The Alaska Marine Highway System officially turned 50 this year.
Originally started in 1948-49 by Steve Homer of Haines with a WWII Landing Craft christened the M/V Chilkoot. The business was sold to the Territory of Alaska in 1951 and the M/V Chilkat was introduced, replacing the landing craft. In 1963, the young State of Alaska officially designated the system The Alaska Marine Highway, new ferries were purchased under a state bond, and the route was extended to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. In 1967, the southern terminus was extended to Seattle’s Pier 48.
Today, the Alaska Marine Highway’s routes cover 3500 miles from Bellingham, WA to Dutch Harbor on the Aleutian Chain with 30 terminals in between, transporting people, vehicles and freight. In an average year, AMHS transports 350,000 riders and 100,000 vehicles. It’s active year round, although the Aleutian Chain route only runs in the summer.
AMHS is a vital lifeline for communities in Southeast and Southwest Alaska that have no road access. Riders use it to get to doctor appointments, shopping and entertainment in Anchorage, Sourdoughs trying to escape Outside, even high school athletes use it to get to sporting events in other coastal villages. The trip up the Inside Passage is beautiful with seemingly endless fjords, lush forest, wildlife galore, and over 1000 islands and 15,000 miles of shoreline in Alaska’s portion alone. It’s a phenomenal trip that I’ve done once aboard the M/V Matanuska. Often the deck of the ferry between Bellingham and Haines is loaded with tents, as riders “camp out” on the deck instead of getting staterooms. The trick is to duct tape the tent to the deck.
The M/V Tustumena serves the Homer, Kodiak and Dutch Harbor route. Built in 1963 in Sturgeon Bay, WI, the Tustumena, along with the Kennicott, are the only cross-ocean certified ferries in the fleet. When the Tustumena docks in the villages along its route, the full service dining room draws a crowd of village residents who often do not have a restaurant in town. This has earned the Tustumena the nickname “McTusty” along the Alaska Peninsula.
All current ferries are named after Alaska Glaciers.