AHS Blog

Halibut Prospecting in 1911 and 1912 – Part One: Ash Fall and Halibut Feasts

Date Posted: May 16, 2014       Categories: 49 History
by Anjuli Grantham
In 1911 and 1912, Kodiak businessman W.J. Erskine set out to answer a potentially lucrative question: did the waters around Kodiak have enough halibut to justify the creation of a Kodiak halibut fishery? One dead engineer, one volcanic eruption, a greenhorn crew, and 170,000 pounds of frozen halibut later, Erskine had an answer.
W.J. Erskine, Kodiak entrepreneur
(Kodiak Historical Society, P-368-40)
Within the Baranov Museum’s collection is Erskine’s remarkable report, outlining the goals, the methods, and the results of two seasons of prospecting for halibut in the vicinity of Kodiak.
Financed by the Alaska Packers Association, two gas powered schooners, the Metha Nelson and the Hunter, tested both whether Kodiak had the abundance of halibut to warrant the creation of the infrastructure to support a fishery, and if San Francisco consumers could be enticed to eat frozen halibut.
This report is significant for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that the Metha Nelson was one of the first boats in the Pacific Northwest to experiment with the onboard freezing of fish. But before looking at this report in terms of fisheries history, let us look at the connection between these fishing experiments and the eruption of Novarupta Volcano at Katmai on the Alaska Peninsula.
That 1912 season started off unlucky. The Hunter arrived in Kodiak on May 6, and immediately departed to Nuka Bay for ice. Before arriving to their Kenai Peninsula destination, however, the engineer died. The engine stopped working. They sailed back to Kodiak, scrambled to find a competent engineer, and returned to chip ice off glaciers.
On May 27, the Hunter left for Uganik Bay on the west side of Kodiak Island. There they would fish for bait herring. Unfortunately, their seine was too short, so they headed back to Kodiak, got a larger seine, and sailed again for Uganik. Finally, on June 6, 1912, with enough ice and bait on board, the Hunter was ready to head for the halibut grounds. That very day, the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century exploded on the Alaska Peninsula, showering ash on Kodiak Island. Erskine writes in the report, “…the Hunterleft for the halibut ground east of Marmot Island, but before reaching there, was overtaken by the fall of volcanic dust and put into Izhut Bay, where she remained until June 10th.” Halibut fishing would have to wait.
The Metha Nelson remained moored at the town’s dock, next to the Revenue Cutter Service’s vessel, Manning. Reading accounts from the time of the eruption, one is struck by the fact that people were relatively certain that they were going to die. Landslides of ash swept away houses. The weight of the ash collapsed roofs. The caustic, ash-filled air made breathing impossible. For this reason, after two days of ash fall, the community determined they had to make a run for it. Navigating only by sound and touch, all Kodiak residents made their way to the wharf. The crew of the Metha Nelson unloaded the halibut it had already secured, and Kodiak feasted.
The halibut schooner Hunter shines bright amid Kodiak’s
ash-covered landscape in the days following the eruption.
(Kodiak Historical Society, P-357-28)
“[We] managed to feed a crowd of panic stricken people a good hot meal of boiled halibut, boiled potatoes, hard tack and tea. Some of them had not touched food for two days and it seemed they would never stop eating. Tubs full of halibut disappeared like magic,” Erskine wrote to his mother a few days later. Now that they were fed, the whole town crowded aboard the Manning, and headed out to sea, where it was hoped they could breathe and where they were certain they would not be buried in ash. Soon after, the sky began to clear, and they returned to the wasteland that was Kodiak.
Erskine was elected chairman of the Kodiak Relief Committee and commandeered the steamer Redondo. He left immediately to Seward, the location of the nearest wireless station. Kodiak’s had burned to the ground during the eruption. There he dispatched telegraphs to Washington D.C., Washington State senators, and his business and political connections in San Francisco issuing a clear message: send relief funds immediately. His original telegraphs are within the Erskine family’s Katmai scrapbook, also within the Baranov Museum’s collection.
All of Kodiak crowded on the Revenue Cutter
Service’s Manning during the Katmai eruption
(Kodiak Historical Society, P-89)
One telegraph was issued to the Alaska Packers Association: “… if you have any messages for Canneries send them to me immediately here and will make every effort to deliver. I have seasons bait frozen and believe can continue Halibut fishing provided fresh water is available. In places drifts of ashes are thirty feet deep and aparantly [sic] fish in streams and lake suffered greatly.”


The Metha Nelson and the Huntercontinued fishing for halibut once the air had cleared. Erskine was right – securing bait became very difficult, as the ash fall led to the choking of rivers and streams, impacting herring and salmon migration patterns. Nonetheless, at the end of the season, the crew had caught tons of halibut and one important question had been answered. Did Kodiak have enough halibut to warrant the development of a halibut fishery? Yes. However, there was an even more important question yet to be answered. Could Kodiak develop the infrastructure necessary to supply consumers hundreds of miles away with halibut? Check back later for an answer!

Reminder – Deadline approaching for AHS travel awards

Date Posted: May 5, 2014       Categories: 49 History

The deadline is approaching for applications for student and emerging professional travel awards for the AHS annual meeting in Seward, October 1-4, 2014.
Applications must be received by this Saturday, May 10.
One award will be presented to a post-secondary student who is researching some aspect of Alaska history, the other to an emerging professional in the field. Each award consists of reimbursement for documented travel expenses up to $750 and a conference registration package.
In order to be eligible for an award:
Applicants must be a member of the Alaska Historical Society at the time of applying.
Student applicants must be graduate students or upper-division undergraduates in fall 2014 with a course of study related to Alaska history.
Emerging professional applicants must be employed in Alaska historical or cultural work and have been so employed for less than five years.
Awardees are required to attend the meeting in its entirety and make a presentation at the meeting.
Application process: Each applicant must submit 1) letter with a statement of eligibility and an explanation of how attending the meeting will enhance academic or professional development, 2) title and abstract of proposed presentation, and 3) CV or résumé. Applications will be judged on the applicant’s achievement in Alaska history relative to current status and the likely benefit of the meeting for the applicant.
The application deadline is May 10. Electronic submission is preferred. Applications should be submitted electronically to Professor Michael Hawfield, AHS Awards Committee at: mchawfield@kpc.alaska.edu, or via regular mail to: AHS Awards, PO Box 100299, Anchorage, AK 99510.
Information about the meeting is available at: http://www.alaskahistoricalsociety.org/

From Tents to Towers: A Century of Maps of Alaska’s Largest City

Date Posted: April 27, 2014       Categories: 49 History
“The language of maps is integral to our lives. We have achieved something if we have put ourselves (our town) on the map.”
~Simon Garfield, On the Map
By Katherine Ringsmuth
In January 2014, my team and I received an Anchorage Centennial Community grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum and the Anchorage Centennial Commission to produce Tents to Towers: A Century of Maps of Alaska’s Largest City. The final project, targeted for completion in 2015, will tell the story of how Anchorage emerged from a railroad camp to Alaska’s urban center over the course of ten decades. The project intersects geography, art, and history by depicting the city’s development and expansion through historical maps and photographs. The team includes project director Katherine Ringsmuth, editor and senior historian Terrence Cole, GIS expert Barbra Bundy, layout designer Francis Broderick, and student researcher, Abdoulie Lowe.

Anchorage street map, circa 1940
Currently, the ongoing collection of digital maps includes approximately 300 maps of Anchorage and the Upper Cook Inlet area. The maps span a broad spectrum of Anchorage history, representing themes such as exploration, military expeditions, railroad construction, community growth, homesteads, canneries, trails and trade, aviation, military sprawl, earthquake and volcano impacts, recreation and the area’s cultural footprint. Maps show an evolution of place names, some of the first archeological sites, townsite withdrawal from the Chugach National Forest, the Iditarod trail, gold and coal claims, ski trail and area development, and Nike missile sites. The digital collection also includes vintage maps, Sanborn insurance maps, town plats, historic maritime charts, maps made to attract tourists, and even three-dimensional objects such as a vintage banner, a table cloth and even a pair of ear rings.
Historically, these maps were designed for practical purposes—used to inform individuals as to where they were going. But viewed today, these maps were also used as paths to the future, documenting the big dreams held by past residents. Whether they were pragmatists or visionaries, the people who built our city and produced these maps represent a society steeped in transformative change. The maps, themselves, provide insight about Anchorage identity, what residents valued at a given moment in time, and where Anchorage was positioned in the map of the mind’s eye.

“Carte de la Riviere de Cook”
The academic, government, and private archives that have contributed to the project so far include: Loussac Library, Anchorage City Hall, JBER History Office, Bureau of Land Management, Alaska Resources Library and Information Services, Alaska and Polar Regions Collections & Archives at University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of Alaska Anchorage Archives and Special Collections, Anchorage Museum, U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, The National Archives at Anchorage, Anchorage Visitors Bureau, and Heritage Library and Museum at Wells Fargo. Private individuals have also donated their unique maps for use.
The final product hopes to accomplish the following objectives:
1) Demonstrate that Anchorage began as a 20th century American town that aspired be a modern, planned city primed for commerce. That the frontier boom economy was actually sparked by WWII and continued in the form of big oil, and to be mindful that Anchorage was built not in wilderness, but rather on a cultural landscape in which elements still exists today.
2) Challenge older notions of how people populated the Cook Inlet region, particularly Alaska Native migrants.
3) Serve as an opportunity to both study and celebrate Anchorage’s cultural diversity and to connect Cook Inlet to a global history, far older than the city itself.
4) To utilize the produced maps as an educational tool beyond the pages of a book.
Finally, the aim of From Tents to Towers is to provide historic contexts or themes that both constitute a timeline and interpret events that shaped Anchorage’s growth and development over the last century. The final products will showcase the story of the Cook Inlet landscape, a place visually dominated by mountains and mudflats and shaped by tides and earthquakes, and a cultural landscape, where today 100 languages are spoken. In the end, the final product will endeavor to show how the multifaceted relationship between Cook Inlet residents and their differing relationship with the natural landscape has directly shaped the 100 year history of this region.

Tourism promotional map, 1980s

The final product is not just meant to be informative, for the historically significant maps illustrate the artistry and expertise of past and contemporary cartographers and capture the imagination of Anchorage residents. The final product—which includes an exhibit for the Anchorage centennial, a series of posters meant for public and academic use, and potentially an illustrated atlas—will hopefully spark public discussion, civic interest, and new historic research.

If you have an interesting map of the Anchorage bowl or Upper Cook Inlet region and would like to participate in this project, please contact Katherine Ringsmuth at KatmaiKate@aol.com for more information.

Reminder – Proposal Deadline Approaching for AHS 2014 Conference

Date Posted: April 23, 2014       Categories: 49 History

Calling all Alaska historians – please be aware the deadline for proposals for the 2014 annual conference in Seward is rapidly approaching. Proposals for papers (20 minutes), panels (1-1/2 hours), and poster sessions must be received by Thursday, May 1.
Please send title and abstract (100 words maximum) to Rachel Mason, Program Chair, Rachel_Mason@nps.gov, or by regular mail to Alaska Historical Society, P.O. Box 100299, Anchorage AK 99510.
The AHS meeting takes place in Seward on October 1-4, 2014.
Under the theme Gateways: Past, Present, and Future, the conference will focus on the area’s vibrant past, including the deep history of Alaska Native people, Russian shipbuilding and fur trading, and Seward’s role as a port and transportation hub in the American era.
Resurrection Bay has been a gateway for travel and trade since prehistoric times. The Alaska Natives who lived along the coast traveled long distances by boat or on trails to the interior to visit groups in other areas. Russian fur traders built a shipyard in what is now the city of Seward. In the American era, the ice-free, protected port became a hub of steamship commerce. A railroad was built to bring goods and passengers to the Interior of Alaska. Seward was also the beginning point of the original Iditarod trail. The city played a major role for the military as the port of entry during the World War II buildup. It became the start of a highway to Anchorage and the terminus of a ferry line to Kodiak and the Aleutian Chain.  Its access to fishing, wildlife, and glaciers continues to make it a gateway to commerce, education and recreation.
Please send title and abstract (100 words maximum) by the May 1 deadline to Rachel Mason, Program Chair, Rachel_Mason@nps.gov, or by regular mail to Alaska Historical Society, P.O. Box 100299, Anchorage AK 99510.
Please visit the conference website at:


Interview with Sheila Nickerson, author of ‘Harnessed to the Pole’

Date Posted: April 17, 2014       Categories: 49 History
Editor’s note: This month University of Alaska Press releases Sheila Nickerson’s new book, Harnessed to the Pole: Sledge Dogs in Service to American Explorers of the Arctic, 1853-1909. The book chronicles the indispensible role played by dogs in the Arctic expeditions of such famed explorers as Elisha Kent Kane and Robert Peary. The following interview was conducted by email.

Tell us briefly about the book and how you arrived at this particular topic.
The book is a study of the sledge dogs which accompanied 19th century American explorers on their expeditions in the Arctic and eventually in their race to the North Pole.  I came to the subject after  extensive research for two earlier books dealing with the Arctic,  Disappearance:  A Map and Midnight to the North:  The Untold Story of the Inuit Woman Who Saved the Polaris Expedition.  I was particularly interested in two of the earliest explorers, Elisha Kent Kane and Charles Francis Hall.  As I studied their writings, I  became increasingly aware of allusions to dogs.  Further research confirmed that there was a storyline, though a faint one,  that portrayed the role of these valiant animals.  It had never been told  and deserved to be.   These little “camels  of the north” needed to be named and remembered and, like the Sherpas of the Himalayas, to be given their rightful place in history.  Without them  there would have been no success for Americans vying for the Pole.

Your book follows eight American explorers and their dog teams—how did you select those explorers?
I wanted to highlight the American explorers because they are less well known than polar explorers of other nationalities such as Stefansson, Amundsen, Rasmussen,  Nansen, and Shackelton.  Some of them, like Frederick Schwatka, are almost forgotten.    Also, the American explorers built upon one another’s experiences in a relatively consistent manner, forging a route to the North Pole which, over years and countless adventures, led to success.  The “American Route” is a logical sequence to follow.  The Americans, too, quickly adopted the methods of the Inuit people, early on learning the importance of dogs.  Moreover, though inconsistently,  they wrote about the dogs in such a way that they left at least a faint trail to follow.  Some  went further,  not afraid to express  emotional  ties with the animals upon which their lives depended.

Besides pulling sledges, in what ways were dogs indispensable to polar expeditions?
Dogs guarded against predators—polar bears and wolves; helped in the hunt, particularly with caribou and musk oxen;  located seals under the ice;  warned of strangers approaching;  found their way in storms;  gave alarm at the edge of the sea ice; provided warmth in emergency conditions;  and, when all hope for success in hunting was gone, provided meat; in death, they contributed skins.  Perhaps most importantly, they provided companionship and distraction from the rigors and depression  of the arctic winter.  In some cases their companionship  was the only means of fending off the horrors of the long, ice-bound  winter which could propel both man and animal into madness.

One would imagine the performance of each explorer—“success versus failure” if we want to call it that—resulted directly from how they treated their dogs. True?
The better dogs were treated, the better they performed.  But good treatment, as we judge it today, was not always possible.  At times there was simply no food to provide them and many miles to cover, often in fiercely stormy weather.  Also, diseases such as rabies and distemper could sweep through villages, killing all teams.  The most “successful” American explorer, Peary, did what he thought right for his dogs but considered them tools of his campaign to reach the Pole,  carefully calculating how many needed to be taken along for food.

Throughout the centuries of polar exploration by Europeans many expeditions failed for, among other reasons, not using dogs. Can you speak to the transition—cultural, economic, purely utilitarian, or otherwise—that led to the acceptance of employing dogs? How, when, and why did that happen?
The British, unwilling to adopt the methods of indigenous people, thought it was more proper to put men in harnesses to pull boats and sledges rather than dogs.  It was only during the search for the lost John Franklin expedition that they began to use dogs for hauling.  The few exceptions, such as Francis Leopold McClintock and John Rae, succeeded where others failed miserably, suffering starvation, scurvy, cold, and exhaustion.  Kane and Hall, the two earliest American explorers, quickly recognized the value of adopting the ways of indigenous people, including the use of dogs for transportation and hunting.  Their success with native ways established the precedent that eventually enabled the Americans to achieve the Pole.

Why do these dogs and their history matter today?

These dogs, who worked so bravely  and thanklessly for their masters,  deserve recognition.   At a time when dogs are now being recognized for military and civilian service and monuments are being established to honor them, these dogs of the 19th century Arctic need to be remembered for their unspoken role in enabling American explorers to be first to reach  the Pole.  Since a number of the American explorations in which they served were military or quasi-military, there is even greater reason to acknowledge them as  military working dogs.  They played a vital role in enabling Americans to “win” the North Pole.  Now, as nations vie for  the natural resources of the Pole, that accomplishment matters more than ever.