Some history on Juneau's big ships

Posted: Sunday, May 14, 2000

One June morning in 1968 I was recovering from an all-night pilot boat trip to Point Retreat when I received a phone call from Southeast Stevedoring in Ketchikan.

We chatted for a minute and then they asked me if I would be the ship's agent for a passenger ship that was coming to Juneau the next day. I didn't know what an agent did but they offered me 50 bucks so I said sure. They said just meet the ship when she arrives and go on board and ask the captain and the purser if there is anything I could do to help them. That sounded easy. Then they said I should deliver their mail, take them their messages, meet a couple of crew members arriving that night at the airport, stuff like that. I was raised in the Midwest and was fascinated with large ships, and I thought going on board a passenger ship and chatting with the captain and the purser was a dream come true.

Juneau didn't have a dock large enough to accommodate the ship so arrangements were made to use the Coast Guard dock. She was a huge ship, graceful and beautiful and I couldn't help but feel a thrill at that engineering marvel as she approached the dock.

The dock was jammed with local people to welcome this large ship. They yelled and screamed and clapped and gave the ship and its crew a real Alaska welcome. It was like old home week. The comments I heard were all positive.

``If only we could get ships like this one on a regular basis, it would be the boost our economy needed and was so exciting.'' ``It would give life to the community.'' ``I love it, I love it.'' ``When the steamships come in it's like a special holiday. It's really exciting.'' ``I'm really glad I live in Juneau.'' And on and on. Not one derogatory remark was heard.

That year there were one or two more ship arrivals and the next year a couple more and each following year the ship traffic increased. The folks of Juneau were ecstatic. It was an exciting place to live and the economy started to boom. Docks were being expanded and more and more ships were coming in and more and more businesses were accommodating those passengers.

There were jobs available everywhere. The city started to clean up and paint up. Where there used to be gravel and dirt areas were now planted with grass, trees and flowers. Everyone took pride in their yards and houses with flowers and paint. About then the city undertook the huge task of re-doing the whole downtown area into what it is now.

South Franklin Street was not a very pleasant area before the ships started arriving. It was dirty and dingy and a lot of the buildings were run down and unpainted. In fact when the city contemplated putting the library on top of the parking garage there were a lot of people against it because it was not the best area for their kids to walk in.

I was called down to my little building on South Franklin by the police about once a month to repair broken windows. In all I had to replace 22 broken windows in a four-year period due to drunks fighting and sometimes throwing beer bottles through the window. The rental rates were practically nothing compared to today's rates. All that has changed and today it's a pleasure to walk down South Franklin street. The buildings look great and it even smells good.

What a great change from a few years ago.

I'm well aware of some of the down side of all this activity like the aircraft noise and the wear and tear on the trails, but nothing in this life is perfect. The revenue these wonderful ships bring into Juneau far outweighs the aircraft noise. Remember, we do have seven months of quiet time which I look forward to, but I look forward to the arrival of the ships much more. For those who want total quiet I know of several places for them to go. They probably won't find jobs there but it will be quiet. If they get hungry they can always come back to Juneau and find a job, thanks to those wonderful ships.

It appears there are those in Juneau who would prefer to have no ships coming into our harbor and let me tell you, the ship companies are listening. We must be very sure those shipping companies hear the vast majority of Juneauites who want the ships to continue calling in Juneau and that we appreciate all the advantages they bring us.

Ron Maas was the first steamship agent in Juneau and performed that job for 20 years. He was also the owner of Taku Glacier Lodge and Taku Glacier Air from 1972 until 1992.

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