The Exciting History of Fishing in Ketchikan

Charters in this southeastern Alaska town explain Ketchikan’s fishing roots and what made it the “Salmon Capital of the World”

Every town across the world has a “history” of one sort or another. How many times have you passed through a small town with a sign saying “Welcome to historic [insert town here]”?

Most of the time, we shrug and go “…what in the world is so historic about this place?”

While the beginnings of a particular place may not be very exciting or significant in the grand scheme of things, there are a few towns where their history has transcended the city limits. Examples include Le Mars, Iowa, which is known as the “Ice Cream Capital of the World” or Tupelo, Mississippi, which was the birthplace of Elvis Presley.

Ketchikan, Alaska is one such place. Not only is this small city sit on the footsteps of the “Last Frontier,” it is more appropriately known as the “Salmon Capital of the World.”

This small city with a current population of around 7700 residents is situated on the western side or Revillagigedo Island on the southern tip of the Alaskan peninsula. To give you context, Ketchikan is roughly 680 miles north of Seattle and 235 miles south of Juneau, Alaska, the state’s capital.

Continue reading for a brief history of Ketchikan, Alaska and how it carries significance for people who will never take one of the many fishing charters in the area or even come within 1000 miles.

Like many areas of North America, the story of Ketchikan begins with Indian tribes and the abundant fishing and other natural resources

Before non-native settlers discovered Ketchikan in the late 1800s, the area was inhabited by various tribes like the Tlingits who fished the abundant waters of Ketchikan Creek. Both the Tongass and Cape Fox Tlingits had a fish camp at the mouth of the creek that they referred to as “kitschk-hin,” or “thundering wings of an eagle.”

Like numerous other tribes in coastal Alaska, Ketchikan Creek played a vital role in the Tlingits survival.

As time went on though, the area’s abundant fish and timber resources started drawing the attention of outsiders.

The actual town of Ketchikan traces its beginnings to 1885 when Mike Martin purchased 160 acres from Chief Kyan.  The area’s first salmon cannery opened the following year. In 1892, the town’s post office was established and in the latter part of that decade, Ketchikan became a center of activity during the Yukon gold rush. However, gold mining eventually declined, leaving fishing as the area’s primary industry to this day.

Ketchikan became a formally incorporated town in 1900.

Due to Ketchikan’s abundant numbers of salmon, canning operations began springing up in the late 1800s

Ketchikan’s first cannery opened the year after Mike Martin purchased the land surrounding the mouth of Ketchikan Creek. However, the facility burned after its second season of operation. Undeterred, Martin and George Clark, a business partner, established a “saltery” as well as a general store.

Despite this setback, the Ketchikan area witnessed tremendous growth in the salmon canning industry. By the mid-1930s, there were 13 facilities in operation producing 1.5 million cans of salmon a year. It was during this time Ketchikan became known as “The Salmon Capital of the World.”

Fishing and salmon canning only tell half the story of Ketchikan’s development though.

Due to the exploding demand of salmon starting in the late-1800s, lumber was needed for building the canning facilities and packing boxes. This led to the establishment of the Ketchikan Spruce Mills in the early 1900s. Demand for spruce was especially high during World War II. In 1954, a $55 million pulp mill was established at nearby Ward Cove. The pulp mill(s) and logging also helped sustained Ketchikan’s economy when overfishing depleted the salmon runs.

Today, fishing remains a vital part of Ketchikan’s economy. However, tourism has also become a big driver. Over 1 million people visit Ketchikan each summer off of cruise ships alone.

Ketchikan fishing - bridge in town
Image courtesy of Ketchikan Visitors Bureau

As you can probably guess, fishing charters are also a big part of the Ketchikan, Alaska economy and history. Thousands flock to the area each year to take advantage of the world-class fishing Alaska is known for. Visit http://www.oasisalaskacharters.com/ to learn more about these charters and to schedule your excursion today.

Featured image courtesy of Len Turner via Wikimedia Commons

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