A year after 160 acres of land was purchased to form a township, the first cannery was opened in 1886 at the mouth of Ketchikan Creek to process the bountiful supplies of seafood, especially salmon and halibut, caught by commercial fishermen. By 1936, Ketchikan claimed that the seven operational canneries packed the most canned salmon at 1.5 million cases, earning Ketchikan the “Salmon Capital of the World” moniker. New canneries expanded the town further out both north and south of canning central in Ketchikan Creek to accommodate warehouse space and bunkhouses for cannery workers, but some Ketchikan residents opposed statehood because of the consequential ban on artificial fish traps, which despite nearly exhausting the salmon supplies, fed the local canning boom of the early 1900s. Though only a handful of canneries remain in operation today, commercial fishing remains a strong economic force in a city founded as a fishing camp for a local Tlingit tribe.
The burgeoning fishing industry prompted the need for construction and packing box lumber and, at the turn of the 20th century, Ketchikan Spruce Mills were opened to harvest the plentiful spruce supplies around the island. World War II also augmented demand for spruce, making Ketchikan a regional logging supply center. In 1954, the Ketchikan Pulp Mill was constructed at Ward Cove, becoming an additional economic boon for the community, significantly growing the job market to become Ketchikan’s largest private-sector employer. However, declining steady Tongass timber supplies and slumping Asian markets where most of the mill’s products were exported combined with legislative and agency shifts caused the mill to be closed in 1997. Forest products still remain a viable if comparatively lesser industry for Ketchikan.
Southeast Alaska’s natural beauty, recreational activities and cultural richness have attracted all kinds of visitors, but cruise ship traffic has propelled tourism to one of Ketchikan’s strongest economic components. With over 900,000 tourists (and growing) sailing on nearly forty (and growing) different ships, tourists’ tour-related and retail purchases and the economic infusion of a number of seasonal employees living in town during the heavy tourist months (May-September) continue to sustain the town in a post-Pulp Mill world. Those traveling by air and Alaska Marine Highway ferry also contribute to year-round tourism.
Relatively new to Ketchikan, the Alaska Ship & Drydock’s two dry-docks (10,000 and 2,500 tons, respectively) successfully launched the M/V Susitna, a one-of-a-kind, ice-capable vessel that can transition from barge to twin-hulled ship to navigate Knik Arm.