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  • Writer's pictureJacob Lyngsøe

Frontier Cruising

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

Ever been to Alaska? You should totally go! It is stunningly beautiful up there, the wildlife is amazing, locals are so hospitable and don’t even get me started on the delicious seafood. I met my wonderful wife up there so I may be biased but believe me, there are plenty reasons to go (beyond any prospects of matrimony). Unsurprisingly, it is a destination best explored by ship, particularly the Panhandle, as many small towns are sealocked and much of the most impressive scenery is coastal. The annual migration of countless cruise ships for the summer season has long since become a cornerstone in the Alaskan tourism almanac but ask most people – and I very much include native / resident Alaskans – when that traffic started, and I bet you they will not know. 

The arrival

All heads turn south as a high-pitched steam whistle penetrates the fog. She is coming. She was supposed to have come yesterday but everyone up here knows the schedules are guidelines at best. Every prospector, lumberjack and trapper in the small settlement stop what they are doing and start to head down the muddy slope to the single steamship pier on the channel. Some are expecting shipments and supplies, others are hoping to strike up some business with the tourists but most are just curious for some rare news and fresh faces from the outside world. It’s a foggy and damp morning in Juneau, despite the calendar’s insistence that it be June. Large patches of fog are rolling down the Gastineau Channel, obscuring most of Douglas Island across the channel and shrouding the towering, pine-clad mountains in wispy strands of mist.

The muddy waterfront gradually fills up with expectant frontiersmen and their families. Excited kids and dogs are running to and fro, enjoying the unfamiliar break in monotony. Local Tlingit people start arranging their spreads of cultural souvenirs and handicraft on the pier, expecting a brisk trade with the tourists. To the south the fog still appears impenetrable, but now you can make out the chuffing of a steam engine and the splashing of paddle wheels. She is close now. An excited yell; ‘Thar she is!’. A paddlewheel steamer gradually emerges from the fog bank; dark hull, white superstructure, a single slim funnel belching black smoke, twin masts with the Pacific Coast Steamship banner hanging limply from the aft one and stars and stripes likewise from the stern pole. As she clears the fog bank and slows for approach, the name Ancon becomes visible on her paddle wheel housing. Captain Carroll blows the steam whistle once again, acknowledging the welcome committee and eliciting cheers and waves from the crowd ashore.

The commotion brings the passengers to the starboard side, eager to take in their next destination and reciprocate the greetings from shore. The contrast between the passengers and the locals is striking – one is a group of smartly dressed West Coast city-dwellers out for a holiday jaunt, the other is a ragged band of northern frontiersmen eking out an existence from the wilderness. I suppose you could say that one group was looking for ‘a taste’ of the frontier experience, whereas the other was looking for ‘a break’ from it and both groups eye each other for opportunities across the steadily shrinking gap between ship and pier.

The Pacific Coast Steamship Company

That was the scene in the early 1880’s in what is today Juneau, capitol of Alaska, but what was then a small frontier mining settlement of a few hundred souls, only a couple of years old. My sources do not agree whether cruise operations started in 1881 or 1884, but the San Francisco-based Pacific Coast Steamship Company (PCSC) was definitely the first to operate dedicated leisure cruises to Alaska. At this time passenger traffic from the US was largely made up of a steady stream of immigrants seeking opportunity and fortune on the Alaskan frontier – that was the north-bound traffic. Coming back down, the ships would carry goods extracted from the frontier; minerals, timber, fur, fish etc. and the odd washout frontiersman. There had not yet been a 'northern gold rush’ – the first one (Yukon) would not start until 1896 – so it was still a buyer’s market with a fair bit of competition.

PCSC was trying to unseat their rival Oregon Steamship Co. from their near-monopoly status on Alaskan passenger traffic and noticed that market indicators for leisure travel were looking promising; mass tourism was on the rise, package tours were becoming very popular, the American public was wealthier, more mobile and more interested in the world around them than ever before. Influential writers like Clement Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain were doing some of their best work writing travel books, inspiring the American public to go explore and the new frontier in Alaska (only in US hands since 1867) was a convenient, attractive and eminently cruiseable destination (most of it was ONLY accessible by sea). They no doubt also looked overseas to the recent success of Norway as a cruise destination and came to the realization that leisure cruising need not necessarily revolve around warm-water destinations and urban sightseeing – people were perfectly willing to pay for spectacular nature and unique cultural experiences without sunny skies and grand cities and in that aspect, Norway and Alaska were remarkably similar. With those deliberations in mind, the PCSC started up an Alaskan leisure cruise operation in the early years of the 1880’s.

See Europe if you must – See America if you will, but see ALASKA FIRST!

1912 Marketing copy from PCSC brochure

Pioneering the Alaska Run

Initially it was the PCSC steamer SS Ancon that pioneered the Alaska run – a wooden sidewheel steamship from 1867 (69m / 226ft length, 15m / 49ft beam, 1.541 GRT) with room for 135 pax in first class and 133 in steerage (and yes, steerage tickets were actually sold at half price to the ‘backpacker crowd’ of the age). As the operation proved successful, other ships, like the SS Idaho and the SS Eureka, joined her on the run. Alaskan leisure cruising quickly became popular with the West Coast clientele and what started with around 1.600 cruise guests that first season had turned to 25.000 guests by 1890 (seasons from May – September). The cruises departed Seattle, Victoria or Vancouver but thanks to the PCSC steamer network, guests from as far away as San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles could join in easily with a convenient ship transfer.

Cruise duration was typically between 10 to 14 days and would include day calls to a combination of different Panhandle ports, from today’s marquee name ports like Sitka, Ketchikan or Juneau, to lesser known stops like Wrangell, Metlakatla or Douglas to long-forgotten settlements that barely exist outside of history books, like Killisnoo, Loring or Old Kasaan. Cruises would also include a visit to Glacier Bay (in those days still 40+ years away from becoming a national monument, never mind a national park) and frequently would also stop at remote canneries or mining operations, ostensibly as ‘Surprise Ports’ for guests, but in actuality to pick up revenue-complementing cargo for the return trip.

PCSC also pioneered the use of the famous ‘Inside Passage’ for scenic cruising - a staple of any modern SE Alaska cruise. In 1880 the passage was largely shunned for its uncharted waters, forceful currents, treacherous tides, impenetrable fog and other hazards to navigation and experienced sailors would rather take their chances on the open Pacific, than risk navigating the Inside Passage. PCSC decided it was worth the risk to add some scenic cruising value to their cruise products and eventually also paid the price – countless accidents and shipwrecks dot the timeline of early Alaskan cruising. But their willingness to brave the Inside Passage was likely what kept them ahead of the competition for most of the 1880’s, as they became almost synonymous with the memorable Inside Passage experience. Of course, guests were not informed of the risk either - on the contrary. PCSC hyped their Inside Passage experience as nothing short of ‘The Lover’s Lane of the Seven Seas’ and emphasized guests’ opportunity to ‘dance on sheltered seas’ to play down the risks and to appeal to the couples demographic.

The onboard experience

So what kind of comforts and amenities could you expect on the first Alaskan cruises? Well, very few. As on most 19th century steamships cabins would have been small with bunk beds, oil lamps for lighting, communal bathrooms, spartan décor, no ventilation, no heating, no electricity (still not widespread on ships in the 1880’s) and only a communal dining saloon for an indoor public space. Onboard cuisine was basic, entertainment options few and far between. The coastal steamers of the Pacific were much more workaday and less sophisticated than their East Coast ocean liner cousins and the PCSC took a more casual approach to keeping their ships spick and span than the shipping companies of Europe did. In fact, the PCSC had a reputation for bare minimum maintenance and for operating their old ships to within an inch of their seaworthiness. So, add the risk of ‘death by shoddiness’ to the overall risk of a 19th century frontier sea voyage for a bit of thrill to your cruise experience.

“The accommodation onboard the Alaska steamers leaves a great deal to be desired!”

Abby Johnson Woodman (1828 – 1921), travel writer, on her PCSC cruise experience

The first cruises sold for around $100 per person for a 14-day cruise (ex Seattle / Vancouver / Victoria), berth and meals included – in purchasing power the equivalent of some $2.500 in 2020 – and was an affordable trip for an average upper middle-class American of the age. There was little emphasis on social status or class segregation onboard – European companies would not dream of letting steerage passengers on to a cruise, but in the US if you had the money to go (be it first class or steerage), you could go and apart from different standards of accommodation, there was no solid divide between high and low. There were no Victorian social protocols governing onboard life – men and women did not separate after dinner; guests did not dress in tuxedos and evening gowns and consequently the social tone of these cruises was much more casual and egalitarian. In certain European countries of the 1880’s, women (especially of high society) were not considered ‘robust’ enough to go on longer sea journeys (looking at you, Germany!), but in the US the female demographic was very much as part of the target audience – hence the whole ‘romantic spin’ to the PR. All in all, it was a cruise experience reflective of a young nation and more in tune with what popular cruising would eventually become when the mainstream category really came into play.

Pioneer ingenuity kicked into high gear when tourists started to arrive in Alaska. Though the inhabitants of the small frontier settlements were likely bemused and baffled as to why these ‘city folks’ were so keen to experience their everyday ‘neck of the woods’ (as it were), they certainly took a pragmatic and highly appreciative view of the money the cruise visitors brought to the community. Life on the frontier was not easy, every little contribution helped. So if you could make some extra money showing these city slickers around or selling them something (souvenirs, handicrafts, food etc.), you did that. It certainly beat toiling in a mine all day. So in that aspect, the arrival of leisure cruising to Alaska also helped kickstart the Alaskan mass tourism industry.

The rest... is history!

So Alaska as a cruise region was popular from a very early time, but because it was (and is to this day) a strictly seasonal region, it never evolved into a year-round market, spawned dedicated ‘home cruise lines’ or had cruise ships purpose-built for its waters (dual-purpose ships yes, but not specialized cruise ships). For the most part, Alaskan cruising remained inextricably tied to the passenger and cargo industry of the West Coast and rode along on all the commercial highs and lows of that industry (gold rushes, world wars, economic depressions etc.) - in fact almost died out in the 1950’s when transportation by air all but completely eliminated the Alaskan passenger shipping industry. But then the modern cruise industry came along in the 1960’s and the rest – as they say – is history.

The competition took almost a decade to horn in on PCSC’s lead on the Alaska cruise market with several more shipping companies launching their own cruise operations in the 1890’s, to the point where PCSC felt the need the differentiate themselves and branded their particular cruise package ‘the Totem Pole Route’. Sadly the Ancon did not make it that long – she became a part of the accident statistics in 1889 when she struck a reef off Loring and sank one August morning. The Pacific Coast Steamship Company lasted until 1916 when the Admiral Line bought up their shipping interests (but carried on using the PCSC brand until 1936), but by the time it went away Alaskan leisure cruising was quite well-established and would continue (with aforementioned highs and lows) up until the present day. So the next time you are in Juneau, with 5 large cruise ships docked and South Franklin Street heaving with tourists, let your mind wander to those early frontier days when a single steamship would turn their day upside down.

This is the fourth article in a series of historical retrospectives on the history of cruising prior to the industry formation in the 1960's. Although not academic papers, the articles are researched to the extent of my resources and ability and strive to be as historically factual as possible. If you enjoyed it, feel free to like, share or comment and follow me (or The Cruise Insider) for more instalments.

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