My Turn: A bridge to Ketchikan's economic future

Posted: Monday, March 04, 2002

Oct. 13, 1935, was a bright, fall weekend day in Juneau. This writer and his father, Lew Sr., sat atop Mount Juneau and watched a crowd assemble on the Juneau end of the new Juneau-Douglas Bridge. They gathered for the bridge dedication.

We were hiking and too far away to see the actual ribbon-cutting. But we did see vehicles parade across to Douglas Island. The Daily Alaska Empire reported that the opening of the bridge "was a dream realized after 30 years of promotion." It also took a $255,000 relief grant from the New Deal's Public Works Administration (PWA) to build the 2,701-foot structure. The PWA was part of President Franklin Roosevelt's stimulus package to get the country out of a depression.

Douglas had been in a slump since the Treadwell Mine flooded and closed 18 years earlier. Those commuting between Juneau and Douglas took one of two passenger-only ferries, the Teddy J. or the Emma, from a float used today to ferry passengers from cruise ships. The Emma, the largest of the two, made periodic trips direct between Douglas and the Alaska-Juneau Mine Dock for those Douglas miners who worked at the A-J. The bridge made their commute easier and cheaper. Douglas expanded into a major part of the Juneau-Douglas community. Douglas High School closed and combined to form Juneau-Douglas High School near the Juneau end of the bridge.

That first bridge was a tall, stately structure that aircraft managed to miss for 46 years. The old bridge withstood those famous, freezing Taku winds that relegate Tongass Narrows winds to westerly zephyrs. Juneau's famous winds, which also come off Mendenhall Glacier, kept seven jets on the ground one day last week. Wind gusts hit 120 miles per hour on Sheep Mountain.

That first Juneau-Douglas Bridge, for all of its grandeur and sturdiness was too narrow for modern traffic. It also required increasing maintenance. So after exactly 46 years, in October 1981, a sleeker and wider bridge was dedicated. That was 10 years after a request to build a bridge to Ketchikan's less-wind-effected airport on Gravina Island.

Juneau-Douglas is ahead of Ketchikan. It took Gastineau Channel residents only 30 years to overcome their CAVE dwellers and win funds for that first bridge. Cave dwellers are Citizens Against Virtually Everything. It will be more than 30 years from request to completion for the Ketchikan-Gravina Island bridge. This writer served on the committee drawing up the first 20-year plan for the Ketchikan airport almost 30 years ago. It included a bridge.

Should Ketchikan sacrifice its economic future as a supply and repair center by opposing any bridge to Pennock and Gravina islands, crippling expansion of the airport and its support businesses? Crippled airport? Note the large number of private and business aircraft based at Sitka and Juneau airports, reachable by bridge and road, compared with Ketchikan. How about making it easier to fly out some of those excess pink salmon before the Klawock, Wrangell, Sitka or Petersburg airports, with easier access, make such shipments profitable?

Ketchikan has been as good to the cruise industry as the cruise industry has been good to Ketchikan. A move to assess a passenger head tax was defeated. The city dock was lengthened.

There are three avenues into Ketchikan for cruise ships, the east and west sides of Pennock Island and the north approach from Guard Island. Certainly, restricting (not totally closing) one of those avenues for Ketchikan's future economic expansion - which also helps the visitor business - is not too much to ask of a seasonal industry; an industry that pays less property tax to the community than fishing and timber did and still do even in their reduced states.

It is difficult to understand the bridge opposition in Saxman. The proposed bridge site is the only one that gives them quicker access to Gravina and gives visitors arriving by aircraft quicker access to Saxman than to Ketchikan, access that will help the Metlakatla ferry planned to operate out of Saxman.

March 8 is the deadline for comment to the Department of Transportation on the Gravina access. (DOT, Southeast Region, 6860 Glacier Hwy. Juneau 99801-7999.) One DOT official who attended an earlier public meeting tells us that Ketchikan and Saxman appear split 50-50 on the project. Those with a positive view for Ketchikan's future should make themselves heard. Or, do we ignore history and watch 300 more families leave? Do we tell everyone thanks but no thanks, we don't need your money or help, we have our caves?

Williams is retired publisher of the Ketchikan Daily News and a former member of the University of Alaska Board of Regents.

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