Ocean Liner History: The Alaskan shipping industry began to grow in the late 1800s with the expansion of fishing and cannery activities. As a result, there was a dramatic increase in the need for transportation of other products to and from the lower 48 states. In 1894, six men, recognizing this need, incorporated; they gathered $30,000 by selling 300 shares at $100 each, and then set about scouting for a ship to begin hauling.
They found and purchased the Willapa, which could carry passengers as well as freight. Their timing could not have been better; soon after the Alaska Steamship Company (ASC) opened for business, Alaska began to experience major economic benefits resulting from the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897. In addition to fish products, ASC began hauling mining equipment, dog sleds, cattle, and miscellaneous supplies.
The company began by servicing Southeast Alaska, running only between Skagway and Seattle. Another shipping company, the Northwest Steamship Company, had organized the northern route as a result of the Nome gold strike in 1900, servicing Valdez, Cook Inlet, and the Bering Sea ports. A third party, the Guggenheim Company, bought out both ASC and the Northern Steamship Co., keeping the ASC name. They expanded the fleet into 18 ships and expanded service to all Alaskan ports from Ketchikan to Kotzebue.
For the next quarter of a century, ASC relied on copper from the Kennecot mines, gold, and salmon for backhauls from northern cities to the lower 48 states. By 1938, the copper mine had closed and the gold rush had subsided. With backhauls now significantly reduced, the Alaskan shipping industry was severely impacted. In addition, the much relied-upon fishing industry was only seasonal. The one-way haul was one of the great problems of the Alaska run; the other problem was the weather. Ships were constantly threatened by fierce Alaskan weather patterns.
Eventually, the Kennecot Company acquired controlling interest from Guggenheim Company. In 1944, G.W. Skinner of Seattle purchased all interests and retained the management identified with the Alaska Steamship Company for the next several years.
The ASC joined the war effort in 1942, losing five ships in various campaigns. In 1953, they expanded into container service. The holds of the vessels were paved to accommodate fork lifts. New masts were engineered to lift massive vans. New generators were installed to provide power for van refers (refrigerated vans) and heater equipment. Containerization was recognized as the most significant development in ocean transport since the steam engine. There was less damage to freight, less pilfering, and labor costs were significantly reduced as there was no more piece by piece handling of cargo.
In 1954, the company ceased passenger operations due to high costs of labor and union standards. By then, ASC had established itself as a pioneer in containerization. At one point, the company pumped $11 million into the economy by employing dockworkers, ship workers, and stevedores, hauling freight, and operating ship and dock facilities. However, because of increased fuel and insurance costs, increased competition from barges, ferries, and tugboats, and continual union demands, the Alaska Steamship Company ceased operations in 1971.