Anchorage's port of necessity

Photo/Andrew Jensen/AJOC

Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of 10 articles by the Journal of Commerce recognizing the Anchorage Centennial and examining the events and the industries that have shaped Alaska’s largest city. The series will be released as a single special edition of the Journal in time for the Solstice celebrations June 20 and will be available at centennial events throughout the summer.

The drive along the lower Kenai Peninsula affords views few places can offer: snow-capped and active volcanoes rise above blue, fishing boat-dotted water like a defensive line collapsing on a third-string quarterback.

Some days that water is so smooth it appears one could skate on it.

Looks are deceiving.

The water is constantly moving, and fast. The tidal currents in Cook Inlet regularly exceed five knots. At the upper reaches of “the Inlet” — the home of Alaska’s largest city — the tide can fluctuate 35 feet in little more than six hours. Combine that with shallow channels, which the currents are constantly changing, and you’ve got a mariner’s nightmare.

For these reasons, Alaska maritime historian J. Pennelope Goforth calls the Port of Anchorage “the port that wasn’t supposed to be.”

It abruptly became the port of necessity on March 27, 1964, when the 9.2-magnitude Good Friday Earthquake dismantled every other large dock in Southcentral Alaska.

“(Anchorage) was the only one left standing,” Goforth said. “Seward, Whittier, Valdez, just gone, and I think it was at that point that people started to realize all the things you need a port for.”

Opened for business in April 1961, the single-berth, 600-foot pile dock that withstood the second-largest earthquake known to man is still at the center of operations at the port more than 54 years later.

Before the first big city dock, the port was largely a hodgepodge of development, Goforth said.

There was little more than Ship Creek’s infamous tide mud at the port site when the city formed in 1915.

By 1917, Henry J. Emard had opened the Emard Packing Co. near where the docks stand today, according to records from the Cook Inlet Historical Society.

“It was a nice little dock with a warehouse that employed a lot of local people processing salmon,” Goforth said.

The salmon cannery primarily processed Susitna River chinooks, Goforth said. One of those locals was eventually Dan H. Cuddy, the longtime president of First National Bank Alaska. Cuddy, who died May 12 at the age of 94, who got his first job from Emard.

In a 2001 interview with the Journal, Cuddy remembered what Emard said when he was promoted to cannery superintendent.

“He said, ‘I hand you this leaky boat,’” Cuddy said. “It flattered me highly.”

Cuddy eventually gave Emard a seat on FNBA’s board of directors.

For years after the founding of Anchorage, most infrastructure was developed organically, Goforth said. The city of today was a scattered collection of small towns — Anchorage, Muldoon and Spenard.

A June 1920 copy of the Alaska Railroad Record reveals that the city was happy with its dock, new in November 1919, at least for its ability to handle freight from the S. S. Admiral Watson.

“From the time the vessel passed the Forelands until the moment she tied up at the dock not a minute of anxiety was experienced by the skipper on account of the floating ice and the only answer made by him to the questions of the skeptical concerning the possibility of the ship’s progress being retarded by the presence of the floating ice was a knowing smile and a pointing finger at the vessel, made fast to the big dock,” the Record reported. “That the construction of the new ocean dock represents a big economy in the matter of unloading of vessels is reflected in the fact that in less than 14 hours actual unloading time, 562 tons of merchandise were taken from the ship’s hold and loaded aboard flat cars standing along side.”

The Admiral Watson also carried 137 first-cabin passengers when it docked on Nov. 15, 1919, according to the Record, the official publication of the Alaska Engineering Commission, the federal group tasked with building the Alaska Railroad.

However, when the Admiral needed a berth for repairs, the dock didn’t fare as well, according to Goforth.

“The city dock was not much wider than (40 feet) and they had the huge Admiral there trying to repair it,” she said. “After that they started to build a little bit more but it was still all individual efforts.”

War boom

As was the case with most things in early Anchorage, World War II changed that.

The need for an industrial-size dock was exemplified in the city’s rapid growth during the war. In April 1940, Anchorage had about 4,000 residents. By the middle of 1941, military activity pushed the city’s population beyond 9,000; and by 1950, Anchorage had a population of 32,000 people.

Military construction brought nearly $1 billion into the city, and the materials for that work needed to come through a port.

In 1943, the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel was completed and linked Anchorage by rail to the deep-water Port of Whittier, which served as the military’s primary fuel terminal. Most commercial goods came via rail from Seward.

Still, Anchorage’s freight demand outpaced handling capacity.

Goforth said a cement barge was anchored along the Anchorage dock during the war to serve as an additional loading platform.

After World War II, the country’s appetite for infrastructure and a new method of shipping combined to transform to Port of Anchorage into at least part of what it is today, she said.

The standard method of freight delivery to mainland Alaska was born on the East Coast, according to the National Museum of American History. Malcom McLean, a trucker and businessman from North Carolina bought a small steamship company in 1955 with the idea of loading ships with full semi-trailers.

The next year, the S.S. Ideal-X, a converted WWII-era tanker ship, sailed from New Jersey to Texas with 58 trailers aboard. Sea-Land Services Inc. was born.

“It used to be break bulk cargo, which is you get 10 people in a line and throw boxes to each other from the hold of the ship,” Goforth said.

She likened the change in transport methods to the change in computer code from “command to HTML.”

And a few years later, in 1961, the Port of Anchorage was really open for business with gantry cranes, a 50,000-square foot transit shed and 52 acres primed for industrial development.

Despite having a brand new infrastructure, insured for more than $5.5 million, the Port of Anchorage did not attract the traffic the city hoped for in 1961.

According to the port’s annual report from that year, the city approved a budget that projected handling 130,000 tons of cargo generating $602,500 of revenue and $433,207 of net income. The budget was approved on April 17, 1961, days after the new port officially opened.

“The success of the Anchorage Port facilities can only be achieved by handling bulk cargo destined for the Anchorage and Fairbanks areas, which objective requires a diversion of cargo now being handled through the Seward ‘gateway,’” the 1961 report stated.

“The City of Anchorage and its port officials should continue their efforts to bring about this diversion.”

After the barge Kevalaska unloaded 330 tons of construction materials and vehicles on April 21 — the first vessel to dock at the new port — the final 1961 tallies were as follows: 38,476 tons of freight generating $189,999 of revenue for a net income of $47,383.

Port records also indicate discussions between the city and Shell Oil Co. in 1961 to move the company’s fuel products over the new pier and steal business from Whittier as well.

“It appears that if the petroleum now being handled over the Ocean Dock and through Whittier can be attracted to Anchorage port facilities, the revenues from this source may be in excess of $100,000 per year,” the annual report states.

Cargo tonnage grew steadily the next several years as the aforementioned petroleum business grew from 208 tons in the first year to 98,900 tons in 1963. However, it didn’t explode until there were no other docking options in 1964.

Quake mostly spared Anchorage port

The Good Friday earthquake inflicted more than $500 million of damage to Anchorage and the surrounding area, including rendering the ports of Whittier and Seward unusable for weeks. Rail and road links to Seward were also severed.

At the Port of Anchorage, several hundred feet of railroad track was destroyed and the two of the four gantry cranes lost their counterweights, according to the 1964 report.

In total, the port suffered about $1.5 million of damage, all but $100,000 of which was covered by insurance.

On May 7, less than two months after the earthquake, Sea-Land’s 496-foot S.S. New Orleans containership called on Anchorage with 126 containers filled with food and construction supplies. It was the first containership run in the Pacific Northwest, according to Sea-Land.

The New Orleans made the voyage from Seattle in four days. It averaged 17 knots per hour, a speed traditional barge traffic could not match.

Today, Totem Ocean Trailer Express Inc., or TOTE, provides twice-weekly service to Anchorage with two, 840-foot vessels filled with semi-trailers ready to be rolled off the ship upon arrival.

Matson Inc., formerly Horizon Lines Inc., provides Anchorage with regular containership service.

By 1965, the first full year of operations after the earthquake, the Port of Anchorage handled 940,000 tons of cargo, more than two-thirds of which was petroleum products.

That business grew steadily until 1975, when construction materials for the Prudhoe Bay oil field and the trans-Alaska pipeline increased the general cargo business by more than 40 percent in a single year.

Since that first dock, the Port of Anchorage has expanded to include three traditional dock terminals and two petroleum terminals, with the small Terminal No. 1 right in the middle.

The five docks handle 90 percent of the goods headed for mainland Alaska.

In 2014, the port handled 3.45 million tons of cargo. Activity peaked in 2005 at just more than 5.1 million tons.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commissions more than $10 million of dredging every year to keep the Port of Anchorage open. Glacial silt from the rivers at heads of Knik and Turnagain arms would quickly fill shipping channels and cut off the city from large traffic without the annual maintenance.

The now-scaled back Anchorage Port Modernization Project, still a $485 million endeavor — after $300 million was spent during the first expansion that began in 2003 — will replace and grow the dock infrastructure, while going to four main berths equipped for larger vessels.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
11/20/2016 - 5:05pm

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