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Visiting Knob Hill: Remembering the Building of a Record-Breaking Tunnel in Ketchikan, Alaska

Updated on February 5, 2020
State flag of Alaska
State flag of Alaska | Source
Downtown Ketchikan, Alaska, USA
Downtown Ketchikan, Alaska, USA | Source
Water Street Tunnel in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Water Street Tunnel in Ketchikan, Alaska. | Source

Space at a premium at rocky Downtown Ketchikan

Knob Hill (1) is a rocky promontory at Downtown Ketchikan, Alaska. The First City — as Ketchikan is called — has rather limited flat land to spare; it essentially hugs a narrow coastal strip of land in between mountains and south-eastern Alaska's arterial waterway known as the Inside Passage. (The situation of Ketchikan on a narrow strip of land by the shoreline is seen in one of the photos I have supplied, below.) For the first few decades of Ketchikan's existence. the suburb of Newtown was connected to Downtown Ketchikan only by a wooden viaduct which wound around rocky Knob Hill.

Indeed, in the early 20th century, few of Ketchikan's streets were paved, and traffic lights were unknown.

Then in 1947 President Harry S. Truman signed the Tongass Timber Bill (2). Because of the potential for growth in the local lumber industry and plans for developing pulp products industry, the need for better road communications within Ketchikan itself became acute (3).

This was the context of the creation of Knob Hill's Tunnel in 1954. 83.5 metres / 274 feet long, it was described as world record-breaking.

Record-breaking? so, how?

The reason for this designation is because Knob Hill's tunnel is described as the world's only tunnel that can be driven through, over and around (4).

The tunnel was the subject of local grumbling at first, with excavation and construction work disrupting life in Downtown Ketchikan. (Some local people even surmised that while it would have been more logical to blast away the whole of Knob Hill, this would have been unlikely to happen, since a number of prominent people in Ketichkan lived in desirable houses situated upon it! and so — argued critics — it was an option which was never seriously considered!)

In the ensuing decades since 1954, Knob Hill's Tunnel, at Front Street, has come to be a symbol of the City itself.

February 6, 2020


(1) Sometimes written 'Nobb Hill'.

(2) Before World War Two, the affairs of Alaska were probably not seen a priority in Washington, DC, yet the invasion of the Aleutians by Imperial Japan and, after World War Two, with the rise of the Cold War, brought official realization that Alaska occupied a strategic position between world powers. While Alaska was still a Territory before its status was signed into its 1959 Statehood by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, President Truman's signing of the Tongass Timber Bill proved very significant in the development of Ketchikan's economy.

(3) See also:

(4) See also:

Ketchikan from sea
Ketchikan from sea | Source
Harry Truman, half-length portrait, seated at desk, circa 1945 Chase-Statler, Washington
Harry Truman, half-length portrait, seated at desk, circa 1945 Chase-Statler, Washington | Source

Also worth seeing

In Ketchikan itself, visitors to the city often frequent the many gift stores specializing in Native Alaskan and other artwork; First Lutheran Church in Newtown was built in 1930 principally on account of the city's Norwegian population; St. John's Episcopal Church dates from 1904; the city is well known for its totem poles; 'The Rock' is a remarkable, historical sculpture by Dave Rubin; nearby Deer Mountain overlooks the City.

Misty Fiords National Monument (distance: 64 kilometres / 40 miles), governed by the US Forest Service, consists of 9,246 km2 / 2,294,343 acres of often near vertical glacial valleys, some of which rise to 600 to 900 metres / 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level and descend to 300 metres / 1000 feet below it; boat and floatplane tours [NB: Please check the FAA status of these floatplane tours] are organized from Ketchikan.

How to get there

Alaska Airlines and Delta Connection fly to Ketchikan International Airport, (distance — travel via ferry — from Downtown Ketchikan: 2 kilometres / 1.43 miles) from Seattle/Tacoma, WA, with wide North American connections; Princess Cruises and other cruise companies offer services to Ketichikan, often on a seasonal basis; some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. You are advised to refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada

Map location of Ketchikan Gateway Borough, Alaska, United States
Map location of Ketchikan Gateway Borough, Alaska, United States | Source

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