|By Paula Dobbyn, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Oct. 5, 2005 - GIRDWOOD -- Chuck West, the tourism pioneer known as "Mr. Alaska," died at his cabin near Haines on Tuesday afternoon.
West, 90, was surrounded by his wife, Marguerite, and several children and grandchildren when he passed away, said Jeffrey Krida, president and chief operating officer of CruiseWest, one of the many tourism companies West founded.
West, who brought some of the first groups of tourists to Alaska in the 1940s, had spent the last couple of weeks in the hospital in Seattle, near his home. But he wanted to die in Alaska, Krida said. So the family decided on Saturday to charter a plane and fly to West's beloved cabin at Paradise Cove overlooking Rainbow Glacier, said John Kreilkamp, vice president of Alaska operations for CruiseWest.
Krida broke the news of West's death at the Alaska Travel Industry Association's annual convention in Girdwood on Tuesday. A picture snapped on Sunday of West at the cabin was displayed on a big screen behind Krida and one of West's daughters, Ral. The photo showed West sitting outside the rustic cabin wearing a red and black wool jacket and a cap. He clutched a glass of what Krida described as Crown Royal whiskey.
"He did exactly what he wanted to do," Krida said.
West is one of founding fathers of Alaska's tourism industry.
Born in Des Moines, Iowa, and raised in Los Angeles, West married Marguerite Lee, a former "Miss Alaska" and daughter of a Nome gold miner, in 1943. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor prompted West, already a pilot, to join the Air Transport Command. He ferried military cargo from Canada to Fairbanks and Nome and later across the Himalayas in China.
After the war, he and his wife and their first daughter, CarraLee settled in Fairbanks where he launched his tourism empire. West started off as a bush pilot for Wien Airlines flying to remote outposts in the Arctic, where he witnessed the rugged beauty of Alaska every day. He opened the first retail travel agency and wholesale tour company in 1946 and began marketing Alaska tours in the Lower 48. It was called Arctic Alaska Travel Service.
"People thought he was out of his mind," Krida recalled.
But, with a leased plane and plenty of enthusiasm, the business took off. Three years later, West expanded and opened an Anchorage office and later one in Seattle. In those days there were no tourists hotels or bus service, so West built his own chain of hotels and a motor coach business. "He was a visionary," said former Alaska Gov. Bill Sheffield, who worked with West in the emerging hotel business in Anchorage in the 1950s. "He looked into the future and risked his financial life."
In 1954, when the Alaska Steamship Co., the primary passenger and cargo line serving Alaska, went out of business, it hobbled West's ability to offer tours.
"I was losing my ass," he said in 1993. In typical West fashion, the godfather of tourism founded his own cruise company in 1957 to replace the Alaska Steamship service. He called it Alaska Cruise Lines. It was the first company to offer Inside Passage cruises exclusively for tourists, according to a West biography released by his family Tuesday.
By now, West was managing a highway tour company, a cruise line, a motor coach sightseeing operation (now called Gray Line of Alaska,) as well as hotels in Skagway, Whitehorse and Beaver Creek on the Alaska-Canada border. By the late 1960s, West had expanded his tour business to Mexico. But a series of financial and labor union crises ensued and ended up plunging Westours, one of the business arms, into bankruptcy.
West sold his company to Dutch cruise giant Holland America for about $3 million, a company he figured was worth about $15 million.
He never retired, though. In 1973, he started a new company, what is now CruiseWest. With seven vessels, the company offers small-boat cruises of Alaska, the Columbia River Valley in the Pacific Northwest, the California wine country, the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama. Next year, CruiseWest is expanding into Japan and the Far East, said Kreilkamp. Ever the entrepreneur, West had a hand in things up until the end, according to Krida. He cited a conversation he just had with West's son, Richard, chairman and chief executive of CruiseWest.
"Dick said Chuck was pestering him in Haines the other day, saying "How's business?' "
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Copyright (c) 2005, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska
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