Cordova Chronicles: Cordova’s first ferry, gone but not forgotten

Cordova’s first ferry was the 99-foot Chilkat. It provided service between Cordova and Valdez from 1965 to 1969, and was then replaced by the much bigger Bartlett. Photo courtesy of the Alaska Marine Highway

The M/V Chilkat sank in Guemes Channel near Anacortes, Washington, on January 12, 2021.

Built in 1957 as the first ferry of the Alaska Marine Highway System, it had been converted to a scallop tender, and went down after breaking free from its nearby moorings.

The vessel was salvaged due to concerns over its proximity to the Guemes Island Ferry Terminal, into which it crashed before sinking in a storm. Fears were that strong currents in the area might cause its wreckage to drift into the ferry lane.

The Chilkat was 99 feet in overall length with a 34-foot beam, and could carry 15 vehicles and 59 passengers. It was built in Tacoma, Washington by J.M Martinac Shipbuilding Company for $300,000.

Ironically, it was built to replace the similarly named M/V Chilkoot, an ex-U.S. Navy landing craft that was purchased in 1948 by three Haines residents who created a motor ship line to provide ferry service between Haines and Juneau.

The Chilkoot proved to be too small, and on April 18, 1957, the newly commissioned Chilkat began providing daily service between Juneau, Haines, and Skagway.

When Alaska became a state on January 3, 1959, it became the first state-owned ferry.

With the advent of several larger ferries to provide service in Southeast Alaska, the Chilkat was renovated in the winter of 1964 and transferred to Prince William Sound to provide year-round service between Cordova and Valdez, beginning in 1965.

Many Cordovans remember the unique ship as their first ferry ride across the Sound. Its blunt bow ramp allowed passengers and vehicles to offload on an unimproved beach as well as a dock.

In Cordova, the Chilkat picked up travelers and vehicles inside the small boat harbor, near the location of today’s boat launch ramp across from Anchor Auto Parts.

The ferry had a small galley containing five tables that were shared by passengers and crew, and provided a limited lunch menu. Additional seating was located on the same level in an enclosed area above the stern.

The Chilkat provided many an entertaining ride to and from Valdez.

The ship was somewhat of a rollercoaster in rough seas, which were often encountered near Knowles Head. Wolverine Johnny Ekemo, CHS ’65, remembered the trip took eight hours, and lunch was served halfway through the passage, which unfortunately put the passengers at that very spot.

The cramped bridge of the Chilkat included a comfortable leather bench, which was reserved for legendary CHS benefactor Bob Korn when he traveled with the Wolverine basketball teams. Photo courtesy of the Alaska Marine Highway

Not surprisingly, more than one Cordova basketball team member staggered off upon arrival in Valdez to suit up for games against the Buccaneers.

On one such trip only one CHS player did not become sick, and the ship, which had originally been named “the Blue Canoe” soon earned an added moniker, “the Vomit Comet.”

But that didn’t daunt the Boys in Blue and White. “We usually took it to them pretty good”, said former Wolverine point guard Pat VanBrocklin, CHS ’70, who played on Chuck Taylor’s highly successful teams.

Retired Cordova teacher Merle Hanson traveled with the squads as Taylor’s assistant coach and remembered the friendly relationship between the crew and the Wolverines. “The cook always had a vat of chili and cases of pop for the kids, and if players showed up early before departure, they would let them board immediately.”

Hanson mentioned that Bob Korn, a longtime booster of CHS activities, often traveled with the team. Korn was well known and liked by everyone, including the Chilkat crew, and would ride in a comfortable bench situated behind the steering wheel in the bridge of the ship.

Hanson also recalled a special crossing on the Chilkat. He borrowed a camper from Taylor to put on his truck for a honeymoon trip throughout Alaska with his new wife Barb.

In those days passengers could evidently stay in their vehicles on the car deck. Hanson recalled that all the crew had been at the wedding reception, and several came down to extend their congratulations.

In fact, at one point, the camper was so crowded he laughed and asked just who was running the ship.

With the arrival in Cordova of the much bigger M/V Bartlett in 1969, the Chilkat was returned to Southeast for various shorter runs, before being decommissioned and auctioned off for $150,000 in 1988.

She was then used for a variety of purposes, including trawling for tuna off the coast of Washington state, and even hauling Christmas trees from Washington to Anchorage one winter.

In 2011, the Chilkat was purchased by Island Scallops for use as a tender in that industry, which was located in Deep Bay on Vancouver Island. Her superstructure was modified considerably, making her almost unrecognizable at the time of her sinking.

The remains of the 64-year-old ferry will probably be cut up for scrap, but the legacy of the Chilkat will likely not be forgotten by many Cordovans who partook of her particular character in their first ferry rides across Prince William Sound.

In only five years here, she made a lasting impression.

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Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at shorn@gci.net.