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Community Profile: Ketchikan/Cape Fox


Ketchikan is located on the southwestern coast of Revillagigedo (Rheh-vee-ya-hee-hay-tho) Island, near Alaska's southern border with Canada. The town was built on a steep hillside overlooking the Tongass Narrows. Today it appears as quaintly crowded coastal town, where houses built on stilts can be reached only by boardwalk and ladder. Flat land is such a rarity that baseball games are played on tidal flats -- when the tide comes in, the game's over.


Ketchikan (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

Location: Lat. 131E 38' W, Long. 55E 20' N

Area: 3 square miles

Population: 8,295

Industry: Fishing, timber, tourism

Access: Air, sea, year-round ferry

Alaska Native Affiliation: Tlingit

Alaska Native Regional Corporation: Sealska Corporation

Weather: Summer temperatures range between 29 and 30 degrees Fahrenheit, winter between 29 and 39 degrees. Average precipitation is 162 inches, including 32 inches of snowfall. 

Historical Overview

  • The area was originally a fishing camp for Tlingit kwan (family group) known as Kichxaan, which means "the thundering wings of an eagle."
  • The first European visitors were 18th century explorers and fur traders from Russian, who arrived in the region hoping to control the fur trade. The Tlingit's strong organization and the military expertise prevented the Russians from gaining control in this part of Alaska.
  • The Tongass Packing Company built the area's first cannery in 1880.
  • In 1885, Mike Miller bought 160 acres of land from Tlingit Chief Kyan. Miller, and his associate, George Clare, built a saltery and trading post on the land. The businesses failed, but the land became the site on which Ketchikan was built.
  • By 1900, when Ketchikan was incorporated, 800 people lived in the community. There were several canneries in town, as well as a school, a post office, a few churches and a growing cluster of homes and businesses.
  • Ketchikan boomed at the beginning of the 20th century. A transportation company ferried miners to gold and copper camps on nearby Prince of Wales Island, and the Ketchikan Power Company built a timber mill. Taverns and bordellos sprang up in the growing town, and the U. S. Customs House, formerly on Mary Island, moved in, making Ketchikan Alaska's first port of entry.
  • At its peak in the 1930s, the canning industry produced about 1.5 million cases of salmon a year.
  • During World War II, the population grew as 750 U.S. Coast Guard personnel moved to the area.

Harriman's Visit

  • Harriman did not visit Ketchikan, but on July 25, 1899 the Elder steamed into Foggy Bay just north of that tiny town, looking for the uninhabited Tlingit village of Cape Fox. Here Louis Agassiz Fuertes describes it:

    We stopped at Juneau for a half a day or so to coal & H20, & this PM stopped at Fox Point & went ashore at a Tlingkit Indian Village, which showed from the water only a bare beach, flatly gabled roofs above tall rank weeds & 24 immense totem poles & when we got near found it to look deserted & so it really was, tho' full of a lot of interesting and curious remains of a past epoch of prosperity. It was the most curious place, and about the most interesting, in many ways, that we have yet seen. The tribe had moved away apparently, about 8 or 9 years ago leaving houses in good repair, others in bad decay, but also a lot of remarkable totem poles and head gears -- masks, boxes, etc. (tho' all the necessaries were gone) which have been bringing aboard most of the afternoon & evening, and shall do more tomorrow.

  • Cape Fox village had been abandoned in 1894, when its Tlingit residents moved to the nearby settlement of Saxman. Tlingit historians say that the village was vacated so that clan members could attend the Presbyterian church and school at Saxman. There have also been reports that Cape Fox was evacuated after an outbreak of disease.


  • Timber has played a major role in the economy. In 1954, a 55 million dollar pulp mill was constructed at nearby Ward Cove. The mill closed in 1997, when its contract with U.S. Forest Service expired. Four hundred people were put out of work. The millsite is now being considered for an ethanol manufacturing facility that would produce six million gallons of fuel-grade ethanol a year.
  • The current economy is based on fishing, fishing fleet service, timber and wood product manufacturing, and tourism. Cruise ships bring 500, 000 tourists to the small town each summer.

Community Issues

  • Development and preservation interests have recently collided in Ketchikan. In 2000, the local logging community reacted violently to President Bill Clinton's late-term decision to declare the Tongass Forest a roadless area in 2000. The move protects the environment but seriously affects the timber harvest and logging jobs. Months later, the Alaska State Legislature condemned the declaration, and the future the forest-related industries in the area has yet to be sorted out.
  • Fish processing is another industry in the news. In 2000, hefty fines were imposed on several Ketchikan fish processing plants for dumping polluting fish waste into Alaska waters. Some waste dumping is legal, but in one case, the processing facility poured so much polluting matter into the waters that Ketchikan beaches were fouled and a stench hung in the air for weeks.

(View the Ketchikan/Cape Fox daily photo album)




For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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