History: Remember when the ferries had waiters in white jackets? - Must Read Alaska
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Wednesday, June 16, 2021
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History: Remember when the ferries had waiters in white jackets?



I’ve lived both in Anchorage and in Juneau. I’ve ridden the ferry both to go Outside from Anchorage via the Alcan Highway to Haines, and to and from various places in Southeast Alaska. I’ve been on all of them except the M/V Columbia and the old M/V Chilkat, the first one.

I’ve also spent lots of quality time in hearing rooms and across bargaining tables with the three ferry workers’ unions.

Art Chance

I will readily confess that dealing with the ferry unions and the so-called management of the Alaska Marine Highway System is the only thing in my labor relations career that ever caused me to just throw up my hands in surrender. You have a winning combination of totally self-interested and sometimes corrupt unions, complicit “management,” and cowardly and often compromised politicians that causes the ferry system to be run for the comfort, convenience, and compensation of its employees.

The system is an artifact of the Territory and the earliest days of Statehood. 1961, when the ferry system was created, is in the dim mists of time; those few still alive who remember Alaska in those days are living in Palm Springs or some other warm place.

As Must Read Alaska relates, the Alaska Steamship Line had monopoly power in shipping to Alaska.

I’ve known several Alaska political and economic luminaries whose Alaska story began with signing articles as an ordinary seaman on Alaska Steam and jumping ship with the legendary 37 cents in their pocket somewhere in Alaska to go on to become rich, famous, and powerful.

Air travel was slow, erratic, and dangerous, and aircraft of those times had little cargo handling capacity. Southeast Alaska was the province of Pan Am and its subsidiary Pacific Northern, and small regional carriers such as Alaska Coastal. Most aircraft in Southeast were floatplanes or flying boats because there were few airports.

To this day the phrase “Pan Am” weather survives in Southeast to describe a pretty, “blue bird skies” day, because that was the only weather Pan Am and PNA could be relied on to fly in.

In those days, Alaska Airlines was very much an unscheduled operation that worked Seattle to Fairbanks and Anchorage routes and had no penetration in Southeast. The airliners serving Alaska were propeller driven, the biggest and best were the Douglas DC-6 and the Lockheed Constellation, both capable of 300 or so miles per hour. It is a long way from the Lower 48 to Alaska at 300 mph; 3-5 hours to Ketchikan or Juneau, 6 hours or more to Anchorage or Fairbanks.

Most of us have experienced a winter flight north with a 100 mph headwind; think about that in a plane not nearly as capable as a modern jet. In those days, air travel was not really a viable option for most people.

Second only to getting rid of fish traps, getting some independence from the Seattle-based shipping lines was in the minds of Alaska’s founders. The AMHS was started when the State bought a World War II landing craft and named it the M/V Chilkat for use in Southeast.

In the early 1960s, the still cash-strapped State spent the money for the first of the “big” ferries, the Taku Class, including Taku, Malaspina, and Matanuska. The big ferries could take you to Seattle, where Pier 48 became a part of Alaska life.

Later, the blue water capable M/V Tustumena was added, which allowed service to the Gulf, Kodiak, and the Aleutians. We made our pretense at becoming a cruse line with M/V Columbia and M/V Wickersham.  The US made us get rid of M/V Wickersham because she wasn’t an American bottom. We still have the M/V Columbia, but she has had a troubled life. Gov. Jay Hammond ended the cruise ship illusion by putting an end to the white-jacketed waiter and linen table cloth service that made our ferries semi-luxurious.

Today, the ferries are, on their good days, Greyhound buses on the water. Even the bars on board are shut down due to not being profitable.

History lesson over. What we have today is a system that is no longer a vital service for anyplace other than the outports of Southeast Alaska, some of the island ports, especially Kodiak, and maybe, just maybe, some service to the Aleutian Chain. Sen. John Torgerson and I did a “back of the matchbook” calculation that concluded we could let anyone with an Alaska drivers license ride free and not need increased funding if we simply stopped the cross-Gulf and Prince Rupert and Bellingham service.

If the Alaska Marine Highway System is to survive, it will be with something like the new “Alaska Class” vessels or with what are called “T-Boats,” small, coastal or near-coastal boats much like the Inter-Island Ferry uses from Ketchikan.

If the people of all of Alaska are to pay for the AMHS, we need to get out of the business of hauling cheap tourists, and moving military and other transferees who are simply gaming their travel and moving allowances. We’ll have to stop hauling snowbirds’ motor homes to Bellingham, or servicing the people with DWI and other criminal convictions who cannot drive through Canada anymore due to those convictions.

Some communities are going to have to confront their greenies and the marine unions who have thwarted every attempt to provide road connections. If Cordova doesn’t have a ferry every day, it might reconsider its opposition to restoring the State-owned Copper River and Northwestern Railroad roadbed so that it could have road access to the rest of Alaska.

As Must Read Alaska points out, the Jan. 29 medical evacuation crash would have never happened had the road been built from Kake to Petersburg (with a short ferry shuttle still required).

The marine unions and the greenies are at the forefront of opposition to all of these roads, and the Juneau road is not only the holy grail for the marine unions and the greenies, but a lot of otherwise sane conservatives in the rest of the state join in the opposition.

The “vital service” that the AMHS provides is getting Alaskans who don’t live on the road system to the road system, the Alaska road system, not the Canadian or Lower 48 road system.

It was going to be the end of the World when Gov. Hammond ended the white-jacketed waiter service in the 1970s, but the system endured.  The next evolution of the system will truly be a Greyhound bus on the water, but as all of us of certain age know, if you didn’t have a car, you had to “ride the dog” and take it as it was.

I want my 2 cents a mile to fix the potholes in my road, and those of you who are reliant on the ferries are going to have to give up some of your almost $5/mile subsidy.

Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon. 

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • Like Art Chance, I remember when Governor Egan implemented the AMHS. Governor Egan also stressed that the ferry system was a temporary fix until the Alaska road system was built.
    SE Alaska, is not the San Juan Islands but certain community residents believe it is their God-given right to be able to ride the eco-friendly ferries and not have to drive on roads. The eco-ferries burn approximately 3,000 gallons of fuel a day and I don’t even want to allude to the wages and benefits paid to the dedicated AMHS employees. Only in Alaska — but I do have faith in John Mackinnon and his ability to start connecting SE Alaska like Governor Egan envisioned.
    Jody Vick

  • Although not nearly as vocal, there are many folks left in Southeast Alaska who have the common sense to realize that as a state, we can no longer afford to operate the AMHS in its current configuration. I started riding the ferries in 1976 when my family moved to Alaska. While I have many fond memories of my trips on the AMHS, I know that it is time to turn the page for the good of the entire state. Building the road from Juneau and building the road from Sitka to Rodman Bay would be a good place to start, followed by privatization of the ferry system.

  • As pointed out in other comments, medivacs don’t normally drive 30 miles across an unmaintained, single lane, snow covered road, hop on a shuttle, only to then be medivaced out of Petersburg by probably the same aircraft. Have whatever opinion you want about the ferry but don’t make bullshit claims that prey on other’s misfortune.

    • Let’s see; I’m the pilot of a Medivac plane and my choice is between landing at Kake or landing at an all-weather IFR capable airport at Petersburg. That is an easy choice if you know anything about flying around remote/rural Alaska. How do you think someone gets from anywhere on the Parks to a hospital in Fairbanks or Anchorage? The answer is on a snow covered road half of the year. The ferry unions, the Greenies, and the Southeast Alaska xenophobes have prevented any road-building for over fifty years now; time to pay up.

      • Landed in Kake on floats and wheels probably close to a 100 times. if you knew anything about this issue, you’d know that the plane never made it close to the airport, and you’d know that if a road were to be built, it would not be maintained for travel in the winter, and you’d know that this road project fell through because of the huge cost, not “greenies or unions”. But then again, the issue is not what you don’t know but that you use someone else’s tragedy to spew lies.

  • I remember when the city of Cordova voted to not support a road built along the old Kennicott Railroad bed. They wanted their isolation. They thought that the heavily subsidized ferry system was good enough as their transportation link to the rest of the world.

  • Art Chance,
    I agree with you wholeheartedly. The state of Alaska needs to wake up. The spending is outrageous. Not just the ferries but the entire state “enchilada”. I was here before the public employee and teacher unions. The state did the tri-trades union but I haven’t heard of that one in a while. Now, Alaska is over the “union barrel”. There are far more teachers and state employees per capita than any other state I can dig up the numbers on. We have the biggest costs per person for education and number 47 out of 50 in education. Justify that! Easy, there is no justification. Just a sense of entitlement and greed. No matter what it does to the rest of Alaskans. Enough is enough. Governor Dunleavy sees the writing on the wall. If spending isn’t contained, Alaska is in real trouble. Still, the public employees and teachers unions are willing to destroy every Alaskan to fulfill their greediness and “gimme”.

    • The Tri-Trades Council was a joint venture of the Laborers, Operators, and Teamsters. The IBEW was in on it too but somehow didn’t get a title role. They were all too busy getting rich on the Pipeline so they folded it all into a newly chartered Laborers’ Local 71 chartered only to represent public employees so that their members didn’t have rights in the construction unions. I spent my early days in labor relations with Local 71 and learned most everything that I know that is useful from them.

      In my days with the State Local 71 was pretty reasonable; you could do business with them, but they were pretty good at making sure they got paid for that business. I’ve been away for awhile but in my time they weren’t very ideological; they just wanted to get paid, and thus were a lot easier to deal with than the unions that didn’t care much about pay, but rather wanted to run the government.

  • Like State run Mat-su milk all good things must end.
    The Ferry to nowhere ” M/V Susitna” is another example of bad ferry planning .

  • Suzanne added that line about the bars being closed because they weren’t profitable, and I’ll quarrel with that a bit. It is the AMHS party line that the bars were closed because they weren’t profitable, and I think it is a lie. The bars may well have been the only profitable operation on a ferry, and certainly were in the winter. The problem was, who was getting the profits?

    I was a part of a couple of investigations of ferry bartenders over allegations of dipping into the till. We couldn’t proceed against them because the AMHS inventory and cash controls were so incompetent that you couldn’t tell how much liquor they were supposed have, how much they sold, or how much money there was supposed to be in the till. I grew up in a retail store; I know something about cash and inventory control. I know damned well that bar staff were “knocking down” sales and putting the money in their pockets, but you have to be able to prove it. Everybody knows that being a bartender is a license to steal. Everybody knows that owning a bar is a license to hide income from the government, and often owners and bartenders work together on who gets what share of the take. It works a little differently when the bar owner is the government and it is at least risky if not impossible to be in on it with the bar staff. Anyway, I have no doubt that some people were making serious bank off the ferries’ bars, but the State wasn’t.

    Then there is the political problem of serving the predominantly Native, predominantly dry villages on the ferry routes. Alaska Airlines is influential enough that nobody has much to say about the passengers of one of their flights being poured off the plane in Bethel or Kotzebue. I’m a veteran of lots of early morning flights to Bethel when they started serving as the wheels folded and most everybody bought them three at the time. The Walker Administration just did an exercise in virtue signaling when it closed the bars; anybody who wanted to drink their last before getting to a dry village only needed to get a bottle in the last wet town they were in and put it to their head and pull the trigger.

  • Predominantly dry villages on the ferry routes??? There’s Angoon and then there’s ….. oh yea, thats it. Why do you make this stuff up, Art?

    • The ferries don’t just run in Southeast, and it has always been an issue. What part of government did you run, genius?

  • A fun read. I basically went to college, working three summers as a waiter on the Malaspina, Matanuska, Wickersham and Taku in Southeast Alaska. The white jackets had been shelved by then but we wore white shirts and ties. The hours were long and the work was actually pretty demanding, FWIIW. To my recollection, Art, the Malaspina was the first ferry of that class. The Southeast ferries basically predated the cruise ships. It was obvious when I worked on the “Blue Canoes” that the ferries needed to avoid luxury. Speed was always a challenge and remains elusive. Today the system has too many vessels, and, with escalating operating costs, will have to reduce schedules. I have sailed the Alexander Archipelago enough to be of the belief that the communities will never be fully interconnected with roads. Certainly, additions need to be made but there will likely always be a need for a ferry system. The “day boat” approach has the greatest potential to be economic — that means least subsidized.

    Finally, with regard to the run from Ketchikan to Bellingham (we went to Seattle back in the day) the trip through the actual Inside Passage in British Columbia is very spectacular, particularly at night. Maybe that is something we can let others do.

    • As I got the history, Taku was the class ship and Mat and Mal were known as stretched Takus. Yes, with the end of Alaska Steam there was little cruise traffic and the mainline ferries were the route to Alaska. Princess started to come in the Seventies or early Eighties and then the cruise traffic just grew from there. It was quite the battle when Jay Hammond moved to reduce the level of passenger service on the vessels.

  • After living more than 4 decades in S.E. Alaska, I can unequivocally state that the ferry system is dying a slow death for two primary reasons. Fuel costs, and reductions in scheduling. The ferries were most heavily used when they could be regularly used. In the eighties and nineties you could make a round trip between communities in a reasonable amount of time. As the state cut service, the 2 to 3 day trips turned into 5 to 10 day trips – or worse. When you factor in the added food and lodging costs, along with missed work days, flying becomes the only viable alternative. So ferry ridership goes down. I don’t know what the solution is, but paring the service down more will cripple, and inevitably destroy the AMHS. I have wonderful memories of traveling around Southeast Alaska for school trips, family vacations with my parents, and later on, vacations with my own family. But I can’t see what we have continuing on as it is now.

  • I was the 3rd generation to sail on AMHS. And I hear you and Commissioner Mackinnon talk about these sweet heart contracts. When was the last contract you negotiated Art? Because I haven’t seen a sweetheart contract since all the Tier 1 employees of the State made sure their retirements were taken care of. Tier 3,4 are nothing spectacular. I hear tier 5 will have you pay the State every month when you retire. And when you compare the licenses that AMHS employees are required to have with what the industry pays for those licenses. The State gets a good deal. Remember they man to the minimum required by the ISCG

    • I negotiated the original fast ferry agreements and the 2004-2007 agreements with all three units. Those contracts have been sweetheart contracts since the beginning of the System and especially after the strike in ’78, when the unions used Hammond’s commissioner of administration and director of the ferry system like the cabin boys on a Greek freighter. The real issue isn’t the hourly rate of pay, but rather all the premiums, penalties, and restrictions on management. Plus, there is ZERO culture of accountability for cost in the System, and that is true from the headquarters down through the deck officers and chiefs.

      I listened to the MM&P and MEBA pound their chests about their qualifications and whine about the cost of licensure for twenty years. I held a Master’s license until I let it lapse for lack of sea time after I left Juneau. Most of the licensure requirements are just a barrier to entry and with today’s technology the pilotage requirements are nothing more than featherbedding. The first decision we made in the Murkowski Administration regarding the AMHS was to have the builder rate the fast ferries under 1600 tons to avoid the pilotage requirement. The primary reason the fast ferries are headed for the scrap heap is the fact that the unions were never willing to accept a reasonable operating and manning scheme.

      The “industry” is a government mandated oligopoly that could not survive any true competition. The shippers and the unions work together to impose barriers to entry. Their influence over the government maintains the restrictive licensure and excessive manning requirements. It is a stark contrast to see the horde of people on the lines of a 300′ ferry and the one skinny Indonesian guy on each line of a 1000′ Panamax. Of course that is aggravated by the fact that employees off watch are called out to handle the ferry’s lines and the call out results in overtime pay for them, but nobody really cares what it costs.

      Some posters on this and the other thread on the ferries have proposed privatizing the system, but that would be impossible; it could not be run profitably under US law and regulations. If I were in charge, I would privatize the management. There are plenty of management companies that are able to run a shipping line efficiently. The AMHS doesn’t have to make a profit; it is after all a public utility, but the State simply cannot afford the promiscuous hemorrhage of money any more. So long as it is run by people whose background is the Coast Guard, Navy, or other public or Jones Act shippers nobody will care about costs.

      • Summer of 1977 the ferry workers were on strike. I remember it well. I took my first Alaska Airlines flight that summer because of the strike. And Peter Frampton was live at the King Dome June 27, 1977……..

        • OK, ’77, I was close. It’s only been 40 years.

  • Great walk down memory lane, Art. I remember as a kid being in the belly of a Grumman Goose prior to AK Airlines. I remember boarding the Wickersham (from the top of the ship!) on a rickety ramp. The ferries did have a glamorous appeal to them back in the day. I agree with you about the bars: at least every time I was on a ferry (which was a lot), the bars were always packed. If I was with my parents, that is where they would be with hoards of other folks having a great time! Smoking cigs too, while us kids ran amok. And, as I came of age (and admittedly before that with the drinking age being 19 back then), I pulled a few “shifts” in the ferry bars. Remember the signature drink they sold after the Taku hit the rocks? If no money was being made, it was surely a skim job. Oh, and then the lawsuit about bibles on the ferries (Knowles administration time frame I believe). I don’t think the people of today – the kids of the kids of those of us around in the beginning, have a clue what a State subsidy is, or know that they have even been subsidized all these years. The socialistic mantra has been engrained in them that the government must be in charge of it all!

  • This Art Chance guy has wisdom; I like him. The reality we must accept is that facts do matter more than feelings. In 2015 Prince Alwaleed said, “oil will never go above $100 again” for anyone alive at that time. Denial of Alaska’s diminished wealth for some is similar to withdrawal pains of a drug addict. It does no good to live in denial of world commodity trends.

    • Thank you for the kind words!

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