October 18, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 42

Ferry documentary traces system's roots here

In 1988, an ailing Steve Homer of Haines posed for a Chilkat Valley News photographer aboard the ferry Malaspina, above a sign announcing the 25th anniversary of the Alaska Marine Highway.

Homer, who operated a surplus Navy landing craft as ferry in Lynn Canal for four years starting in 1947, never quite got the recognition he deserved, according to residents and local history buffs who know him as “the father of the ferry system.”

Now friends in Haines are hoping a 50th anniversary documentary on the marine highway will help cement his memory and his contribution. Homer died a year after the ferry’s 25th anniversary.

His boat, named “Chilkoot,” was a no-frills affair with little deck space. Waves sometimes splashed aboard and passengers remained in their cars during voyages between Haines, Skagway and Juneau.

During one nasty Thanksgiving storm, the vessel beached on Katzehin Flats, with a cargo of frozen turkeys bound for Haines and nothing to cook them on, said longtime resident Marge Ward.

But the vessel was good enough that the Territory of Alaska purchased it from Homer in 1951, and replaced it with a similar vessel dubbed “Chilkat,” one of the first official ships of the system that marks 1963 as its birthday.

Documentary producer Scott Foster interviewed Ward and three others, including Mayor Stephanie Scott, at the Sheldon Museum Sunday, nailing down the local connection that almost was overlooked, Scott said.

Makers of the movie showed a preview during last month’s Southeast Conference in Craig, explaining the system originated in Juneau. Former Haines Borough Manager Robert Venables brought the apparent error to Scott’s attention. “Robert said, ‘I’m not sure they have the story right,’” Scott recalled.

Their intercession led to the trip by Foster and cameraman Skip Gray to Haines. Ward recounted on film working for Homer in Washington, D.C. before he and a group of other veterans came north to take over the decommissioned Fort Seward in the late 1940s.

The veterans had different dreams for the Fort, but Homer, a Navy veteran, was interested in establishing passenger vessel service in the area, Ward said. He was a “stubborn Swede,” she said, who battled the U.S. Coast Guard on regulations.

Residents Joan Snyder and Annette Smith, who knew Homer, also were interviewed on camera.

Producer Foster said he can’t say what footage will be included in a one-hour video history of the system that will be offered to public TV stations across the country. It should be complete in February, he said.

Public TV station KTOO and 360 North are creating it. Longer segments of interviews will be included in three additional, oral-history type programs that will play in Alaska, he said.

The project has filmed around 100 hours of interviews, including with passengers and retired ship captains. The vessel’s role as an element of Panhandle culture is captured in segments about travel to the Gold Medal Basketball Tournament and the Alaska Folk Festival, he said.

“It’s such a big subject, 50 years on a topic as big and complex as the Alaska Marine Highway System, it leaves you a lot of ways to go,” Foster said.

Snyder, a Chilkat Valley Historical Society member who met Homer when she moved to Haines in the early 1970s, said she was grateful for the opportunity to talk about her old friend, and hold his place in history. “We have to keep reminding people that he was the father of the ferry system.”