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Articles Blog

Kodiak, Alaska

Karyn Planett

The City and The Emerald Isle

“Land of fox and deer and sable

Shore end of our western cable,

Let the news that flying goes

Thrill through all your arctic floes…

Know you not what fate awaits you

Or to what the future mates you?

All ye icebergs make salaam, --

You belong to Uncle Sam!” 

In 1867, America purchased Alaska from Imperial Russia. It had been the capital of Russian Alaska from 1733 till 1867. That same year, Bret Harte wrote An Arctic Vision from which the above quote was taken. The territory was then governed variously by the US Treasury Department, the US Navy, and the US Army. However, it was President Chester Arthur who declared it the District of Alaska. That action may have been one of his greatest moments. 

The Russians Did Come, The Russians Did Come! 

Well, certainly Grigor Ivanovich Shelikof came. He’s believed to have been the first Russian in the area. In 1784, Shelikof and his men beached their boats in what is known as Three Saints Bay, named for one of his vessels. Tempers flared with the local indigenous Koniag people and the tragic events of that day were written in blood. Officially, 500 male residents were killed, unofficially perhaps many more. And rather than leave with the sea otter pelts Shelikof was originally after, he rounded up the women and children instead and kept them for three weeks. Besides these unpleasant events, Shelikof left behind the first Russian enclave in Alaska in Three Saints Bay.

Within a year, the reins of power were handed over to an Adrevich Baranof who moved things lock, stock, and whale oil to what is now Kodiak. Street signs and local names reflect this Russian influence. Over time, the Koniag people were largely assimilated into the Russian culture yet their heritage thankfully lives on in Kodiak’s Alutiiq Museum.           

The Russian heritage also lives on in the blue-domed Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Church and the St. Herman’s Seminary with its log chapel replica of their first church. In fact, this religion still has a strong following on the island. 

America Rethinks Its Position 

The wise legislators in the “Lower 48” states weren’t very interested in their northern neighbor. “Too far away,” they cried in chorus. “Nothing but empty land,” they reckoned. The indigenous Alutiiq didn’t agree and had long settled the region hunting sea otters for their pelts, which they traded to the Russians. But as the dark chapters of World War II unfolded, fears of an attack from the west surfaced following the Japanese invasion of Kiska and Attu. It was at that time these legislators recognized the strategic importance of this barren outpost. They built Ft. Abercrombie as part of the North Pacific’s WWII defense system. Then, in 1957, oil was discovered on the Kenai Peninsula in Swanson River and the rest was... history.           

Statehood came to Alaska on January 3rd, 1959 with Juneau its capital. Alaska became the forty-ninth star in America’s stars and stripes.

Kodiak, The Island 

Kodiak Island is found on the western side of the Gulf of Alaska. The terrain is rugged yet rich with geologic drama and wildlife, much of it living in an almost primal landscape. Ft. Abercrombie State Park is home to puffins, guillemots, eagles and eider ducks.             

Mother Nature has added her dramatic touch to this bucolic tableau. An 18-inch thick layer of white volcanic ash blanketed Kodiak in 1912 following the eruption of Mount Katmai. Some 52 years later a mighty earthquake, the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, ground through the town followed by a deadly tsunami that measured 35 feet above the mean high water mark. It devastated the waterfront and rocked her citizens back on their heels as they took to the hills watching boats being tossed about like children’s toys. But locals come from hardy stock—people willing to linger through long winters and pack a year’s worth of living into their short summers. They may have been down but they were never out. Stop by the Kodiak Police Station to see the plaque measuring the wave’s high water mark.           

Kodiak, The Town 

Think fish. Locals, fewer than 7,000, claim their town ranks among the country’s top three fishing ports with 700 fishing vessels calling here annually. Kodiak is filled with crab pots, drying nets, canning factories, fish smokers, and curbside eateries serving everything from silver salmon to king crab, halibut to trout and steelheads. Knowing this, you’ll be surprised to learn most of the catch is frozen immediately and shipped out to markets around the world. Take a walk along Cannery Row, skirting the waterfront, for the full montage.