Ward Cove is transforming into a cruise ship tourist hub, even as the empty 2020 cruise ship season wears on in Ketchikan.
The project is a collaboration between the local Spokely family, which owns the former Ketchikan Pulp Company property in the cove, and the Binkley family, which is based in Fairbanks.
The Spokely family owns Ward Cove Dock Group and the Binkley family owns the tour business Godspeed, Inc. John Binkley is the president of Ward Cove Dock Group. Together, they are building a cruise ship docking facility, welcoming center and transportation hub for cruise ship passengers.
The new cruise ship dock, which is being built in Ward Cove through a partnership with Norwegian Cruise Lines, is designed to moor two neopanamax ships at a time, project head John Binkley said during a July 24 tour of the site with the Daily News.
Binkley and local Shauna Lee, who is the company’s director of port operations, began the tour of the new facilities at the east side of a vast brick building that is being transformed into a “Welcoming Center” for ship passengers.
Binkley gestured across a concrete-topped area where several cars were parked, and explained that buses will use the area to pick up ship passengers for tours or to transport them downtown.
Visitors will arrive on the other side of the building, so will not be able to see the bus staging area at first, Binkley said.
“We wanted to have a different experience when they come into Ketchikan and into Ward Cove,” he explained. “We don’t want it to be about motor coaches, we want it to be about the Tongass, what that represents, and also the history of the mill.”
Along the water side of the parking area, and sliding into the building’s interior, are the original rail cars that the mill used to move materials. Binkley said that those cars would be left on their tracks, as historically accurate representations of the original mill operations.
He added that there also will be historical photographs of the mill inside the Welcoming Center, as the telling of the mill’s story is a central goal of the project.
“It’s really pretty unique, that we had a railroad here in Ketchikan,” he said.
Binkley said that the 57,000 square-foot building has 20,000 square-feet of brick that is undergoing refurbishment.
The clamor of workers driving forklifts, cleaning brick walls and repairing the aged structure rang loudly throughout the building. The acrid scent of muriatic acid as workers cleaned the walls wafted through the air, mixing with the faint dusty smell of the concrete floor.
Besides scouring the walls, Binkley said workers also are repairing cracks and areas of crumbling grout. No new bricks have needed to be purchased, which is fortunate, Binkley said, because the bricks are an unusually large size and would be difficult to obtain.
The rail cars sitting within the cove side of the building will serve as the facility’s restrooms, Binkley said. Concrete floors will be installed and sinks and mirrors will be affixed to the original brick walls, that will give visitors a glimpse of the original character of the building.
Binkley said that the graffiti on the rail cars, ranging from artful to slightly crude, will be left intact with the goal of authenticity in mind.
“It’s got quite a history that really dates back to the depression,” Binkley said. “People would ride the rails and they would leave messages.”
The train cars, when the mill was in operation, would be rolled onto rail barges to be unloaded at Prince Rupert before heading to farther destinations, he explained.
“It’s kind of a balance between the railroads and the artists,” he said of the graffiti, or tagging. The artists were cognizant of that balance, he said, evidenced by the fact that they would tape over the railroad’s identification numbers and codes on the cars’ sides when they painted. When the tape was removed, the numbers and codes were then still readable.
“Then the railroads are less incentivized to get rid of the graffiti, or their art,” Binkley added.
Binkley, walking to the west entrance’s broad opening, described what the cruise ship visitors would encounter as they approached the Welcoming Center.
“As people enter,” he said, “you won’t be able to see into the building, because there will be a line of trees.”
He explained that they plan to create a live forest that people will wander through inside the building along a broad, meandering path.
About installing the trees, Binkley said, “we’ll take them up roots and all and transfer them.”
They plan to plant all local species to plant in soil bound by rocks. There also will be a variety in the sizes of trees and undergrowth shrubs as part of the installation.
There are skylights in the high ceiling which should help the trees to thrive, he said, and they will install misters to not only help the growth of the flora, but also to give visitors the feel of the actual rainforest. The sounds of the forest also will be piped in, and taxidermied animals will enhance the landscape, Binkley said.
“We really want to focus on the Tongass National Forest here,” he added. “I think it’s such an important part of what Southeast is all about and the multiple uses of the Tongass over time.”
Lee said, about the experience, “there’s a lot of people who are disabled that can’t go on those nature walks and at least they’ll get the feel of ‘Oh, I saw the forest.’”
Binkley said, “We want their first introduction ... to be of the Tongass, so they get, really, a sense of place and what this area’s all about.”
As people exit the trail at the upland side of the building, they can choose to enter a theater to their left, in which informational films will be shown and nature interpreters will offer talks about different aspects of the Tongass National Forest and Ketchikan, Binkley said.
Other features of the Welcoming Center will be a central restaurant, planned to be created by Cape Fox Corp.; a gift shop; an area for local artisans to sell their work; and a historical display area. Other features planned will be to support logistics, such as a dispatching desk, and offices and storage.
As Binkley and Lee led the tour out to the broad walkway leading to the new dock, Binkley described what he saw as some positives about the ships using their new facility rather than the downtown Ketchikan moorages.
One aspect that hopefully will improve is the congestion that downtown sees when ships are packed in there. An improvement for the extra large cruise ships using the Ward Cove docks is the new route they’ll take to enter the cove.
Binkley said the NCL ships headed to Ward Cove will go around the outside of Gravina Island, entering and exiting near Guard Island.
“They can stay at service speed all the way to Guard Island, and then duck into Ward Cove,” he said, “so it really gives (the passengers) more time on the island.”
The extra miles that ships must travel at much slower speeds as they approach town takes up more time, he said.
Additionally, “it will be more dependable in terms of not having to bypass Ketchikan because of weather,” Binkley explained. “It really is a refuge in here they’ve used for decades to get in out of the weather. So, the combination of coming around the outside of the island and into the protected cove will just make it much safer because you don’t have to transit the narrows in high winds,” as well as in more crowded conditions.
The new dock facility is nearing completion, Binkley said, and will be ready in plenty of time for the first ship of 2021.
Workers welding pile caps into place perched above the broad plank-covered floating dock, which had barges tied up along each side. One barge, owned by Anchorage-based Turnagain Marine Construction, was topped with two concrete mixer trucks and various equipment. That company has been installing the piles and dolphins for the dock.
“We mixed concrete on the barge, so part of the structure is concrete,” Binkley said.
In an April telephonic interview, Binkley said that some of the galvanized steel sections of piling are 185-feet long, 48 inches in diameter and have 1-inch-thick walls.
He pointed to the piles and described the process of installing them.
“These are down into the bedrock and then driven into the bedrock, and then there’s a large drill that comes down inside them and then drills down deeper into the bedrock. Then, there’s a hollow hole that goes from the bottom of this down into the bedrock, then we put steel cages of rebar down in there, and then a long pipe that goes down to the bottom and we mix concrete and then pump the concrete up to the top all the way down to the bottom and then fill it up with concrete.”
The local crew of the Alaskan Salvor has been welding 250-pound bars of zinc to the underwater portions of the steel piles, Binkley said, to protect the piles from corrosion.
The structures for a covered walkway are in place, with clear plastic roofing planned to be installed later, Binkley said. Alongside that walkway is space for vehicles as well as for people to transit via electric carts and wheelchairs.
Edging the dock on each side are six mooring stations with giant bollards and electric capstans to assist with tensioning dock lines. The floating dock is 560 feet long and 70 feet wide, and the overall length of the dock with the dolphins is 1,300 feet.
Two mooring platforms top two sets of towering steel dolphin pairs. That’s where the ships will be tied to first, with springlines, before the bow and stern lines are secured. A minimum of 15 lines are used to tie each ship, Binkley said.
He then described the construction of the dolphins. A “pin pile” is vertical, he explained, and a “batter pile” is angled. The combination of those make up a reaction dolphin, “so it has a different function in terms of the way it absorbs energy from the ship.”
There still are two mooring structures to build, Binkley said, for the aft mooring lines. They will not need to be designed for workers to operate from, so will be shorter than the main mooring platforms.
An advantage of the dock they’ve built is that it floats with the tide, allowing the ship to stay at the same level as the dock’s surface, Binkley said. That means that the angles of the gangways never change.
“If your gangways keep changing, you have to stop (embarking and disembarking passengers) then set it to another deck, and people have to move to another deck, your security has to move to another deck and it slows down the process,” Binkley said. “So, this makes it much quicker. You can have multiple gangways and it’s a fixed angle.”
Also on the dock, 40-foot light poles will be installed, as well as a water, electrical and communications station.
Gesturing to the wooded shoreline to the west of the Welcoming Center building, Binkley said that they plan to eventually improve those lands to include trails. Closer to the building, one large dilapidated building is scheduled for demolition and a business located there is moving to a spot upland, closer to Tongass Highway.
Binkley pointed out improvements they’d made to the land-side structures in addition to the brick Welcoming Center building. The electrostatic precipitator towers have fresh metal siding, for instance. The tour buses will drive underneath them, making it a sort of welcome arch, Lee pointed out.
“It tells a story,” Binkley said of that structure, “it’s a story about the mill.”
Binkley and Lee said that the companies hope to offer opportunities in the off-season for locals to enjoy the facility.
Lee said, of the entire project, “It’s all been done to honor the mill and the people who worked here and the forest, all that this place did to build the community, and I think that people are just going to be blown away by walking into, basically, the history of their town.”