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    by Former Senator Mark Begich

    Posted on 2013-02-12

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    BEGICH. Mr. President, today I wish to honor the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Marine Highway System. Alaskans celebrate this critical and necessary water transportation system [[Page S648]] which links rural and urban hub communities along the coast of our vast State. Unlike the lower 48, many of our communities are not accessible by road, so in many areas the primary means of travel is by air or sea. Therefore, the Alaska Marine Highway makes up a large part of our highway system and is a route so special it has been designated a National Scenic Byway and an All American Road, the only marine route in the United States with this designation.

    My family and I share special memories of taking the ferries to many communities throughout Alaska. The Marine Highway was even part of our trip here to Washington for my first year in the Senate. A ferry ride brings Alaskans together while on their way to visit family, play in basketball tournaments, or bring new cars and boats home from the lower 48.

    Although the 50-year anniversary commemorates the formal establishment of the Alaska Division of Marine Transportation in 1963, the Alaska Marine Highway System was begun in 1948, initiated by three men with a dream to provide dependable marine transportation among Alaska's coastal communities. Haines resident Steve Homer joined forces with brothers Ray and Gustav Gelotte to purchase the M/V Chilkoot and set up Chilkoot Motorship Lines. The vessel, formerly a U.S. Navy landing craft, required work to remove its military features and ensure it could pass U.S. Coast Guard inspection, but within a few months of its purchase, it was deemed ready for service as a civilian passenger vessel. The M/V Chilkoot could carry a maximum of only 14 cars and by all accounts had ``poor accommodations'' due to retaining many of its original Navy features. No matter the M/V Chilkoot ferried its first two cars from Haines to Juneau in August of 1948.

    As fate would have it, one of those cars belonged to Ernest Gruening, then the Territorial Governor of Alaska. Governor Gruening became an ardent supporter of the new transportation system and with two other commissioners from the Board of Roads authorized the construction of ferry ramps in Juneau, Haines, and Skagway. Thus, service to these three small southeast communities was born.

    In 1988 Steve Homer wrote a letter about his experience starting the Alaska Marine Highway System. In that letter he wrote that his initial idea of bringing a landing craft to Southeast Alaska was spawned in 1944 when he commanded such a craft in World War II. He said he signed partnership papers to form Chilkoot Motorship Lines in 1949 and that the total required equity capital was $9,177 in 1948 dollars. A few years later the business ran into financial difficulties, and the Alaska Territorial Government offered to purchase it. Ownership transferred to the territory in 1951.

    By 1957 the M/V Chilkoot was too small to meet demand and was replaced by the M/V Chilkat. The M/V Chilkat could carry 59 passengers and 15 vehicles. It began daily service between Juneau, Haines, and Skagway in April of that year.

    Two years later, on January 3, 1959, Alaska became the 49th State and the M/V Chilkat became the first State-owned ferry. That same year, the First Alaska Legislature approved the Alaska Ferry Transportation Act, and voters approved bond issues totaling $18 million to expand the ferry fleet. These bonds enabled the State to commission four new vessels and build docks throughout southeast Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula. In 1963, with the establishment of the Division of Marine Transportation, the Alaska Marine Highway System was officially launched.

    Over the past 50 years the Alaska Marine Highway has grown to include 11 vessels which serve 35 communities. From the southern terminus in Bellingham, WA, the system stretches more than 3,500 miles to Dutch Harbor, AK. It makes port calls in Prince Rupert, BC, and throughout Alaska's Inside Passage. It travels across the Gulf of Alaska to Prince William Sound and along the Aleutian Chain, all to carry the Nation's commerce to distant destinations and Alaska's passengers to home ports. Through this scenic highway, Alaskans share their incredible natural beauty with visitors from around the world and connect with each other through a transportation system which has served safely and reliably for 50 years.

    Thank you for allowing me to celebrate this milestone 50th anniversary of the unique Alaska treasure known as the Alaska Marine Highway System. ____________________

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