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Regional History
Southwest Alaska
1912 1924 Lessons From The Land

In this section you will learn about:

  • The effects of disease upon Native populations
  • Effects of World War I
  • Development of the fishing industry
  • Conservation efforts

Agricultural experiments are tried

Dr. Charles Georgeson of the U.S. Department of Agriculture opened an experiment station on Kodiak Island in 1906. Georgeson hoped that Galloway cattle, that produced both good meat and good milk, could be successfully raised on the island. The experiment was interrupted by the 1912 Katmai volcanic eruption. The herd was removed to Washington until the pastures were restored. Further hampering the experiment, the Kodiak station closed in 1925.

The Alaska Commercial Company also grazed cattle on Kodiak Island. The cattle fed on native hay and produced excellent milk. A Seattle company was less successful in establishing a beef ranch. Of 200 beef cattle shipped to Kodiak Island, 140 died the first year. Most fell off the island's steep cliffs. Having failed with cattle, the company shipped 9,000 sheep to the island. Nearly 150 fell from cliffs, 500 drowned when they were trapped by an incoming tide, and 8,000 more died from an infestation of scab mites. Other attempts to raise sheep were equally discouraging, in part because bears attacked the flocks. However, one successful sheep ranch was in operation on nearby Raspberry Island in 1914.

Sheep were also introduced in the Aleutian Islands. There were ranches at Chernof ski and at Nikolski on Umnak. The success of these ranches was hampered by the long distances to markets and the high cost of transportation. Although it was impractical to ship meat to market, the sale of wool proved profitable.

One animal that survived and flourished in Southwest Alaska was reindeer. Impressed by the reindeer industry of the Siberian Natives, Sheldon Jackson, hoping to create an industry and provide food for Alaska Natives, introduced reindeer to Alaska in 1891. The first 16 animals purchased from the Siberian Eskimos were taken to Unalaska. These animals died. Undeterred, Jackson took more deer to the Seward Peninsula the next year. The program gradually expanded.

In 1901 the Moravian missionaries on the Kuskokwim River requested a herd of reindeer and several trained herders from the government. In response 176 reindeer were loaned to the mission. In 1915 the Moravians sponsored the first reindeer fair at Akiak. At the fairs, which became annual events, herders and apprentices listened to lectures on animal husbandry and competed in games. Reindeer herding continued in the Kuskokwim River delta into the 1930s.

Reindeer were also introduced in the Bristol Bay area. A herd of 50 deer was sent to Nushagak in 1901. A few years later a reindeer station opened at Snag Point.

New ventures start on the Aleutian Islands

Whaling and fox farming were introduced on the Aleutian Islands prior to World War I. In 1907 a group of Norwegians started a whaling station on Akutan Island near Unalaska. There was also a whaling station at Port Hobron, Sitkalidak Island, off Kodiak Island.

Some fox farming had been attempted in the Aleutian Islands before 1900, but other furs offered Bred higher profits. The depletion of the fur seal population, however, created a new interest in raising blue foxes. By 1932, 53 islands in the Aleutian chain had been leased from the federal government.

Governments preserve the seals

During the first decade of the 1900s, Alaskans protested the alarming drop in the fur seal population of the Pribilof Islands. The United States had not succeeded in closing the Bering Sea to pelagic sealing. They had, in 1893, made an agreement with Great Britain that established a 60 mile zone around the Pribilof Islands within which the seals would be protected. The agreement also prohibited the use of guns to take seals in any part of the Bering Sea.

Four years later, Congress prohibited American vessels from pelagic sealing. This did not prevent the British from continuing to take seals beyond the 60 mile Pribilof Islands reserve. After 1900 Japanese sealing vessels joined them. Some of the Japanese sealers slipped within the 60 mile zone to poach seals on the Pribilof Island breeding grounds.

It was difficult for the revenue cutters to prevent seal poaching. Usually only one ship was assigned to patrol the islands. If the ship hove to in fog or weather on one side of the Pribilof Islands, poachers could run to the other side unseen. They were willing to take dangerous risks because the stakes were high. It took only moments to club a mass of seals, return them to the ship, and set out for safety beyond the 60 mile line. Profits for such a venture could be $10,000, or more.

In 1911, the governments of the United States and Russia, whose fur seal rookeries in the Chukchi Sea were also suffering from over-hunting, negotiated a treaty with Japan and Canada to end pelagic sealing altogether. In exchange for protecting the seals on the high seas, the other nations shared the return from pelts harvested ashore. By the time the treaty was signed, very few fur seals remained of the Pribilof Islands' herd. The government suspended commercial sealing for five years to give the herds a chance to recover.

The closure was good for the seals, but hard on families living at St. Paul. They depended on the seal harvest for their income. In 1916, the residents sent a petition to the Commissioner of Fisheries in Washington, D.C. They asked that they be allowed to speak Aleut, that the Orthodox church school at St. Paul be reopened, that the practice of hiring Aleuts from other parts of the chain for the seal harvest be stopped, and that the government agent at St. Paul refrain from drinking intoxicating liquor if the Aleuts are prohibited to do so." The agent himself attached a note to the petition, saying that the "people of St. Paul are living in actual slavery . . . This condition. . . exists and is maintained under the immediate control and direction of the U.S. government."

The Pribilof Island Aleuts were finally granted citizenship in 1924, along with all other Alaska Natives. They achieved some degree of self government in 1934.

Whaling at Akutan

Turning whale meat into dog food and fertilizer was a profitable business operation for many years at Akutan, off the tip of the Alaska Peninsula. Akutan whaling was first proposed by a group of Norwegian investors in 1907, when Arctic whaling for bowheads was nearly over. By 1912, the investors had organized the Minneapolis based North Pacific Sea Products Company, with both Norwegian and American financing. That year the company took 310 whales from the shore based Akutan station. A fertilizer factory was added two years later.

Like Alaska Datives, the Norwegians had hunted whales for centuries. Norwegian whalers had patented the harpoon gun, and been the first to develop floating "cookeries" to process whale oil and make bone meal fertilizer. These techniques were applied at Akutan with great success. The operation was so profitable that a new station was established at Sitkalidak Island, near Kodiak, in 1917.

The work at Akutan was dirty and smelly. After a whale was killed, the workers pumped air into the body to prevent it from sinking. The whale was then towed to shore and hauled onto a platform where the blubber was cut off in wide strips from head to tail. At the upper end of the platform were buildings where the blubber and the whale carcass were processed. The blubber was boiled to extract the oil. The meat and bones were pressure cooked in a separate process. From the pressure cookers, the meat was dried, pulverized, screened, and sacked for shipment to market.

Many Japanese were employed in the Akutan factory, and some Akutan Natives. Blacksmiths forged harpoons. Coopers repaired barrels.

Flensers cut or f tensed the meat from the whales. The work day was long and rigid. Breakfast was served at b : 3o a.m. The crews worked from 7 a.m. to noon and from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. a ten hour day.

When nary E. winchell, a missionary worker at the Jesse lee orphanage at Unalaska, visited the station she wrote:

what an odorous place the whaling station was, to be surer worse today, for the bone meal mill was grinding away .... We put on our rubbers and walked across the greasy, bloody platform. Men in a boat were hooking a heavy chain around the tail of the largest humpbacked whale. A winch began to turn and the whale was slowly dragged up an incline to the level platform . . . . Its great mouth was open. One of the men climbed in and sat down upon the tongue.

While she was at Akutan, Mary winchell also saw a sperm whale brought ashore:

what a huge head it had almost as large as the rest of its body. A hole like a window had been cut into the head. I stepped up on a box and looked in. To my amazement, the cavity was filled with pure oil, thick and whitish in the cold air. The men climbed up and began dipping out the oil by the bucketful and pouring it into barrels that stood near.

Akutan whale oil ceased to flow after more than 20 successful years. The plant had processed an average of 1oŠ whales a year. When the threat of world 'war II spurred a buildup of Alaska defenses, the Akutan facilities were sold to the navy.

Bristol Bay and the Sailboat Fishery

For 75 years, Bristol Bay was a photographer's dream when the sockeye salmon were running. At that time of year, hundreds of small sailboats crisscrossed the grey waves. Sometimes their white sails billowed in the wind. At other times, the boats were rowed. Thaw fishing dressed in oilskins.

In reality, fishing from a Bristol Bay double ender was anything but romantic. The people worked day and night when the summer runs came, risking their lives on waters with 22 foot tides and unpredictable currents. No season passed without the loss of life. One fateful year, 136 people drowned. Many of those who died had become marooned on the endless mud flats and were out of the reach of help.

The "Bristol Bays," as the sturdy, oak framed fishing boats were usually called, were developed in 1868 for salmon fishing on the Columbia River. When canneries introduced commercial fishing in Bristol Bay in the 1880s, the boats were brought to Southwest Alaska. More than 8,000 of the boats were mass produced for the Alaska market in the years that followed. Their manufacture continued until motors were finally permitted in Bristol Bay in the 1950s.

The two person Bristol Bays have been called the "Model T's" of fishing boats. Most were 28 or 29 feet long by 9 feet wide, planked with cedar or fir. They lasted as long as 20 years. The single sail served a double purpose. It could be raised an the mast to propel the boat, or pitched as a tent in the open boat to offer some protection when a crew stopped to brew coffee on their kerosene burning stoves. Hand pumps, a bailer, and a bucket made up the safety equipment. Nearly all the Bristol Bays were owned by the canneries.

The drift nets were set and hauled in over wooden rollers mounted either amidship or on a corner of the stern. When the runs were favorable, a crew could load their Bristol Bay with as many as 3,000 fish. But a small beat with hundreds of pounds of salmon aboard had difficulty getting to the cannery dock to unload if the tide and the wind were wrong. The boats frequently had to sail up rivers to wait for the tide to turn. By 1910, tugs called "monkey boats" were used to pull the Bristol Bays in long strings from the cannery dock to the fishing grounds. Canneries also began anchoring scows in deep off shore water so that those fishing could deliver their catch even at low tide. When the tide changed, the scows took the fish to the cannery.

When power boats were allowed in the Bristol Bay fishery, some canneries converted the sailboats to motor. But the boats were designed for oars, not power, and most soon dropped out of use. Some were piled and burned by the canneries. Others were left to rot on the beaches. By 1979 nearly all evidence of the last commercial sailboat fishery an the Pacific coast of the United States had disappeared.

Fisheries meet wartime demand

The fishing industry was unquestionably the most important fishing flourished in economic activity of Southwest Alaska. Cod the Bering Sea during World War I. With European supplies cut off by war, Alaska cod was sent as far away as the West Indies. Cod processing stations were established along the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian Islands.

The salmon fishery was larger. In the Nushagak Bay area the number of salmon canneries more than doubled in the ten years preceding World War I. In 1922 the first floating canneries moved into the bay.

Concern was growing that over-fishing was threatening the salmon population. A 1920 report on Alaska fisheries recommended conservation methods. Despite warnings and a brief slump in prices after World War I, the salmon catch increased each season. Canneries were being modernized with high speed production lines. New types of gear made it easier to catch more fish. The red salmon harvest jumped from 15 million fish in 1921 to 23 million fish the next season.

In 1922 President Warren Harding set aside Bristol Bay and Kodiak Island fishing grounds as fishery reservations. The reservation concept was actually a permit system. The reservations were subdivided into units. Permits from the Department of Commerce were required to fish or process the catch in each unit. The permits specified how many fish could be processed, and fishermen could not take their catch from one unit to a cannery in another unit. Whether the fishery reservations would have helped conserve the salmon runs or not was never determined. The system was abolished in 1924 when Congress passed the White Act.

The White Act gave the Secretary of Commerce the authority to regulate the size and kind of fishing gear, and to limit or prohibit fishing in specific areas. It required as many fish to escape as were caught. Almost immediately, power boats were outlawed in Bristol Bay.

Despite the dangers of a sailboat fishery, cannery operators supported the ban on motors. Not until 1951 was the ban against motor powered fishing boats lifted in Bristol Bay.

Summary questions

  1. What difficulties were encountered in the first efforts to raise cattle and sheep on Kodiak Island?
  2. Name two industries that were started in the Aleutian Islands in the years before World War I.
  3. What finally ended the hunting of seals while they were in the water?
  4. What was the most important industry of Southwest Alaska?

Inquiry question

  1. Make a time line that shows the different industries started in Southwest Alaska, include the years when the industries began and when they declined.

The Sea, A Common Bond
1743-1867 Era of Russian Violence
1867-1912 The Era of American Exploitation
1912 1924 Lessons From The Land
1924-1959 The Recent Years
1959-1980 Joining Old And New
Suggested Readings


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