to building owners who need help in improving their properties. The program provides design assistance and free paint to historic property owners, who in turn help preserve the historic character of Ketchikan. Historic Ketchikan works with the property owner to decide a paint scheme to ensure it will fit within its surroundings. More than 150 properties have taken advantage of this program, thus improving the quality of historic properties overall in Ketchikan. 

Local preservation efforts in Ketchikan include the Ketchikan Historical Commission, created in 1988 to advise the city on historic preservation matters. Local citizens are appointed by the mayor to serve on the commission. Some of the activities conducted by the commission include surveys of historic properties, prepared National Register of Historic Places nominations, and development of draft historic preservation guidelines.  


Two museums in Ketchikan help interpret the storied history of Ketchikan. The Tongass Historical Museum focuses on the history, art, and culture of Ketchikan. The museum includes revolving and permanent exhibits, educational programs, and publications. Exhibits have looked at the “History of Public Utilities in Ketchikan,” early photography, art of local residents, and the general history of Ketchikan. The museum also houses an extensive archival collection, including a large photograph collection, used by scholars, agencies, and the media looking for information on the history of Ketchikan.  

Ketchikan also embraces its rich cultural history, as 15 percent of the population are Alaska Natives (Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian tribes). The Totem Heritage Center displays and interprets original 19th century totem poles retrieved from unoccupied Tlingit and Haida Indian villages in the Ketchikan vicinity. The totem poles are displayed alongside other original Indian artifacts from the region. The Center also preserves and promotes traditional arts and crafts of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures by offering classes and other activities.  Art-themed festivals and other special events are held throughout the year. 

By drawing upon its historic resources and the arts, Ketchikan has embraced its tourism economy and developed it into something authentic. Instead of pushing away the unique history of Ketchikan to the cruise ship passengers, Ketchikan has integrated its history and resources in a way that underpins its economy and ensures that visitors will want to experience all Ketchikan has to offer.  

For more information

City of Ketchikan: www.city.ketchikan.ak.us

Historic Ketchikan: http://historic-ketchikan.org

Ketchikan Visitors Bureau: www.visit-ketchikan.com

Tongass National Forest: www.fs.fed.us/r10/tongass

Updated November 30, 2009