Sitka Barge Line Plans Southeast Expansion

A Samson barge departs Seattle for Alaska on May 6th. Image Copyright © Samson Tug and Barge
A Samson barge departs Seattle for Alaska on May 6th. Image Copyright © Samson Tug and Barge

A Sitka-based barge line hopes to return to serving Southeast by the end of the year. It depends on a shipping-industry shuffle, where a much larger company is trying to absorb its chief competitor.

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Samson Tug and Barge used to do a lot of business with loggers and mills around Southeast Alaska.

But as the timber industry shrunk, the line’s service area moved farther west. The Sitka-based company now carries cargo to and from Seattle, Prince William Sound, the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak, King Cove and Dutch Harbor.

The list could expand – later this year.

“We started in Southeast, we still have our headquarters in Southeast, so why not be in Southeast. It just makes sense,” said Samson Tug and Barge Vice President Cory Baggen.

“We’ve looked at entering the Southeast market over the years. But with two carriers in the region there really hasn’t been room for a third,” she said.

That number could shrink later this year.

Lynden, which owns Alaska Marine Lines, is in the process of buying Northland Services. The two lines handle the lion’s share of cargo shipments to Southeast communities.

Samson does some barging to and from Sitka. Baggen said the purchase allows her company to compete in other communities.

“Our plans right now are to serve Ketchikan, Juneau, Wrangell, Petersburg, all of Prince of Wales Island and Metlakatla,” Baggen said.

Northland’s barge line will continue to exist as a Lynden subsidiary. But operations will be combined in Southeast towns that both serve.

The purchase has to clear a number of hurdles. Among the concerns: The combination could effectively create a monopoly.

Lynden CEO Jon Burdick said that’s why his corporation supports Samson’s Southeast expansion.

“There is a regulatory review process and the state of Alaska wants to ensure that where there’s competitive overlap between Lynden and Northland, that there’s alternative services available,” he said.

Burdick said buying Northland expands Lynden’s service area to Western Alaska, as well as Hawaii.

But he said Lynden’s Alaska Marine Lines subsidiary will not reduce Southeast port calls.

“At a minimum, they’ll receive equal frequency of service. In terms of equaling what AML’s doing now or what AML plus Northland’s doing now? AML plus Northland,” he said.

Burdick expects most Northland employees will either keep their jobs or find new ones with Alaska Marine Lines or Samson Tug and Barge.

Baggen said her company will be hiring.

“Eventually, we’ll probably double our size, probably have somewhere between 120 and 160 employees. … Most of those employees will be in Alaska,” she said.

Baggen understands her company will compete against a much larger operation.

She said Samson will do that by providing personalized customer service.

“We’re not the box-box carrier. We’re not going to be the one that says you better do it at this time in this way. We don’t care how you want to do it. We’re going to say, hey, what do you need and we’re going to do the best we can to come in and really work for the customers,” she said.

Both companies expect the sale to be completed by the end of this year.

And both say they’ll be ready for a quick transition.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.