Ketchikan's Ward Cove still smells like money

Posted: Friday, March 26, 2004

Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire.

In the summer of 1988 I turned 20 and Louisiana Pacific's Ketchikan pulp mill turned 34. It turns out we met when the mill was drifting out of middle age and toward retirement.

I had no concept that the industrial complex around me, with the salmon cannery across the inlet, would die and wait for a rebirth that would rely on office jobs and perhaps, I fear, tourism. Ward Cove was Ketchikan's identity, and Ketchikan smelled bad, drank hard and didn't fuss with that black gunk under its nails.

I'd known Ketchikan Pulp Co. from a distance for years. In grade school I'd had friends whose dads were foremen there, and I'd seen the mantra all over town: "Trees. America's renewable resource."

My big brother had worked at the mill as a young man, and many times I'd ridden past in at Ward Cove to my mom's church picnics, smelling the stench of money that my friends' dads called "steam." Also, I'd heard the rumors that the mill would close, that it would kill our town, that people should sell their homes while there was a market.

In time, though, my turn came. In the building that soon will house the Alaska Marine Highway offices that are moving from Juneau, I peed in a cup and then went down the hill to work a summer job among the pride of Ketchikan, the men of KPC. Ironically, my job was to mix and haul cement to the top of the chip-digesting plant, where the masons were fortifying the factory for the decades ahead.

The mill did close, and my parents did sell, just in time. But the closure came nine years after 1988, the first year I called myself a man, the summer LP board member Chuck Yeager came to give the fellas a pep talk in the rolling plant.

In my mind it was never unpatriotic to have mixed feelings or even misgivings about such a big mill, which was the driving force for massive clearcuts on Prince of Wales Island. I'd stood in those barrens on hunting trips, amazed at the wreckage. And I've never been as awestruck as that first day at the mill, when on a factory tour I watched a 10-foot-wide tree zip through a giant chipper exactly as a carrot through a Cuisinart. I had little doubt that something would have to give, eventually.

But state offices at the pulp mill, that's giving a little too much. I make no judgments about the wisdom or efficiency of placing the ferry system in Ketchikan. I'm not an economist and I can't make the ferries run on time. What's discouraging, though, is that Ketchikan has to take state jobs from the capital and place them in an industrial complex that's meant for industry.

I have absolutely nothing against white-collar workers - I am one - and I certainly have a fondness for big blue-and-gold ferries. But Ward Cove is for dismembering things, not moving them around.

Ketchikan's overtures to the Marine Highway are understandable. The borough has a building it needs to fill and jobs it needs to attract. Its unemployment rate last year was 8.9 percent, well above Juneau's 6.2 percent. Its population has dropped by 1,100 since the closure: a major jolt considering that state Community and Economic Development figures show that the island only gained 600 in the 1950s, when the mill opened, and that the biggest growth spurt since was about 1,200 in the 1970s. Ketchikan's Web sites and literature talk of a growing maritime industry that starts with the ferry maintenance yard a few miles from the mill. I hope that all works out. I'd love to see someone building ships or boats at Ward Cove.

In the meantime, Ketchikan keeps building tourist shops and retail jobs. There's nothing wrong with providing for cruise ship visitors, and I can't imagine what the town would look like if they hadn't arrived. But the old spruce mill downtown, which smelled considerably better than the pulp mill, has given way to shops outside which, on my last visit, played a Peruvian flute band.

A what?

On Thursday, word came that Ward(s) Cove Packing was selling its idled cannery. It had closed a couple years ago in a market that company chairman Alec Brindle Sr. said was overrun with tuna and farmed salmon. Gone was another of my icons, site of my first-ever job, fish inspector. I asked him if it hurt him to transfer of a family heirloom.

"Kind of bittersweet," he said. "We're not happy to shut things down after 75 years. But the sweet part is we've managed to sell all of the (Ketchikan) operations."

Like old loggers and fishermen lamenting the takeover of Ketchikan's most fabled bars by jewelry stores and curio shops, Brindle remembered a time when salmon put the can in Ketchikan. He met his wife on the slime line.

But years ago, the town's youth turned away, a fact that Brindle said might account for why Wards Cove had to add new worker bunkhouses in the 1980s and recruit more outside help.

"The young people in town gravitated more toward tourism jobs," he said. "On the slime line you're not working 8 to 5, and you're in your oilskins."

Cannery purchaser Kent Halvorsen told the Ketchikan Daily News his family - an old one in Ketchikan - liked the cannery's deep, sheltered harbor. "Ward Cove is the only decent harbor in the area, and if there's going to be any future development, commercial, tourist, or whatever, that's a very likely place for it to happen."

Tourist, huh? I'm frightened. I suppose it makes sense to offload some people to go see the nearby totem poles. But please, no lodging in the bunkhouses, and no real, live cannery wax museums.

• Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire and can be reached at brandon.loomis@juneauempire.com.



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