History - Katmai

Salmon are traditionally hung on racks to dry.
Summer fish camp along the Naknek River, 1917.

Jasper Sayre Collection, NPS

 

National Park Service historians conduct research and prepare studies, assist with environmental compliance review and planning, write nominations for the National Register of Historic Places, and assist Alaska Native village partners. At Katmai National Park and Preserve, historians have produced several books available to the public. This research has gradually revealed the stories of old-time Katmai.


 
Kids in the Katmai area in 1917.
Children playing in the Katmai area, 1917.

Jasper Sayre Collection, NPS

 

The Russian Years (1760-1867)

The first historic records to mention the Katmai area date to the 1760s. Russian fur hunters reached the Aleutians in 1741 and made their way north up the Alaska Peninsula. By the 1780s, Russians were forcing local men to hunt sea otters, and an artel (or crew base camp) had been established at the village of Katmai.

Although relations between Russians and local Alutiiq people were strained, the Russian Orthodox religion took hold in the region and is still practiced today by many Katmai descendents.

Russia's involvement in the Crimean War in the 1860s drained the treasury, and the American colony became too expensive. "Seward's Folly" was sold to the United States in 1867.


 
Miners and trappers in the Katmai area.
Euro-american settlers and Alaska Native residents
took up trapping, mining, and other entrepreneurial
ventures during the early American years. Left to
right: Harry Featherstone (?), Billy Hill, Ben Ness,
Johnny Monsen (?), and Oscar Rousseau, circa 1924-1926.

Photo courtesy of Alex Tallekpalek.

 

The American Years - Pre-eruption (1867-1912)

Hunting and trapping fur-bearing animals remained a major industry in the Katmai area after Russia sold Alaska. The trading posts formerly owned by the Russian American Company were sold to the Alaska Commercial Company.

By the late 1880s, though, sea mammal populations had declined and economic focus shifted to commercial fishing. Residents moved from villages near trading posts to new settlements near salteries (which became canneries after the invention of canning technology). A few intrepid explorers began small-scale mineral exploration as well.

On June 6, 1912, Novarupta erupted, forever changing Katmai's cultural landscape.


 
The village of Katmai a year after its abandonment.
The village of Katmai in 1913, about a year after
its abandonment.

Postcard image, NPS

 

Scientific Exploration (1912-1920s)

The Novarupta eruption was the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, dwarfing even Mt. St. Helens. In the days before and after the eruption, residents fled all four villages in the Katmai area (Savonoski, Kaguyak, Katmai, and Kukak). Miraculously, no one was killed in the eruption and aftermath. For firsthand accounts of those dramatic days, download the Witness book (pdf, 3.51MB).

A month after the eruption, the National Geographic Society investigation began. Between 1912 and 1919, the Society made seven ventures to the eruption zone, which became known as the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Lobbying by the Society led President Woodrow Wilson to proclaim the Valley area a National Monument in 1918.

As the Society published their findings, the Katmai area became a tourist destination. The first flightseeing trip to the Valley took off in 1929. The monument was expanded in 1931 to include the Brooks Camp area.


 
The Brooks River area was once a bustling hub of subsistence activity.
The Brooks River area was once a bustling hub
of subsistence activity. This 1950 photo shows
"the spit" near the river mouth. Ted Melgenak sits
on the large white boat, and Ralph Angasan is the
small boy in the foreground. All others are
unidentified.
 

Barely a Park (1920s to 1950s)

The expanded Katmai National Monument included much of the area around Naknek Lake, but local residents continued to use abundant natural resources for subsistence, trapping, and other ventures. Many trappers were unaware that they were operating in a National Monument.

Several historic cabins were built during this era, including Fure's Bay of Islands cabin. Constructed in 1926, this beautiful hand-built structure on Naknek Lake has been restored and is now a public use cabin.

Alutiiq people from New Savonoski-South Naknek (where Savonoski residents had moved after the 1912 eruption) continued to harvest salmon at Brooks Camp in the summer and fall, in addition to other subsistence activities in the park area. Both commercial and subsistence use began to decline in the 1950s with greater park presence and more tourism.


 
Two- and four-legged fishermen compete along the Brooks River.
Two- and four-legged fishermen compete along the
Brooks River, 2003.
 

Today's Katmai (1950s to Present)

The National Park Service stationed a full-time ranger in Katmai for the first time in 1950, and began construction on a ranger station at Brooks Camp the same year. That original building is now the Visitors Center.

Tourism increased dramatically during the last half of the twentieth century. Aviation pioneer Raymond Peterson established several camps in the Katmai area in the 1950s, including two that became Brooks Lodge and Kulik Lodge. At first, most visitors were sport fishermen. As word of Katmai's brown bears spread during the 1980s, the Brooks River area, and later the Katmai coast, became popular wildlife viewing spots.

In 1980, Katmai National Monument was expanded to its present size and became Katmai National Park and Preserve.

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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