How to Get to Kodiak – Alaska Steamship Company

 

How to Get to Kodiak: The Grand Old Steamships

(A Photo Essay of Kodiak and the Alaska Steamship Company)

 

Introduction: 

This article makes use of rare photos, postcards and memorabilia to chronicle the story of the great old ships of the Alaska Steamship Company, which were the main method of reaching Kodiak and other outlying areas in the years before regular airline traffic.  Most of the photos are from the Kodiak area in the 1940s, but shots from other areas are used when they fill in the gaps of the story. 

 

Most of the text from this article and its companion, “How to Get to Ouzinkie,” comes from a first-hand account of a Seattle to Kodiak journey on the SS Cordova in October of 1945, chronicled by Miss Jean Othelia Lund, a Baptist missionary traveling to Ouzinkie to work at Baker Cottage Baptist Mission.  Miss Lund was a prolific letter writer, and her colorful account gives us a vivid glimpse of a journey aboard the Alaska Steamships.

 

Some of the specific company information and data on specific ships comes from the “A Pictorial History of the Alaska Steamship Company” issue of the Alaska Geographic magazine, Vol. 11 No. 4, published in 1984 (although no photos from that magazine were used).

An Alaska Steamship logo from a late 1930s map of their routes.

 

Detail of a colorful Alaska Steamship map from 1936. Notice the artwork below the map, attempting to show the kinds of activities available aboard ship! This map was on the inside of a brochure; a full wall poster-sized version could be purchased for ten cents.  Sorry about the old cellophane tape at the top; this is from Jean Lund’s scrapbook.

 

Jean Lund’s Voyage on the SS Cordova to Ouzinkie Begins:

“October, 1945: As Seattle faded in the distance, the sun began to find its way out of the clouds, and the views we began to behold were beautiful.  The boat on which I was now traveling was a surprise to me.  I did not think that such small boats were traveling the deep sea now-a-days.”  Miss Lund’s “small boat” was the SS Cordova, which was built in 1912, and was the oldest vessel in the Alaska Steamship Line by that time.  Most of the newer boats were commandeered by the military for transport use, leaving old tubs like the Cordova for regular passenger service.

 

 

 

The SS Denali in a 1940s postcard.  The Denali was a frequent visitor to Kodiak. My parents remember the Denali as the vessel that regularly took Native students from around Kodiak Island down to Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka for many years. The venerable old SS Denali also made the last passenger run for the company in late September, 1954.   After that, the company survived as a freighter firm until 1971.

 

A ticket from Kodiak to Seattle on the SS Denali, from June of 1946, was preserved in the Jean Lund scrapbook.

  

 

Four of the ships of the line, 1941. Other ships in the display included the Aleutian, Yukon and Alaska. (None of the brochures I have seen have ever shown a photo of the SS Cordova, which was one of the dowdiest of their fleet, as well as being by this time the oldest steamship in the company!)

 

What it was like aboard ship:

The next four photos (interspersed with Miss Lund’s account) were scanned from a 1941 brochure, feature the standard berths (de luxe staterooms had two-room suites), the dance floor and the social hall (in original blue ink from the brochure) and a color photo of the bridge with some lady visitors.

 

 

 

 

Miss Jean O. Lund describes the facilities aboard the SS Cordova:

“I was taken to my stateroom only to find a small room as long as our bunks, probably six feet wide and maybe eight feet the other way.  Three stacked bunks in each room, and I was assigned to the middle one.  There were only two of us ladies in this room, but it would have been very crowded indeed with all three bunks filled. On my right as I entered the room was our wash bowl in the corner under the window, which had wall board in it instead of glass because of the recent war and the blackouts.  Between bunk and washbowl was a radiator, and on the wall underneath we stacked our big suitcases.  On my left was a long seat with a cushion for comfort.  Under this seat we piled three more suitcases, and the sixth one we put on the seat in the corner.  We hung up our clothes and then opened the door to the deck and went out to acquaint ourselves with the other passengers and view the scenery.  The ladies’ lavatory was just around the corner from our stateroom, and we were thankful for that.

 

 

“I asked where the lounge room would be, for we did not find one on the deck where our cabin was.  They told me it was on the next deck.  So up I went, only to find a room about the size of our cabin, with benches around the wall like you would find in train stations, and a card table that had seen better days.

 

 

“As we were leaving sight of land, it was announced that everyone should get in line in front of the Purser’s window and get their seats for the dining room.  I drew table number three, seat four, first sitting.  At 11:30 AM the first chimes rang for lunch, so having nothing better to do, we went in and were seated and got acquainted with the ones at our table.”

 

(The above four photos are from a 1941 Alaska Steamship Company brochure)

 

 

A Variety of Interesting Passengers:

Miss Lund describes the fellow passengers on her voyage as a diverse lot, with many reasons to travel to Kodiak.  There were schoolteachers for Old Harbor, government workers for the facilities on Woody Island, a grandmother and her granddaughter traveling to visit her brother who was still serving in the Army, and a young adventurer who had wandered off to Alaska to try his hand at homesteading, who ended up taking a cannery job instead, and was returning to work after a visit with his family in Seattle.  There were many military wives heading north to be with their husbands (the restrictions having been lifted after the war), including her roommate, who was heading to Kodiak to manage a store until her husband was discharged.  Jean Lund’s candid descriptions of her fellow passengers show them to be infused with an intrepid, infectious sense of adventure, sailing boldly into the unknown.  Many of the pioneering Kodiak families I knew as a child in the 1950s came to the island under similar circumstances. 

 

Detail of a wrinkled late-1930s Alaska Steamship Company map, showing routes and places of interest around Kodiak Island. Kodiak and Ouzinkie are prominently featured as regular stops. The map is not terribly accurate or detailed. But apparently in addition to Kodiak and Ouzinkie, the steamships stopped at Alitak, Uyak and Uganik (all sites of large cannery operations and good dock facilities). The map singles out Port Hobron on Sitkalidak Island as a spot for tourists to see whaling operations. Whether the steamships actually went there is not clear from the map. The rest of the map featured many such red dots, labeled according to the local interest.

 

Jean Lund Describes Food Aboard Ship:

“I retired early the first night.  Rising bell was at 7:00 AM, but I was awake and on deck at 6:30, only to find that during the night we had moved into a new time zone, and it was only 5:30.  When I finally sat down to breakfast, they served eggs with ham, bacon or sausage, toast, pancakes, breakfast rolls, coffee, tea, milk, buttermilk or most anything you would want. 

 

“All meals were good.  They served fish at every meal if you wanted it.  I saw veal, roast beef, pork chops and steaks on the menu.  I was careful of my eating, for I knew what would be coming when we reached rough seas.”

 

Two menu covers by Alaskan artist Josephine Crumrine, dated from the late 1940s, when the company attempted to spruce up its image and rebuild its passenger traffic after the war.  The series of menus featured Alaskan dogs, with their stories inside, and could be purchased as a set to mail home as souvenirs.

 

A Small Delay in the Inside Passage:

“At 9:30 that morning, they cast anchor, and when we asked why, we were told that we had reached the narrows just an hour too late.  The tide was down, so we had to wait until 1:30 until the tide was up again. The crew took the opportunity to do the lifeboat drill, so we paraded around the deck in our life belts.  The fire crew poured water from a hose down a channel in the deck, and then we took off our life belts, the crew raised anchor, and we were underway again.”

A luggage sticker from the ill-fated SS Yukon (See the article: “How to get to Kodiak Part Two: the Military Transports” for the Yukon’s sad end while still in military service.)

 

A Stop in Ketchikan

“The following morning, I awoke to find us awash in fog, and the beautiful scenery was hidden.  Every once in a while, we were able to view the snow-capped and tree-bedecked mountains.  Later in the day it started to rain, and my bunkmate remarked, ‘we must be near Ketchikan, for it is raining!’  Sure enough, at 3:00 PM we docked in Ketchikan, and I donned my raincoat, galoshes and umbrella, and went out exploring.  I found a Post Office three blocks away from our dock.  Then I toured the stores, was back on board at ten to five, and had dinner at five.  The clerks in the stores were all very friendly, and they told me a little of what to expect of a winter in Alaska.  Most of the ones I talked to had been to Kodiak at one time or another.  I took another tour after dinner, and saw some totem poles, real ones, I was assured.  I walked up the steep streets to view the homes built against the hills.  I was surprised at how many bars or liquor stores there were in such a fairly small town.  I guessed that the local life was a little wilder than what I was used to. 

 

“The boat left Ketchikan at 9:00 PM, and I had already retired, after a long and interesting day.  After Ketchikan, the boat headed out into open sea.  By the next morning, the weather was turning bad, and we could see only faint glimpses of land as it faded behind us.”

 

On a rainy, foggy day, the SS Mount McKinley ties up at the old “Army Dock” in Kodiak in this early 1940s Helsel photo. The 373-foot long McKinley was stranded on a reef at the entrance to Unimak Pass in March of 1943, after miscalculating a zigzag course to avoid enemy submarines (according to the Alaska Geographic article).  When the tide came in, the surf also kicked up, and pounded the vessel to pieces.

 

Jean Lund Describes Life on Stormy Seas:

“Saturday morning I got up for breakfast.  The boat was rocking more than it had.  I went to the lounge after breakfast to write some letters, but at 9:30 I knew I could not take it any longer.  Not many of the other passengers were around.  I went down and went to bed.  I got up for lunch, but could only eat a bowl of soup.  I went back to bed, and stayed there for the next two days.  More and more the boat began to rock, as we went further out into the deep.  About 2:00 PM I lost breakfast and lunch, and drank some water with essence of peppermint, and that seemed to help a little. 

 

“Sleep was a blessing, and I slept most of Saturday and Sunday.  On Sunday afternoon, the storm grew stronger, and we rocked every which way.  Toward evening, my head was so woozy that I prayed, ‘God, you stilled the tempest before; quiet the waves again now.  I can’t take much more!’  I awakened in the morning and actually felt hungry for the first time in days.  I ordered breakfast cereal and milk.  The steward came with the cereal, but he apologized when he gave me canned milk.  It seems all the fresh milk had soured.  I tried to eat the cereal, but ended up pouring out the milk and eating the cereal mostly dry.  But I started to feel better.  By lunchtime on Monday I was able to wobble to the dining room and get through a bowl of turkey soup.

 

“By the next morning, things had calmed down enough that most of my fellow passengers were back in the dining room.  At about 11:00 that morning we sighted land, and were all pretty glad about it!  We were told we would dock in Kodiak at 4:00, but instead, we made it by 2:00, and I was off the ship by 3:00 PM in a pouring rain.”

 

(Jean Lund’s Account Continues in “How to Get to Ouzinkie”)

 

 

 

The end of the line: an Alaska Steamship Company freighter approaching the dock in Kodiak in this NCA photo postcard from the 1960s (photographer unknown).  The company held on as a freight carrier until 1971; Kodiak, Cook Inlet and a few stops out “the Chain” were the few remaining ports served by the firm when it went out of business, squeezed out of the passenger trade by Pacific Northern Airlines and Northwest Orient, and squeezed out of the freight business by more modern, container-based firms such as SeaLand.

 

About the vessel: The ship seems to be the SS Alvo Splice, with the first word hard to decipher from the limited resolution of the postcard.   Freighters with “Knot” and “Splice” in their names were former coastal freighters of the Knot class, built during World War II. The Knot class freighters were shorter than the more well-known Liberty Ships of that era, and had a superstructure in the stern. Superstructure was amidships for the Liberty class. A quick Google search for "Alvo Splice" reveals many sister ships, but no direct match to this photo. There are no “Splice” ships listed as Alaska Steamship Company freighters in the Alaska Geographic article, but it does not seem to be complete for passenger vessels either.

 

Written by Timothy Smith, web author. See the About Me page for more information. Always feel free to send me comments, suggestions or corrected information about this article or any of the articles on this site. (Write to: Tanignak@aol.com) This article and website is © 2005 Timothy L. Smith, Tanignak Productions, 14282 Tuolumne Court, Fontana, California, 92336 (909) 428 3472. Images unless otherwise listed are from the collection of Rev. Norman L. Smith or the Timothy L. Smith collection. This material may be used for non-commercial purposes, with attribution. Please email me with any specific requests. You are welcome to link to this site.

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