World War II Aleut Relocation Camps in Southeast Alaska - Chapter 4: Killisnoo Herring Plant, pt. 1

Photo of several buildings between the shore and forest viewed from water
Figure 102. The buildings of Whaler’s Cove Lodge occupy about one third of the old Killisnoo site, here looking south across Killisnoo Harbor from the Angoon ferry terminal.

Villagers from Atka were housed during the war in the defunct herring factory at Killisnoo, near Angoon (Figure 102). Over 50 miles south of Funter Bay on the west side of Admiralty Island is a rich marine environment where the mouths of Mitchell Bay, Hood Bay, and Chaik Bay look across Chatham Strait at the entrance to Peril Strait (Figure 103). The lushly forested hills and mountains enclose many streams with large salmon runs. In the 1800s herring were plentiful and had long been a traditional staple of the local Tlingit Indians. Humpback whales plied the waters of Chatham Strait, preying on krill, herring, and other marine species. The rich marine resources attracted the attention of the Northwest Trading Company, which in 1878 established a station on the island of Killisnoo (Figure 103), near the Tlingit village of Angoon (de Laguna 1960:49). The Killisnoo herring plant was one of American Alaska’s first industrial enterprises.

Map showing location of Killisnoo and Angoon along Chatham Straight on Adiralty Island.
Figure 103. Killisnoo is located south of Angoon on the west side of Admiralty Island, about 60 miles southeast of Funter Bay.

Early Years

The company constructed extensive wharf and warehouse facilities (Figure 104), began rendering herring oil and processing the fish waste into fertilizer – then called “guano” in reference to bat dung – in 1879, and began a whaling station the following year (de Laguna 1960:162). Native men from nearby Angoon were employed in the commercial whaling operation, leading to an infamous matter in 1882 involving Killisnoo, Angoon, and the U.S. Navy. Bare facts of the incident are that: a whaling gun exploded, killing a shaman employed on the boat, leading to a work strike by the Natives and the demand of restitution (the condition for return to the company of their whaling boat and two non-Native employees), scaring the non-Natives at Killisnoo, who contacted the U.S. Navy, which responded with several vessels armed with howitzers and gatling guns, culminating in the shelling of Angoon and its villagers, the burning of the village and 40 dugout canoes, and resulting Native deaths (Reckley 1982).

Composite image of two black and white photos. Left: Pier with piles of wood, buildings in background. Right: Canoes on shore with buildings and flags.
Figures 104-105. The residential district at Killisnoo consisted of densely packed frame buildings, making the community vulnerable to fire.  Included were permanent & seasonal houses, the herring plant, & a large wharf to stack the hundreds of cords of wood required by the plant’s reduction system.

Left: Alaska State Library Vincent Soboleff collection PCA1-243.  Right: Courtesy of Richard Powers, Whaler’s Cove Lodge.

Seasonal Native settlement was subsequently encouraged at Killisnoo, and soon a dense cluster of Native houses, sheds, and smokehouses formed northwest of the commercial buildings (Figures 104-105). The local Tlingit joined a multicultural workforce of Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and Swedes that lived year-round at Killisnoo.

Composite image of two line drawn maps.  Left features buildings along a shore with one long wharf. Right is close up of where wharf meets shore
Figures 106-107. Left: In 1891 U.S. Deputy Surveyor Charles W. Gorside plotted the facilities of the Alaska Oil and Guano Company as U.S. Survey 5. Right: An enlargement of USS 5 shows the industrial facilities with functions labeled as they were in 1891.

Killisnoo became one of the first federally surveyed tracts in the Alaska Territory when U.S. Deputy Surveyor Charles W. Gorside mapped the facility in 1891 as USS 5 – the “Trading and Manufacturing Site” of the Alaska Oil and Guano Company (Figures 106-107). At that time a collection of about 40 “Indian Huts” at the northwest end of the site housed the families of the local Native work force. On the hillside south of those buildings was the territorial school, then a small reservoir, and south of the reservoir was the Russian Orthodox church and a fenced churchyard. Downslope from the church, at the water’s edge, was a supply house and the agent’s house. Southeast of the church were a group of buildings labeled in 1891 as “Russian Houses.” Between those buildings and the shore were five small buildings, plus two small covered wells, and at the high tide line were two larger buildings of which one was the company store. Moving southeast along the shoreline from the store there was a gap of about 75’ before the large industrial buildings of the plant began. Archival photographs show Killisnoo to be almost completely deforested by the late 1800s, with less than a dozen tall old-growth trees left standing.

An enlargement of the 1891 plat shows the array of industrial facilities at the Killisnoo plant (Figure 107). Prominent was a wharf perpendicular to the shore, extending 300’ into Killisnoo Harbor. As the wharf approached the shore it broadened to create – including buildings – a work/storage space measuring more than 100’ x 150’ on pilings over the inter-tidal zone. At the shore end of the wharf was a boiler room on land, attached at one corner to a large building partly over the intertidal zone labeled “Factory.” At the northeast corner of the complex was a “press house” and a “salting house.” At the southeast corner was the cooperage, or barrel-making shop, and a building labeled “Day H.” – perhaps the crew mess hall. Scattered among these buildings were four others labeled “Guano H.,” where product in various stages of manufacture was stored. Continuing southeast along the shore from the factory complex were a small smoke house, a barrel storage yard, and a boathouse (Figure 107). At its zenith the Killisnoo herring plant was one of Alaska’s largest industrial enterprises, with a bustling harbor and even a steam whistle to call the crews to work.

Killisnoo continued in operation in some form through the following decades, processing herring, whales, and sometimes other marine products. In 1928 almost all of the housing burned to the ground, leaving only the industrial plant and a few nearby commercial/industrial buildings (de Laguna 1960:49). The story is told secondhand by Richard Powers that the fire began in a smokehouse when two small children, instructed to watch the smokehouse and not leave it under any circumstances, did as they were told and stood watching as the building caught fire and spread to the village. The effects were soon felt. The post office was shut down in 1930 after 48 years of operation (Ricks 1965). Census takers in 1930 found in the former community of Killisnoo, which had for 40 years a population of around 300 people, only three people (Orth 1967:519). After the fire the Tlingit work force moved back to Angoon, and the nearby cannery at Hood Bay became their primary source of income (Mobley 1999:13-44). Frederica de Laguna (1960:49) reports that prior to 1942 the Admiralty Island side of the channel across from Killisnoo (both sides of the channel were collectively called Killisnoo by the Tlingit) was home to a group of Japanese men who were subsequently interned elsewhere for the duration of World War II.

Composite image of two black and white photos. Left: People working with supplies on a wharf. Right: People in a rowboat at the shore.
Figures 108-109. Left: Atka villagers found the Killisnoo wharf to be unmaintained but servicable. Right: On occasion one of the Pribilof baidars from Funter Bay was loaned to the Atka villagers at Killisnoo, providing the community with a welcome taste of traditional transportation.

Left: Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association (copy print, source unknown). Right: Alaska State Library Butler/Dale collection PCA306.1040[1].

World War II and the Camp Experience

After Atka villagers were evacuated from Atka to Nikolski, they boarded the Delarof and journeyed to St. Paul Island to witness the boarding of that village, continued on to St. George Island to repeat the experience, then spent eight days at sea before arriving at Funter Bay on June 24, 1942. Agent McMillan’s log makes no mention of the Atka villagers. Kirtland and Coffin (1981:27) state that the Delarof discharged the Atka villagers at Killisnoo on the morning of June 25, while Kohlhoff (1995:96) says the villagers were off-loaded at Funter Bay and “at 4:00 A.M., they were packed on a ‘hulking red scow,’ a ‘fish-stinking scow,’ borrowed from the Hood Bay cannery” and towed down Chatham Strait to Killisnoo. They had no luggage. By the time they arrived at the old Killisnoo herring plant (Figure 108), the 83 villagers from Atka had spent the longest time in transit of any of the evacuees.

Alaska Indian Service Director Virgil R. Farrell inventoried the facilities at Killisnoo with possible camp service in mind and prepared a memo dated May 13, 1942. Available buildings included three houses, five cabins, a bunkhouse suitable for two families, a warehouse, a machine shop, a shed, and a store (Kohlhoff 1995:97). The water system needed repair, and three simple outhouses constituted the sewage system. Most of the buildings were unheated and not built for winter occupation. The Delarof off-loaded mattresses, blankets, and a four-day supply of food, then left for Seattle with most of the Pribilof Islands’ non-Native evacuees. Atka school teachers Ruby and Charles Magee stayed at Killisnoo as the federal onsite authority until early 1943, when they moved to Kenai, and there after the villagers at Killisnoo received little official federal attention (Kohlhoff 1995:97-98; 119-123).

Composite image of two black and white photos: Left: men from a ship hand item to men in large wooden boat. Right: Man poses with hammer and wooden boat bow.
Figure 110-111. Left: Atka men George Prokopeuff, William Golley, and Dan Nevzoroff maneuver a Pribilof baidar alongside a boat in Killisnoo Harbor to load freight. Right: Atka boat-builder Constantine Golley began building dories in the Killisnoo warehouse.

Left: Alaska State Library Butler/Dale collection PCA306.898.143.  Right: Alaska State Library Butler/Dale collection PCA306.1032.

The villagers’ circumstances at Killisnoo paralleled those at other evacuation camps in having poor water sources, little functioning plumbing, and poor sanitation, along with inadequate supplies and tools, limited or no hunting and fishing equipment, and drafty cabins and industrial buildings for quarters. To ease the villagers’ lack of transportation a Pribilof baidar from Funter Bay was sometimes loaned to Killisnoo (Figures 109-110). Eventually boatbuilder Constantine Golley began crafting wooden skiffs in one of Killisnoo’s shops (Figure 111). Women wove baskets in the traditional Aleut manner using local grass (see Figure 227), and sold them if they could. Difficult conditions contributed to 17 deaths during the wartime stay (Kohlhoff 1995:120), and a small cluster of traditional white-painted wood Russian Orthodox crosses formed beside the old Killisnoo village cemetery in the forest nearby. Men sometimes left the village to work in a cannery nearby, earning cash to augment their meager government supplies. The funds from Atka’s federally managed fur harvest of the previous year were used to fund a community store at Killisnoo, which became self-sustaining (Kohlhoff 1995:122).

Composite of two black and white photos. Left: People gathered on a wharf. Right: People in a boat facing a battleship.
Figures 112-113. Left: Atka villagers gather on the Killisnoo dock in preparation for their return to Atka, in the late spring of 1945. Right: Accompanied by two small boats and other supplies and possessions, Atka villagers are barged to the waiting USAT David W. Branch for their return to Atka.

Left: Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association (copy print, source unknown). Right: National Archives RG75-N-Aleut-C-11.

Finally, after almost three years, the Killisnoo refugees returned to their burned-out village in April of 1945, thus becoming not only the first village evacuated but the last village repatriated (except for the Attuans incarcerated in Japan, who were not returned until late 1945) (Kohlhoff 1995:163). Another military transport – this time the USAT David W. Branch – returned the refugees to Atka (Figures 112-113). Photographs of the barge lightering the villagers from the Killisnoo dock to the ship show many possessions including two small boats (Figure 113) – symbols of the people’s thrift and perseverence in defiance of the harsh circumstances.

Black and white photo of six boys sitting on piles of lumber.
Figure 114. Atka boys sit on a pile of new lumber at Killisnoo in front of the store porch (left). Left to right: Johnny Golley, Peter Prokopeuff, Paul Zaochney, George Nevzoroff, Ted Golley, and Mike Snigaroff.  Neither the first nor third child survived the Killisnoo experience.

Alaska State Library Butler/Dale collection PCA306.1061

Wartime Construction

Records of buildings added to or subtracted from the Killisnoo complex during the war are few. A memo indicates that by January of 1943 Atkans were building “new cottages” at Killisnoo (Kohlhoff 1995:122), but they aren’t apparent in the archival photographs consulted. One photograph shows small boys playing on a stack of new lumber in front of the Killisnoo store porch (Figure 114), and another photograph of the villagers assembled on the day of their departure shows the store’s porch newly framed-in (Figure 115). The new room had been outfitted as a kitchen, according to current property co-owner Richard Powers.

Post-War Development

When the Aleuts left Killisnoo in 1945 the infrastructure was more or less as it had been prior to their arrival three years earlier. Some buildings including the store had been improved with new materials, making them more suitable for the villagers’ needs. But the herring plant was still a derelict commercial facility of little value.

Black and white photo of large group of people holding suitcases in front of a building.
Figure 115. Seventy-seven Atkans assemble by the Killisnoo store, with its newly enclosed kitchen, on the day of their departure in April of 1945.

Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association (copy print, source unknown)

In 1950, according to de Laguna (1960:49), “one elderly white man lived alone on the island.” This was probably watchman Oscar H.Pedersen, a single man who lived in a large two-story cabin that still stood into the early 1970s between the reservoir and the lodge’s current shop, according to Richard Powers. Pedersen’s occupancy likely included the wartime years, but he isn’t mentioned in the documents consulted from that era.

Most of the buildings in the industrial complex at Killisnoo burned in 1952. Pederson eventually gained title to the property in compensation for his long unpaid tenure as watchman, and a warranty deed was filed in March of 1954 selling the 156.5 acre parcel for $3,000 to Carl A. Jacobson, Jr. By that time many of the buildings had been cannibalized for material by local residents, as is the custom in southeast Alaska (Wilkinson 1990:82-86; Mobley 1999:24), and Jacobson continued salvaging from the complex. The fenced property of the Russian Orthodox church mapped in 1891 (Figure 107) was not relinquished as part of the warranty deed, and officially remains in church hands (as an inholding within the Whaler's Cove Lodge parcel).

Richard L. Powers joined Jacobson in several local business interests including the intention of developing a fishing lodge, and "in 1970, the principals of Whaler's Cove, Inc., started construction by clearing the site of the dilapidated Killisnoo buildings and dock remains” (Whaler’s Cove Lodge 2011). The first year of operation for Whaler’s Cove Lodge was in 1983. Powers soon purchased Jacobson’s interest in the lodge, and they divided the property.

Color photo showing a man pointing toward green grass, a rusted object, and something covered in a tarp.
Figure 116. Tom Aubertine, who with his wife Chris (Jacobson) owns the Killisnoo industrial zone, points out a steam engine.

Whaler’s Cove Lodge was built exclusively from the beach midpoint and northwest on what was the residential portion of old Killisnoo, and Jacobson retained the remainder including the southeast half of the beach where the industrial zone had been. In the 1970s the Jacobsons cleared a survey line into the middle of Killisnoo Island, platted 25 lots on each side of it (for a total of 50 lots), and put them up for sale at $3,000 each, according to Tom Aubertine. The cemetery was surveyed separately and offered to the City of Angoon about 20 years ago, according to Chris Aubertine, but the offer was declined. In 2008 the old Killisnoo industrial area was part of a large parcel owned by the Aubertine Trust, under the control of Tom and Chris ( Jacobson) Aubertine (Figure 116).

Part of a series of articles titled World War II Aleut Relocation Camps in Southeast Alaska.

Aleutian Islands World War II National Historic Area

Last updated: February 14, 2021