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28 September 2009

Kodiak A Brief History

Last time I posted about my experience in Kodiak, Alaska. It was a heavy dose of mememe but it was fun to recall and share the fist great adventure of my life. This time I want to tell you something about the history that has shaped Kodiak.

Keep in mind that what I am writing about is Kodiak's history, not all of Alaska. This state is so big that it is in two time zones and has such a small population that it has one area code.

Kodiak is an island about the size of the sate of Connecticut with a population of 13,000, half of which lives in or near the town of Kodiak on the northeast end of the island. As you can see from the photo at right, Kodiak has an extremely irregular coastline with giant fjord like inlets, mountains and various islands as the most significant part of its makeup. There are only 100 miles of paved and gravel road leading from Kodiak. Air travel is the most efficient way to visit the outlying villages.

Since you all have other things to do with your day I am going to explore the four events since 1750 that have shaped life on Kodiak the most.

In 1785 Russia's Peter the Great authorized the establishment of a Russian colony to curb English hunting in the area. With Kodiak as the capitol, this venture marks the beginning of non-native interest in Alaska. The most lasting contribution by the Russians was not their governance which ended in 1867 but the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church whose missionaries arrived in 1794 to convert Alaskan Natives.

With the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867, Kodiak lost its role as capital and returned to the status of "fishing village" -- a sufficient description for over fifty years.

But before World War II changed Kodiak's personality forever, nature took its turn. In 1912 one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions occurred. Mt.Katmai is one hundred miles west of Kodiak and if you check out this link you will find a brief but effective description of how the populous responded.

During the sixty hours of the Katmai explosive eruption, twelve inches of ash smothered the region. Kodiak residents had no communication with the outside world due to the failure of their radio station. Having read of Pompey they were terrified and began preparations to evacuate the island. The rain of ash ended before evacuation could be acted on. No human died as a result of the eruption. However farmers' and fisherman's livelihoods were compromised for years. In my own amateur excavations it was easy to find the ash layer, still very much intact about twenty inches below current ground level.

In 1940 the navy began construction of a base about seven miles from the town of Kodiak. During World War II the population swelled by 20,000 and the naval personnel took turns at strongholds like the one pictured at right watching for possible enemy invaders. Having visited these bastions I can assure you this was cold, miserable, fruitless duty. And very safe, since the only (short lived) landing on Alaska soil was almost a thousand miles away at the end of the Aleutians.

It was not the war itself that forever changed Kodiak but the the installation of the naval facility. Since 1972 the US Navy turned the base over to the Coast Guard and today it is its largest operating base. The government presence contributes to the economic stability of the island and the Coast Guard Air Station, one element of the integrated command, provides a valuable search and rescue presence in an area where commercial fishing is considered one of the most dangerous professions.

On March 27, 1964 at 5:30 PM, a powerful earthquake struck with an epicenter near Anchorage Alaska. Measured at 9.2 on the Richter scale the Good Friday Earthquake is the second largest earthquake in recorded history.

Kodiak felt the shock, but it was the tsunami generated by the quake that did the most damage. A number of Kodiak Island towns were destroyed including Kodiak itself with the loss of more than 25 lives. Tomorrow I will post a letter, courtesy of the Kodiak Historical Society, which recounts once resident's experience.

As a result of the tsunami the fishing industry had to be rebuilt, this time with an emphasis on king crab and the canning industry was more centralized in Kodiak. Some of the smaller villages were not rebuilt and the ones that survived no longer had the economic security of the fishing industry.

While the historical detail is interesting what is most captivating about Kodiak is the physical beauty of the place. Mountains encroach on every town and village. Most are situated near the Gulf of Alaska since fishing is such a significant part of everyone's life, whether commercial or for private entertainment. Wildlife is amazing from eagles to brown bears. It is a naturalists delight.

Thank you to the History Hoydens for giving me the opportunity to share Kodiak with you. And thanks to all the readers whose comments make every post come alive. The Hoydens are a wonderful group of women to share the blog with but this is my last post. My other writing commitments make it necessary for me to say goodbye for now. Diane Whiteside will be taking over this Monday slot and I look forward to commenting regularly.

7 Comments:

Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Mary, we are going to miss you so much! Thank you for a wonderful final post. Fascinating to learn more about Kodiak. Your mention of Peter the Great in 1785 makes me realize that Russia was connected to this part of the world in 1814, at the time my current WIP, which involves the Russian royal family, is set. A good reminder that of the importance of thinking about the connection between the place one's writing about and what's happening in other parts of the world at the same time.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

It's been wonderful that in your well-traveled life you've sojourned here with us, Mary. As with Tracy, bells went off in my hoyden head when I read your mention of Peter the Great. Bon voyage and stay in touch.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

Fascinating, Mary, especially how you link Kodiak to what's going on elsewhere. Yes, bells went off in my head since my last book dealt with Canadian/American fears about Russia trying to take over the rich Alaskan goldfields.

Your blogs will definitely be missed. Please drop by and visit us from time to time!

7:50 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

We'll miss you, Mary!

9:07 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Mary, thank you for sharing and illuminating this history of this remote (to this Bronx-bred girl, certainly) corner of our country.

We will miss you as a hoyden; please come back and visit us often!

5:13 AM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Mary, I'll miss your blogs, too!

6:47 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Thanks everyone -- I'll see you in the comments section.

1:26 PM  

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