By Melinda Munson
Skagway Mayor Andrew Cremata is looking forward to a bustling tourist season, pleased with the mitigation efforts on Railroad Dock meant to curb the landslides occurring with increased frequency since last summer.
“Anyone who knows me will tell you, I am not much of an optimist, but I am a realist,” he said. “I firmly believe that we will host a record number of cruise passengers in 2023. If not, we will be close.”
If Cremata is correct, this is good news for the mayor who sells tours during the summer, and the town of Skagway which suffered through two years of COVID-19 and a partial season recovery cut short when Railroad Dock was deemed unsafe for full use.
Following the release of the municipality funded “Railroad Dock Landslide Initial Site Trip Visit Report” (July 2022) by geological firm Shannon & Wilson, the forward berth was shut down.
Regarding the North Slide area, the report states: “It is our opinion that the slide mass will eventually fail and the consequences of such failure will be catastrophic in nature with significant risks to life and property. The timing of such a failure is difficult to predict but accelerating movement rates suggest that the failure event is approaching.”
Long-term mitigation of the mountain that looms over Railroad Dock is estimated at $40 million. The municipality applied for a Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency last December to help fund the costly project. In the meantime, the municipality engaged Shannon & Wilson in October 2022 at approximately $3 million to scale the mountain side and add attenuators (fencing that slows and redirects falling rocks), among other safety measures, in the hopes of getting the dock up to highway safety standards.
“The plan for the Railroad Dock in 2023 is to dock larger ships (Oasis and Breakaway class ships) on Railroad Aft, and then use buses to safely transport passengers off the dock, and to tender passengers from Railroad Forward,” Cremata said. “To achieve this, the rockslide area must meet highway rockfall safety standard. Because the scaling is going so well, engineers believe this standard will be achieved.”
“As buses transport passengers beneath the slide area, spotters will vigilantly monitor the slope,” Cremata continued. “Any sign of rockfall activity can be instantaneously reported so that the area can be cleared. This is an extra safety protocol to ensure that passengers and dock workers aren’t at risk.”
According to Borough Manager Brad Ryan, “the work should be complete and tested by April.” Shannon & Wilson hired Rock Supremacy to carry out scaling.
The 2023 Cruise Line Agency of Alaska (CLAA) schedule lists the Norwegian Bliss as the first ship to make port in Skagway on April 18. It is assigned to Railroad Aft.
Rocky Outcalt, owner of Klondike Doughboy, said he and his wife Lillian enjoyed an “exceptional year last season for such a small number of people on ships.” With train expeditions to Canada shortened, more tourists were in town to consume the Outcalt’s famous fried dough.
Outcalt said he was optimistic about this year’s tourist numbers.
“I’ve hired full staff. The ship schedule looks good. I’m sure ships will be full.”
When an article popped up on cruisehive.com on Tuesday announcing that Holland America’s Nieuw Amsterdam would skip its May 16 visit to Skagway for “operational reasons,” the news made Outcalt “nervous.”
Prior to the cancellation, the May 16 CLAA schedule had five ships booked. Assuming the Railroad mitigation work is successful, a total of four ships will be able to make port in Skagway at one time, one large vessel less than 2019.
If Railroad Dock does not meet highway safety standards and only Ore and Broadway docks can berth ships for a total of two, none of them larger vessels, Skagway would have another difficult season.
“It would be hard for the town,” Outcalt said. He remains positive.