A rare wooden ranger boat once used by the U.S. Forest Service in Alaska’s national forests may soon be on display in Wrangell.
The M/V Chugach is 62-feet long and was originally assigned to the Chugach National Forest. It was built in Seattle in 1925 and spent its life in Alaska from territorial days onward.
It’s been described as a floating office, when it was complete with a duplicate set of records. For three decades, it would travel around issuing permits in coastal Alaska. Back in the day, it was the way the Forest Service got around.
“That was well before the ferry system was here that connected all the communities and even before reliable air service,” says Wrangell Ranger District Forester Austin O’Brien.
The 95-year-old vessel was listed in the National Historic Register back in the 1990s.
The boat routinely traveled over 12,000 miles of the Alaska coastline. Starting from Kodiak or Prince William Sound it would head all the way south to Ketchikan where it regularly had work done.
The Chugach was called on by other state and federal agencies. The Coast Guard didn’t have much presence in the winter months. So the Chugach routinely responded to emergencies in remote cove or on the water. It delivered mail. It transported doctors, nurses, scientists, anthropologists to remote villages and field work sites. They used the boat as their research lab, as it often served better than pitching a camp on shore. The Chugach even acted as a floating courthouse on Prince William Sound.
By 1953 the boat was transferred full-time to Tongass National Forest.
The M/V Chugach docked in Wrangell, AK in 1926. (Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service)
“The long-term timber sale contracts started in the 1950s, and it required a lot of crew movements to access all these remote sale areas,” O’Brien says.
But three engines and four captains later, the workhorse boat is no longer in use. It was never officially retired, but the last regular season trip was in 2014. O’ Brien says smaller steel boats serve the feds just fine, but the Chugach is a part of Alaska’s history and should be on display.
“We’re also trying to preserve it without having to spend a lot of maintenance money over the years on it, which keeping it in the water would definitely require,” O’Brien says.
The Forest Service and the City of Wrangell have reached an agreement on what this could look like. The feds would loan the boat to the Wrangell’s city museum.
“It would be a wonderful way to expand the marine heritage component of the museum,” says Carol Rushmore, the city’s economic development director.
She notes the museum already houses former Gov. Frank Murkowski’s boat. Just behind the museum is the marine service center. Rushmore says the Chugach could bridge the gap between Wrangell’s boat yard and tourists.
“Visitors have always been interested in what’s happening in that yard, so this is one element of trying to interpret not only the history but the current marine industry structure and the repair of boats going on there,” she says.
The feds have put aside $100,000 for this project. The Chugach could be on display as early as next summer.