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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  Industry  >  Tourism
The Road to Tourism
By Jennifer Houdek Page 1 of 2   Next ยป

Today, tourism is Alaska's second major industry; however, until about 50 years ago, only the richest and/or hardiest vacationer would strike out for the Last Frontier. Before World War II, traveling to and throughout Alaska was difficult, with snow and ice making travel routes impassable during the winter months. So Alaska's tourist season generally ran from mid-June to mid-August. Also, scheduling was a problem. Steamships transporting tourists from the Lower 48 didn't always coordinate with train or riverboat operations, leading to many delays, and leaving tourists stranded in mosquito-infested wilderness. Finally, the cost to travel to Alaska was prohibitive. In the early 1900s, only wealthy businessmen and their families could afford the $600-per-person travel expense, plus take off five weeks for the complete trip.

With the opening of Mount McKinley National Park in 1917 and then the completion of the Alaska Railroad running to the park in 1923, tourism to Alaska became more affordable and popular.

At the close of World War I, steamship companies began actively advertising trips to Alaska's Inside Passage. In 1921, the Alaska Steamship Company, which already had been in operation since 1895, teamed up with the Alaska Railroad and Alaska-owned motor coach companies to create "The Golden Belt Tour." The steamer would take one group of tourists to Seward and to connect with the railway to Fairbanks, while a second group was dropped off in Valdez and transported by motor coach on the Richardson Highway to Fairbanks. In the Golden Heart City, the groups would cross paths and return on the opposite route from the way they had come.

In 1923, President Warren G. Harding visited Alaska to formally open the Alaska Railroad, as well as travel around the state. The President visited Valdez and Cordova, traveled the Richardson Highway, and viewed Keystone Canyon and finally the Miles and Childs Glaciers on the Copper River by way of the Northwest Railway. Publicity from the President's travels made people from the Lower 48 curious to see Alaska for themselves. Further boosting tourism to Alaska, the Alaska Railroad opened a tourist office in Chicago's Loop in 1929.

Tourism was finally taking off when the Great Depression swept the country, and numbers declined rapidly. In 1940, attempting to recover from the drop in tourism, the Valdez Miner ran a weekly ad that boasted of Alaska's beauty: "The Richardson Highway . . . traverses the famous Keystone Canyon, 13 miles from Valdez, whose grandeur and scenic beauty are rarely excelled anywhere in the world . . . Nor are the beauties of this route to the Interior confined to Keystone Canyon. Climbing the easy grades beyond to the summit of Thompson Pass, there is unfolded to the view a vast panorama of jagged, snow clad peaks interspersed with narrow valleys clothed with tropical verdure . . . Mountain and glacier, plain and forest, rippling brooks and mighty rivers, some as clear and sparkling as the diamond, others gray or brown with the silt which the mighty glaciers at their heads have ground from their rocky beds. Verily, no trip in all Alaska, nor in all the world offers more to the tourists than this trip from Valdez to Fairbanks over the Richardson Highway."

The tourism industry expanded into the Interior and Mount McKinley National Park when the Alaska Railroad was completed in 1923. The railroad built a train station in the park, which created easier access for tourists. Entrepreneurs such as Dan T. Kennedy, Maurice Morino, and Pat Lynch jumped at the chance to capitalize on the impending tourist boom in the park.

Kennedy obtained the first concession permit in the park. He built the Savage River Tent Camp, which provided the only tourist accommodations in the park. Kennedy also provided transportation, by packhorse and later stagecoach, from the train station to the tent camp, as well as tours throughout the park. In 1925, the Mt. McKinley Tourist & Transportation Company acquired the tent camp and added a dining hall and recreational hall with a dance floor. The company upgraded their transportation vehicles from horse and stagecoach to bus and automobile fleets.

Maurice Morino and Pat Lynch built roadhouses along the railroad track on the eastern border of Mount McKinley National Park to provide accommodations for the railroad workers and miners. Although Pat Lynch left early on, in 1923, Morino built a new roadhouse closer to the railroad bridge over Riley Creek. His property grew to include the roadhouse as well as cabins built to accommodate tourists. Morino ran the roadhouse until his death in 1937; he was buried in the park.

In 1923, the Alaska Railroad built the Curry Hotel for visitors who could afford more lavish accommodations. The hotel was located 100 miles south of Mount McKinley National Park. There, tourists aboard the Alaska Railroad park tour could stop for the night. Although the hotel's prices were high and there wasn't a newsstand, library or bar, it did offer clean rooms, a beautiful view of Mount McKinley, as well as a swimming pool, a golf course, and tennis courts. During the winter months, the hotel was advertised to Alaska residents as a "get-away resort." A ski tow and floodlights were set up for nighttime skiing, creating a popular spot for the members of the Anchorage Ski Club. Along with skiing, dances were scheduled every evening, and the hotel soon became a vacation spot for Army and Air Force officers and wives. The Curry Hotel was busy year-round until it burned in 1956.

As more and more tourists flooded Mount McKinley National Park each year, pressure was put on the Alaska Railroad to build a hotel in the park. The wall tents offered by the Savage River Tent Camp and the Copper Mountain (now Mount Eielson) camp were considered primitive by visitors. In 1937, construction began on the hotel. Costs were kept low as the Alaska Railroad transported the building materials for free and the Alaska Steamship Company reduced its shipping rates by 35 percent. The hotel was opened in time for the 1939 season.

Alaska's tourism industry declined once again during World War II; however, travel picked up again nationwide as the war ended. When the Denali Highway opened in the 1950s, visitors could at last drive their own vehicles into Mount McKinley National Park. In 1959, the Eielson Visitors' Center was opened and the park road was upgraded to accommodate the increase in traffic. However, in 1966, environmentalist Adolph Murie petitioned Congress to halt the upgrade of the road, arguing its negative effects on the wildlife in the park. Conceding to Murie's campaign, the final 18 miles of the road remain in their original state, with only the bridges being replaced.

After the end of World War II, a Fairbanks pilot with Wien Airlines, Charles "Chuck" West, was selling, organizing, and flying tours to Nome. Recognizing the need for more services, he launched Arctic Alaska Travel Agency with another Fairbanksan, Paul Greimann, owner of Alaska Coachways. They were among the first to network with travel agencies in the Lower 48 to promote Alaska travel. After Greimann dropped out, West went on to found a hotel chain, motorcoach network, and Inside Passage cruises, offering full travel options to tourists as early as 1957. His umbrella company, Westours, established Chuck West as the "Father of Alaska Tourism." In 1973, West sold controlling interest of Westours to Holland America, and later founded yet another travel company called Cruise West, a Seattle-based business directed by his son, Richard West. Chuck West died in 2003 at age 90.

The Alaska Steamship Company remained a popular travel option for tourists, even after the wartime construction of the Alaska Highway. However, the company suffered financial losses from the end of charter privileges and subsidy payments, and an upswing of air travel, coupled with labor problems, spelled the end of passenger service as of July 1954. The steamship Denali made the last passenger trip to Alaska in September 1954; afterward, the passenger ships were sold off. The Alaska Steamship Company continued to transport cargo until rising operation costs forced the company to shut down in January 1971.

Tourism to Alaska has only increased throughout the years. With the construction of the Alaska Highway (Alcan) in 1943, the Lower 48 was finally linked to Alaska's Glenn Highway, and more and more visitors chose to drive north. The Parks Highway opened in 1972 with a more direct link between Anchorage and Fairbanks and further increasing the number of tourists to Mount McKinley National Park. The Alaska Railroad remained a popular mode of transportation. Today, large tour companies still book their guests on Alaska Railroad package trips along the railbelt.

In the last decades of the 20th century, luxury cruise travel to Alaska gained popularity, and with each year, more and more cruise ships may be found along the Inside Passage and Southcentral. Ports of call include Ketchikan, Wrangell, Sitka, Juneau, Skagway, and Seward, where visitors can book on-shore excursions with the Alaska Railroad and motor coach service, much like the "Golden-Belt" tour that the Alaska Steamship Company offered in 1921.
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Gallery of Images
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A well-dressed group of tourists
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The Curry Hotel
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Alaska Railroad Hotel in Mount McKinley National Park
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Alaska roadhouses
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The World's Smoothest Waterway
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