History - Lake Clark

Starring is a Russian Orthodox Christmas tradition in many Alaskan villages.
Starring is a Russian Orthodox Christmas tradition in many Alaska
Native villages. Community members travel from house to house, spinning
elaborate stars and celebrating. In this photo, taken in Lime Village in
1943, Nick Bobby, Seraphim Alexie and Paul Bobby carry the stars.

Photo courtesy of the Vonga and Matrona Bobby Collection.


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 Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, historians have gathered an unparalleled collection of historic photos and produced several books available to the public. This research has gradually revealed the stories of old-time Lake Clark.

Prospector and Naval Lietenant Hugh Rodman is the photographer.
This 1898 photo shows the Iliamna Fish Village on the Iliamna River
south of what is now the park. Dena'ina Athabascan summer houses,
fish drying racks, and skin kayaks (baidarkis) are visible. None of
the people are identified.

Photo courtesy of Alaska Magazine.


Russian Encounters

The first written documents about Alaska date to 1741, when Russian explorers reached the Aleutian Islands. The sparse historical record for the eighteenth century hints at rapid change for the Alaska Natives in the Iliamna/Lake Clark. Russian fur-hunters plundered several villages in 1792. In retaliation for this and other mistreatments, villagers twice destroyed a Russian trading post on Iliamna Lake in 1800. Within twenty years, though, relations had stabilized. The first Russian Orthodox missionaries arrived in 1794, and by the 1830s, travelling priests were conducting services and baptisms regularly in the region. The religion is still widely practiced today in southwest Alaska.

Trapping and small-time prospecting were common means of supplementing income in the early twentieth century.
Harvey Drew, Jr., Martin "Poykin" Johnson, and
George Seversen on a trapping expedition.

Photo courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Hill.


The Early American Years

In 1867 Russia sold Alaska to the United States for the bargain price of 3 cents per acre. The purchase ushered in a new era of trade and connections with the industrializing world. The first Euro-american to give an account of Lake Clark itself was Charles Leslie McKay, collecting for the Smithsonian Institution in 1881. Ten years later, explorer Alfred B. Schanz’s party traveled through the Lake Clark area. Included in the party was John W. Clark, a representative of the Alaska Commercial Company. Although the Schanz's group was apparently aware that the Dena’ina name for the lake was Qiz’jeh Vena, they renamed it Lake Clark. The Americanized pronunciation of Qiz’jeh Vena, which translates as “lake where many people gather,” is Kijik. Kijik is now the name of a lake and river that flows into Lake Clark, as well as an historic village and a National Historic Landmark.

In 1903, the first permanent white resident arrived in Lake Clark. Like many who would follow him, Brown Carlson was a trapper and jack-of-all-trades who built a cabin and cultivated an impressive garden. Soon after, the Alaska gold rush reached Lake Clark. Miner, prospectors, and the U.S. Geological Survey explored the Chigmit and Neacola mountains and the Bonanza Hills. Local Dena’ina Athabascan people began panning for gold, and supplemented that income by selling furs.

Explorers, trappers, and miners entering the Lake Clark area brought introduced diseases. Already weakened by epidemics of smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis, Dena’ina people in the Lake Clark area were devastated by a measles and flu epidemic in 1902. The depopulation brought about changes in settlements. Many remaining Dena’ina people settled in Old Nondalton or Lime Village. A few families moved to Tanalian Point, on the southeast shore of Lake Clark. During the first half of the twentieth century, people in the Lake Clark area continued to live on subsistence, mining, and trapping.

Jay Hammond was the architect of Alaska's Permanent Fund, which pays each Alaska resident a portion of the return on invested oil money every year.
Future Alaska governor Jay Hammond was an early
Lake Clark bush pilot, big game guide, and homesteader.

Photo courtesy of Lucy McConnaughy.


The Age of Air Travel

The first aircraft to land on Lake Clark was a Waco 10 biplane on floats in 1930. The historic flight ushered in a new era, and made life in Lake Clark more connected to the outside world. Soon Tanalian Point resident Floyd Denison had radio contact with Star Airlines in Anchorage, which later became Alaska Air. Just twelve years later, Leon “Babe” Alsworth Sr. established the first air taxi service on Lake Clark, based at the new settlement of Port Alsworth. During World War II and after, many of Lake Clark’s residents served their country in the armed forces. Demand for furs declined in the 1960s and 1970s, but a new industry was just beginning – wilderness tourism.

Dick Proenneke at Twin Lakes.
Dick Proenneke at Twin Lakes.

Wilderness Living

As the country became more aware of wilderness areas in the 1960s and 1970s, Lake Clark began to receive more visitors. Some just passed through, but others put down roots and built cabins. The most famous of these is Dick Proenneke, who built his cabin on Upper Twin Lake in 1968 using only hand tools and lived there alone until 1998, when he was 82. Lake Clark National Park and Preserve was created in 1980 by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which also provided for continued subsistence use of the park by local residents. Today many people continue to use the area’s rich resources in a traditional way.


From the Hinterlands to Tidewater: A Grassroots Pictoral by John Branson, 1998. National Park Service, Anchorage, AK.

Lake Clark – Lake Iliamna Country. Alaska Geographic Volume 13, Number 4, 1986.

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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