Malaspina leaves behind a lot of stories in the wake of its retirement

The recent news that the longtime Alaska Marine Highway System ferry Malaspina will be officially retired and will remain in Ketchikan's Ward Cove as a privately owned and operated museum and a training vessel is good news to its fans who had feared that the "Mal" would suffer the same fate as its sistership, the Taku, which was sold in 2018 and scrapped in India.

The Malaspina, along with the Taku and the Matanuska, were the first mainline ferries in the fleet, all going online in 1963. They were expected to have a life span of some 30 years, but all ended up serving well over 50 years. The Matanuska remains an active mainline ferry for the state.

The Malaspina was the first to go online, in January 1963, and even though it was replaced as the largest ship in the fleet by the Columbia in 1973, it remained "the Queen" of the fleet in the eyes of the general public.

When it arrived in Southeast in 1963, it was a major news event. The Panhandle had been without regular year-round passenger ship service since the early 1950s and the building of the new fleet - three ships each projecting to cost $4.5 million - was a major news story throughout 1962 and 1963.

The Malaspina arrived on its first run to Ketchikan on Jan. 23, 1963, and the Ketchikan Daily News reported that more than 3,000 residents turned out greet the ship. Schools even allowed students to skip school to be on hand and most of the businesses in the community shut down for the celebration.

Similar celebrations were held in the other Southeast communities later in the week and Gov. Bill Egan rode the ferry on its first visit to Alaska.

One of the people in the crowd was 7-year-old Ben Hastings. Hastings told his parents that he would go to work on the ferries when he grew up. Twelve years later, he did.

Before the mainliners were built, the Alaska Marine Highway operated day boats in Lynn Canal. The state believed that year-round passenger service throughout the region would benefit the economy and improve connections between the Panhandle and British Columbia and Washington state. The creation of the mainliners was the primary goal of Southeast Conference, which was founded shortly after statehood in 1959.

Compared to some other ships in the fleet - most notably the Taku, which had multiple grounding adventures over the years - the Malaspina had a somewhat less checkered history in its runs in Southeast and between the Panhandle, Prince Rupert and Washington. The ferry system estimates that it traveled more than 4 million miles and carried more than 2.5 million passengers between 1963 and 2019, when it was laid up in Ward Cove.

There were several notable events in the Malaspina's history.

In May 1971, the cruise ship Meteor caught fire 60 miles north of Vancouver, British Columbia. Although the fire killed 32 crew members, the Malaspina's crew was credited with rescuing the 67 passengers and four surviving crew members on board the ship.

"Within two hours of receiving the mayday call from the Meteor, the Malaspina had rescued the survivors from the burning ship; many still in their nightgowns and brought them to safety in Vancouver," former marine highway Capt. William Hopkins wrote in a story for the marine highway website in 2013.

In the 1970s, both the Malaspina and the Matanuska were lengthened from 350 to 408 feet, increasing stateroom and vehicle capacity. The Taku was left at 350 feet.

In 1997, the Malaspina was making one of its normal runs to Prince Rupert when it was caught up in an incident that made international headlines.

In late July of that year, anger over what Canadian fishermen believed to be overharvesting by Alaska fishermen on salmon stocks bound for British Columbia caused them to blockade the Malaspina while it was tied to the dock in Prince Rupert.

For three days, the ferry was trapped in the port until the fishermen relented and the ferry was allowed to leave. Alaska responded by ending the popular twice a week service between Prince Rupert and Southeast, which up to that point had been transporting some 170,000 people a year. The state eventually resumed the service but budget cuts and other issues eventually limited service to once a week or less.

Service to Prince Rupert ended in fall of 2019, and only restarted in June, at just two sailings per month by the Matanuska.

In 2013, when the Alaska Marine Highway System celebrated its 50th anniversary, the Malaspina was gussied up with a new paint job - most notably a yellow smokestack like in the early days of the system - and served at the centerpiece of celebrations in each community.

Mariah Warren was a member of the Malaspina's deck crew, but she had originally started in the galley.

"I was brought aboard as part of the extra cook army for her 50th anniversary 'Golden Cruise' in 2013," she said. "We opened up the galley in ports along way and served vast crowds. I remember leaving Wrangell one night in the dark, and it seemed as if half the town was out in their cars honking and flashing their lights in a show of appreciation and support. It was a pretty magical time."

But that proved to be the last shining moment for the Malaspina. Within a couple of years, it was facing between $16 million and $20 million in repairs and the state was looking to lay her up. A decision was made to repair the Matanuska instead and the Malaspina was docked in Ward Cove in late 2019. There she sat for the past three years as the Alaska Marine Highway System looked for a buyer and also tried to avoid the ship going to scrap like the Taku did.

Longtime Malaspina crew members are generally happy that the ship is being preserved and not sold for scrap, but they also believe the Malaspina also had sea years left.

"Sad to see her go," longtime chief engineer Richard Cook said. "There was nothing wrong on her that couldn't be repaired."

Retired Capt. William Hopkins, who served as third mate, second mate, chief mate and relief captain on the Malaspina, agreed.

"The Malaspina was a great handling ship with tremendous backing power, more so than the Matanuska," Hopkins said. "She had split-handle throttles where we could pull a pin and 'split' the throttle handles to control engine RPMs and propeller pitch separately. This made for great control of the ship, making it do what you wanted it to do. The Malaspina was always obedient to those commands. It seems unjust that the Matanuska is still running while the Malaspina isn't."

Hopkins - who went on to captain the Kennicott for many years - also has another reason to think fondly of his time on the Malaspina, he met his wife, Wynne Gilmore Hopkins on board.

"My wife served as a Forest Service naturalist in the summer on the Malaspina," Hopkins said. "That is how we met each other in 1981. The ship has a very fond place in our hearts and memories."


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