Ketchikan is named after Ketchikan Creek, which flows through the town, emptying into the Tongass Narrows a short distance southeast of its downtown. "Ketchikan" comes from the Tlingit name for the creek, Kitschk-hin, the meaning of which is unclear. It may mean "the river belonging to Kitschk"; other accounts claim it means "Thundering Wings of an Eagle". In modern Tlingit this name is rendered as Kichx̱áan. Ketchikan Creek served as a summer fish camp for Tlingit natives for untold years before the town was established by Mike Martin in 1885. The area near the mouth of Ketchikan Creek later earned Ketchikan a measure of infamy during the first half of the 20th century for a red-light district known as Creek Street, with brothels aligned on either side of the creek. According to the U.S. Postal Service, one of Ketchikan's two zip codes, 99950, is the highest-numbered in the United States.
Ketchikan's economy is based upon government services, tourism and commercial fishing. Civic boosters have dubbed the community the "Salmon Capital of the World." The Misty Fiords National Monument is one of the area's major attractions, and the Tongass National Forest has long been headquartered in Ketchikan, mostly in the city's historic Federal Building. For most of the latter half of the 20th century, a large portion of Ketchikan's economy and life centered on the Ketchikan Pulp Company pulp mill in nearby Ward Cove. The mill closed in 1997 in the wake of the passage of the Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1990, which reduced timber harvest targets in the national forest.
Ketchikan has the world's largest collection of standing totem poles, found throughout the city and at four major locations: Saxman Totem Park, Totem Bight State Park, Potlatch Park, and the Totem Heritage Center. Most of the totems at Saxman Totem Park and Totem Bight State Park are recarvings of older poles, a practice that began during the Roosevelt Administration through the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Totem Heritage Center displays preserved 19th-century poles rescued from abandoned village sites near Ketchikan.
Ketchikan is located on Revillagigedo Island, 700 miles (1,100 km) north of Seattle, Washington, and 235 miles (378 km) south of Juneau, Alaska. It is surrounded by the Tongass National Forest, which is managed by the United States Forest Service from headquarters in the Ketchikan Federal Building downtown.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 5.9 square miles (15.3 km2). 4.4 square miles (11.3 km2) of it is land and 1.5 square miles (4.0 km2) of it (29.14%) is water.
The ½-mile (800 m) wide channel called the Tongass Narrows separates Ketchikan from Gravina Island, where Ketchikan International Airport is located. Deer Mountain, a 3,001-foot (915 m) peak, rises immediately east of the city's downtown area.
Ketchikan has a climate greatly modified and moderated by its maritime location, featuring an oceanic climate (Köppen Cfb) which is likened to Scotland or Northern Ireland though with much more rain, earning it the nickname of the "Rain Capital of Alaska". Winters are cool but far milder than its latitude alone may suggest: January has a 24-hour average of 33.6 °F (0.9 °C). Summers are mild, as August’s high averages 64.4 °F (18.0 °C). Another feature of the area’s climate is the high amount of rainfall, with an equivalent average of 153 inches (3,900 mm) per year, falling more heavily in autumn and winter. The climate is so moderated that even Tallahassee, Florida has recorded an all-time record minimum—−2 °F (−19 °C) in February 1899—lower than that of Ketchikan, although Tallahassee averages around 22 °F (12 °C) warmer over the year. Further east in North America, winters on these parallels are extremely cold.
The record high temperature in Ketchikan was 89 °F (32 °C) on June 20, 1958, and August 14, 1977. The record low temperature was −1 °F (−18 °C) on December 15, 1964, and January 5, 1965. The wettest year was 1949 with 202.55 inches (5,145 mm) and the driest year was 1995 with 88.45 inches (2,247 mm). The most rainfall in one month was 42.69 inches (1,084 mm) during October 1974 and the most rainfall in 24 hours was 8.71 inches (221 mm) on October 11, 1977. The most snowfall in one month was 45.1 inches (115 cm) in January 1971.
As of 2010, there were 8,050 people, 3,259 households, and 1,885 families residing in the city. The population density was 1,829.5 per square mile (714.1/km²). It is the most densely populated city in Alaska. There were 3,731 housing units at an average density of 848.0 per square mile (330.2/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 60.7% White, 16.7% Native American (8.3% Tlingit-Haida, 1.9% Tsimshian), 10.8% Asian (9.4% Filipino), 10.0% from two or more races, 0.8% Black or African American, 0.3% Pacific Islander, and 0.7% some other race. 4.4% of the population were Hispanic or Latino (2.6% Mexican) of any race.
There were 3,259 households. 30.8% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 37.6% were headed by married couples living together, 13.7% had a female householder with no husband present, and 42.2% were non-families. 33.0% of all households were made up of individuals, and 9.0% were someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.41, and the average family size was 3.07.
The population is spread out with 23.9% under the age of 18, 9.5% from 18 to 24, 26.6% from 25 to 44, 29.3% from 45 to 64, and 10.7% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 36.7 years. For every 100 females there were 103.1 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 102.5 males.
For the period 2007-11, the estimated median annual income for a household in the city was $49,313, and the median income for a family was $68,431. The per capita income for the city was $27,107. About 12.9% of the population were below the poverty line. 90.0% spoke English, 5.98% Tagalog, 1.81% Spanish, and 0.7% Tsimshian as their first language.
Ketchikan is home to the radio stations KTKN, KGTW, KFMJ, and KRBD.
Ketchikan also houses the publishing offices of the Ketchikan Daily News. The region has local television programming provided by Ketchikan Public Utilities, including public meetings, Southeast Alaska programming, Ketchikan High School sports and events, local history, gardening and scenes, and a calendar of upcoming local events; local television signals are also translations of Seattle and Anchorage stations.
Several movies have been shot in Ketchikan, including The Silver Horde, Spawn of the North, Timber Tramps and Cry Vengeance, plus episodes of the television programs The Love Boat and Baywatch. An episode of Mythbusters where the team sees if a ship made out of ice and sawdust can really float was filmed in Ketchikan in 2009. To The National Geographic Channel series Alaska Wing Men in the episode "Fatal Crash" follows a National Transportation Safety Board investigator's site visit of a July 2010 bush pilot fatal crash near Ketchikan.
The City of Ketchikan operates under a council-manager form of government. Lew Williams III is the current Mayor of the City of Ketchikan. The Ketchikan Gateway Borough includes both the City of Ketchikan and the City of Saxman and encompasses more than 6,000 square miles (16,000 km2) from the Canada–US border to just south of Wrangell. Dave Landis is the current Mayor of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough. The Alaska Marine Highway System has its headquarters in Ketchikan.
Ketchikan has long loomed heavy in Alaska's political landscape, though increasing population in Southcentral Alaska has led to a diminishment of its influence since the 1980s. Following a round of redistricting, the convening of the 28th Alaska State Legislature in January 2013 marked the first time in the state's history that no residents of Ketchikan or the surrounding area serve as members of the Alaska Legislature. Ketchikan is represented in the Alaska Senate by Bert Stedman, who lives in Sitka, and in the Alaska House of Representatives by Peggy Wilson, who lives in Wrangell. Wilson defeated Ketchikan-based challengers Patti Mackey and Agnes Moran while incumbent Kyle Johansen ran as an independent in the 2012 election, when both incumbents were placed in the same district.
Over the decades, Ketchikan has produced a number of political figures of note to Alaska in general. In territorial days, Norman Ray "Doc" Walker, a Canadian-born pharmacist practicing in Ketchikan, was arguably the first career member of the Alaska Legislature. Walker served in the territorial Senate for 16 years before losing reelection in 1948 following a feud with territorial governor Ernest Gruening. During the first governorship of Walter Hickel in the 1960s, two members of his cabinet (Frank Murkowski and Robert W. Ward) held strong ties to Ketchikan. Following Hickel's resignation, Ward ascended to the office of secretary of state when Keith H. Miller became governor. Ketchikan native Walter L. Kubley, deputy commissioner of commerce under Hickel, became commissioner of the department under Miller. Another Ketchikan native, Terry Gardiner, was notable as the youngest person elected to the Alaska House of Representatives (at age 22), as well as the youngest person elected Speaker of the House (at age 28).
The United States Coast Guard maintains a large shore installation, Coast Guard Base Ketchikan, south of the downtown area, which serves as a homeport to three cutters and as a regional maintenance base for Alaska.
Ketchikan Pulp Company (KPC), a subsidiary of Louisiana-Pacific Corp., was headquartered just outside Ketchikan's city limits on the shores of Ward Cove. The company's pulp mill opened in the cove in 1954. A 1995 joint EPA and FBI investigation of the company revealed it had dumped contaminated wastewater and sludge in the waters around Ward Cove, leaving them classified as "impaired" by the EPA. KPC plead guilty to the charges and agreed to pay a $3 million fine.
In 1996, following the Clinton Administration's refusal to reinstate the original terms of KPC's timber contract, Louisiana-Pacific Corp. announced it would be shutting down the timber mill, and did so in March 1997.
The Ketchikan Shipyard consists of two dry-docks (10,000 ton and 2,500 ton) owned and operated by Alaska Ship & Drydock (a subsidiary of Vigor Industrial), successfully launched the M/V Susitna in April 2010. A prototype ferry craft for use by Alaska's Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the Susitna is the result of planning by Admiral Jay M. Cohen, former chief of the Office of Naval Research, and former Navy captain Lew Madden, then working as a project manager for Lockheed Martin.
Dubbed E-Craft (for Expeditionary use), the Susitna will serve as the engineering and feasibility platform for a Navy vessel of approximately double the size to assist troops in landing at undeveloped beaches around the world.
The contract for two new Alaska-class day ferries in the Alaska Marine Highway was awarded to the shipyard on September 20, 2014 at a cost of $101 million.
Ketchikan serves as both an air and marine transportation hub for southern Southeast Alaska.
The Ketchikan International Airport serves as both a gateway for Alaska Airlines nonstop jet service to and from Seattle, Juneau, Sitka and Wrangell, with direct service to Anchorage, and as a bush carrier and charter aircraft hub for destinations such as Hyder, Metlakatla and Prince of Wales Island communities. Flying time to/from Seattle, Washington is approximately ninety minutes, making Ketchikan easily accessible to travelers from the continental U.S. Delta Air Lines began operating seasonal service to Seattle in May 2015.
Ketchikan receives service from two separate ferry lines. Ketchikan is a major port along the Alaska Marine Highway System's Inside Passage route. Vessels depart northbound to Alaskan ports of call and southbound to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, a six-hour trip, — where a connection can be made to the BC Ferries system — and Bellingham, Washington, a thirty-six-hour voyage. Sailings depart several times each week. Ketchikan also sees regular day service from the Alaska Marine Highway vessel M/V Lituya, a day boat that shuttles between its homeport in Metlakatla, AK and Ketchikan.
The Inter-Island Ferry Authority serves Ketchikan with daily service from its homeport in Hollis on Prince of Wales Island.
The former Ketchikan Community College became the Ketchikan campus of the University of Alaska Southeast during the late 1980s restructuring of the University of Alaska System. The campus is located on the uphill side of Ketchikan's West End neighborhood and consists of two buildings, the Paul Building and the Ziegler Building. Both are named for prominent Ketchikan residents of the early and mid 20th century, William Lewis Paul and Adolph Holton Ziegler, respectively.
The city of Ketchikan and its surrounding areas are primarily served by the PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center, which operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Ketchikan's former sister city of Kanayama, Japan, in Gifu Prefecture, was incorporated along with four other cities into the larger city of Gero on March 1, 2004. An educational exchange program has been active between the two towns since 1986. Every year, Ketchikan and Kanayama exchange one teacher each to instruct middle-school level language classes in their respective tongues. In addition, Kanayama sends a group of students to Ketchikan during the spring, and students from Ketchikan travel to Kanayama the following summer. Ketchikan students travel across Japan, with the majority of their time spent in Kanayama with home-stay families, attending classes and touring the town.