ABOARD THE S.S. LEGACY – The book on my cabin desk got me curious. Then I saw the display in a ship corridor with a fur-fringed jacket and some photos and thought I had better look into this man Chuck West, known as “Mr. Alaska.”
“He is a legend in Alaska tourism,” said Ryan Downs, heritage leader on the S.S. Legacy. “He fell in love with Alaska as a bush pilot in the 1940s and wanted to share what he found with others … A lot of us on the Legacy and Un-Cruise Adventures probably wouldn’t be here if not for Chuck West.”
Born Nov. 27, 1914, in Des Moines, Iowa, Charles “Chuck” B. West was the son of Louis West (a shoe salesman) and May Bigham West. The family moved to Los Angeles when Chuck was 2 years old. After graduating from Hollywood High School in 1932, Chuck started as a messenger boy in a bank and worked his way up to teller. Taking night courses at college for two and a half years, Chuck went to work for United Airlines.
And that, as he often said, is when his life began.
Although West started out as a ticket salesman for United Airlines, he quickly became enamored with travel and flight. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, West signed up to take pilot training. Before he got his Air Force commission, however, West was asked to work instead as a pilot in the Air Transport Command, flying planes and supplies to Alaska.
“For those who’ve taken a small plane into Alaska’s back country, where gravel beds left behind by surging rivers and frozen mountain lakes surrounded by icy and unforgiving peaks are the actual ‘landing strips,’ the term bush pilot conjures visions of the exceptional,” a sign on the S. S. Legacy exhibit explains.
“Exceptional risk. Exceptional skill,” the sign reads. “Chuck West, in so many ways, was exceptional.”
As West flew over some of the most spectacular terrain on earth, his dream was born. His goal was to share these Alaskan wonders with the world.
West’s love for Alaska became even more solid when he met and married Marguerite Lee, an Alaskan gal who was once Miss Alaska. For decades, West created ways to show the magnificence of Alaska to visitors by air, land and finally, by sea.
However, most of the facilities and services of Alaskan tourism were still primitive or nonexistent when West arrived in 1945. To remedy that, West rolled up his sleeves and did what needed to be done. He founded Arctic Alaska Travel Service and began offering local sightseeing tours. He started the first air tours above the Arctic Circle, had the first hotel chain in Alaska, the first motor coach line and the first modern small-ship cruises.
At one time, West was the largest operator of U.S. flagged cruise vessels with nine known for their Alaska Cruises.
“The unknown quality made Alaska a hard sell,” West told The Associated Press in 1997. “It caught on, but we’re still fighting that ignorance about what Alaska is.”
In 1973, West sold controlling interest in his company Westours to Holland American cruise line. Then, at 58, after having undergone two heart surgeries, West founded another Alaska travel company that grew to become Cruise West, headquartered in Seattle.
West envisioned something more personal, something that could get travelers up close to really experience beautiful places and to meet the people who live there. His Cruise West vessels were shallow draft, which allowed them to nose into secluded coves and visit places that larger vessels could not.
During his time, Alaska went from being a territory, virtually unknown to tourists, to the 50th state. Alaska now sees an annual influx of mega-sized cruise ships arriving each summer filled with thousands of passengers. Alaskan cruises, such as Un-Cruise Adventures small ships, offer a different way to cruise – harkening back to West’s less intrusive vessels.
Chuck West died in 2005 at the age of 90. But his legacy certainly lives on. In fact, the S.S. Legacy will be cruising to Alaska this year.
What a cruise that will be. If I could, I would certainly be there to witness all the glories of Alaska and salute this man whose vision became a reality.
“We owe a lot to Chuck West,” Downs said. After reading the “Mr. Alaska” book, I must agree. Chuck West opened up the world for many travelers, including me.
May 29, 2014
Photos and video by Jackie Sheckler Finch