Alaska's Heritage


Other economic activities support fur trade

From the beginning of their fur trade in Alaska, the Russians tried to develop other activities to support that trade. Agriculture and ship building were among the most important of these other activities. Anything the Russians could not grow or make in Alaska had to be shipped to them. The ships also carried furs and other products from Alaska to places where they could be traded for other things or sold.

Agricultural production includes farming and lumbering

Russian attempts at farming in Alaska probably began in 1784 at Three Saints Bay. There the Shelikhovs' workers broke the ground with spades and planted wheat, barley, peas, beans, turnips, beets, mustard, parsnips, potatoes, and gourds. Later they planted buckwheat, German wheat, and millet. Mice, birds, and flooding destroyed the first crop at Three Saints Bay but eventually Kodiak Island became the center of farming in Russian Alaska. The Russians also attempted cattle-raising on Kodiak Island and the Aleutian Islands. To train workers, Siberian cattle keepers were brought in but the difficulty in providing enough feed to support the livestock through the winter months had to be solved. Hay-making was introduced, but was always difficult in Aleutian conditions. Damp weather and a short growing season in coastal Alaska, where most Russian settlements were located, worked against farming. Most grain crops did not ripen in the cool, moist climate although barley was an exception. Evidences of glaciers' advances and retreats also suggest that Alaska's climate may have been considerably colder and wetter between 1650 and 1850 than it is today. This would have made it difficult for the Russians in Alaska to farm successfully.

Vegetables were the most successful crops in the coastal settlements, particularly at Sitka. Cabbages and cucumbers were raised on the Kenai Peninsula. Potatoes, rutabagas, and turnips were also raised. At Sitka the Russians showed the Tlingits how to grow potatoes. In a few years the Tlingits were selling hundreds of barrels of potatoes to the Russians each year. The few barrels of potatoes the Russians did not need were sold to visiting ships.

The Russians' other agricultural activity was lumbering. Yellow cedar from Southeast Alaska's forests provided timbers for ships and buildings. About 3,000 board feet of lumber was produced each year. The demand for lumber was constant in Russian America. Thus the Russian-American Company used most of the lumber produced in Alaska, but some did go to China and to South America for sale. Much of the lumber used by the Russian-American Company in Alaska went into ship-building.

Baranov starts ship-building in Alaska

In 1793 Alexander Baranov founded a new ship-building outpost on the southern shore of the Kenai Peninsula. He chose a site near present-day Seward that he named Resurrection Harbor. James Shields, a British shipwright who worked for Baranov, directed construction. Wood for the ship's hull came from a nearby island. Storehouses on Kodiak furnished the tools, ropes, and sails. The Russians had no tar to seal the ship's hull so Baranov put together a mixture of fir pitch, sulfur, ocher, and whale oil. In 1794 the Russians launched a 73-foot vessel that they named the Phoenix. The completed ship had three masts, two decks, and could carry 180 tons of cargo.

Two smaller vessels, the Dolphin and the Olga, were built at Kodiak about this same time. While the Russians had a fort at Yakutat (1796-1804) two small craft were also built there. Other ship-building followed at Kodiak and particularly at Sitka. There, ship-repair and building became considerable industries. More than one American trading vessel was repaired there. At least four steamships, two steam launches, and many sailing vessels were built at Sitka between 1806 and 1867. American artisans working for the Russians even built some of the steamers' machinery at Sitka.

Finally, however, the Russians in Alaska came to buy most of the ships they needed from the United States. Ships bought there lasted five times as long as the ones built in Alaska. They lasted longer because they were built with oak and pine instead of the cedar and fir available in Alaska.

The ships the Russians built for themselves in Alaska, or had built for them in Russia, or were able to buy elsewhere were very important. The ships carried supplies to them from Russia and other places, carried hunting parties to and from distant waters, carried furs from Alaska to Russia and other places, and also provided platforms from which the Russians could use their cannons to threaten or bombard the villages of Native Alaskans.

Fishing and whaling provide local food and some products to market

The Russians depended on Natives to catch the cod, halibut, herring, and salmon they ate. By the late 1840s enough salted fish was available for some to be exported to Russia.

Some groups of Alaska's Natives had taken whales for food before the Russians arrived. They continued to do so, but once the Russians had taken control the Natives were forced to share their catch. By 1805 the Russian-American Company was taking half of every whale killed by Aleuts and leaving half to be divided among the Aleuts. The whaling was done by a single Aleut or Kodiak Native. The hunter approached from behind, in a baidarka, and speared a whale. Then the whale was left to die and to be towed or washed ashore after dying some days later. There was much waste. I n 1831, off Kodiak Island, 118 whales were struck but only 43 were later found.

Whale meat and blubber were principal parts of the diet of Aleuts and Creoles working for the Russian-American Company. The Aleuts also used blubber several times a year to grease their baidarkas.

American whaling ships from New England entered the Gulf of Alaska in 1835 and the Bering Sea in 1848. In response, the Russian American Company formed the Russian-Finnish Whaling Company in 1849. The Russian-American Company owned half of the shares of the whaling company. Finnish merchants owned the other half of the shares.

The company's first whaler, the Sumoi, was built at Abo, Finland and outfitted at Bremen, Germany. The Sumoi's first voyage in 1852-1853 brought the shareholders over 13,000 rubles of clear profit. The company's second whaler, the Turku, hunted whales in the China and Okhotsk seas beginning in 1852. When the Crimean War broke out, the Turku was at Petropavlovsk. There the Turku took aboard the cargo of the company's third whaler, the Aian. The Turku sailed east and took refuge at Sitka. The Aian remained at Petropavlovsk and was burned there by an English and French fleet in 1855. The Sumoi was on its way home to Russia at the time the war began. The captain took his ship into the neutral harbor of Bremen for safety and the company later sold the ship and its cargo there for a loss. The Turku reached Bremen after the Crimean War ended in 1856. The cargo was sold for a profit of only 3,000 rubles. The company sent the Turku and a newly-purchased ship out in 1857 and in 1858 bought a third ship, the Amur, to join them. The whaling voyages of these ships were barely profitable. All three were sold by the end of 1863 and the Russian-Finnish Whaling Company was closed down in that year.

Manufacturing includes brick-making and ice-making

Brick-making was another economic activity of the Russians in Alaska. By 1865 they were making 30,000 bricks each year in Kodiak alone. Kenai, New Alexandrovsk, and Wrangell also produced some bricks. Many of the bricks made were used at Sitka, where 12 to 15 thousand bricks were needed each year.

The Russians used the bricks to build such things as stoves and chimneys. If better clay and more lime had been available, more bricks might have been made. As it was, the lime the Russians used had to be burned out of seashells and the clay was not good for brick-making, so brick-making never became a successful venture for the Russians. In fact, the Russians in Alaska could buy better and cheaper bricks from Victoria, British Columbia, than they could make.

Ice-making was another attempt at manufacturing that did not last long. When the 1849 gold rush to California created demand there for ice, the Russian-American Company met part of the demand. The company's workers cut ice from ponds on Woody Island near Kodiak and in Sitka during the winter months. To cut the ice a horse was harnessed to an iron sled. The sled had one smooth runner and one saw-toothed runner. When the horse drew the sled over the ice the saw-toothed runner gouged a two-inch cut into the ice. The horse and sled were taken over the ice in a checkerboard pattern. Then the workers used a saw-like plow to cut the ice to a depth of about eight inches. After this the pieces of ice could be separated with a single blow. At Sitka Tlingits piled the ice blocks atop one another. Then they hauled the ice blocks to the harbor over wood rails to be loaded aboard ship for the voyage south or to be placed in a storehouse. At Kodiak Aleuts and Kodiak Natives also moved the ice blocks to storehouses to be kept until spring. In some years over 10,000 tons of ice were sent south.

Each winter when the ships were loaded or the ice houses filled, the Russian settlements celebrated. Workers received an extra day's pay,a small cup of rum, and a little gift from the company store. The ice-making lasted several years until the California demand for Alaska ice ended.

Mining is not profitable

Coal mining turned out to be another Russian economic activity in Alaska that did not sustain profits. Natives had shown the Russians coal near today's Port Graham in the late eighteenth century.

When California's population boomed during the 1849 rush to the gold fields there, coal was much in demand. The Russian-American Company assigned Peter Doroshin, a young mining engineer, to study the coal and other mineral deposits of Alaska. When he returned to Russia in 1853, Doroshin convinced the company to mine the Port Graham coal.

Work started in 1855. The workers installed a pump in 1857, erected buildings in 1858, and dug a 70-foot shaft in 1859. At the site, called Coal Village, the miners produced about 30 to 35 tons of coal daily. At the peak of operation Coal Village was the third largest Russian settlement in Alaska.

Although the Russian-American Company put a great deal of effort into the mining operation, it failed. There were several reasons. The mine was worked for immediate profit, not development. The miners were drawn from the Russian army in Siberia. As soon as a group of the soldiers learned something about mining it was time for them to leave Coal Village. Since the soldiers and other workers were paid by the day there was little reason for them to work hard to produce more.

In addition to actual operations at the mine that contributed to the failure, there were also some reasons over which the Russian-American Company had no control. The only markets for Alaska coal were at San Francisco and at Hong Kong. It could not compete with Australian, British, or Japanese coal sold there. British coal was of better quality and sold for $15 a ton. Australian coal sold for $8 a ton and Japanese coal for $5 a ton.

Fire damaged the works at Coal Village in 1860 and this triggered a decision to shut down the mine. Efforts to sell the coal outside Alaska had not been successful. Although Russian-American Company steamers and shops at Sitka had used the coal, it was cheaper to supply company needs with coal shipped from Nanaimo, British Columbia.

Few evidences of Russian economic activity remain

Today few visible signs remain of Russian economic activity in Alaska. One building used in the fur trade survives at Kodiak. Icehouse Lake on Woody Island outside Kodiak commemorates Russian ice-making. Ruins of brick kilns are also to be found in the Kodiak area. All that remains of the Russian coal mine near Port Graham are grass-covered foundations and the entrance to the old mine tunnel. At Sitka, only stumps of trees are left as evidence of Russian lumbering and ship-building.