Building in an Ashen Land: Historic Resource Study
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Prior to the June 1912 eruption, virtually no roads existed on the Alaska Peninsula. This state of affairs was unsurprising, considering the small population levels, the rugged topography, the relatively easy travel afforded along the seacoast or across lakes, and the difficulty of securing funds in Alaska for road construction.

The establishment of the monument, in 1918, publicized the area to some extent, and Robert F. Griggs, the National Geographic Society's expedition leader, saw roads as a key aspect of monument development. He noted that "only 50 or 60 miles of automobile road is needed to open up all the wonders of the area to the public. When that is constructed, the traveler may tour the Katmai National Monument as easily as he now visits the Yellowstone." [21] The Alaska Road Commission, in response, visited the area in 1921 and made an informal survey for a thirty-mile road heading west from Geographic Harbor. The report from that survey, however, was pessimistic that any road could be built in the monument, for both technical and economic reasons. The report stated that

It appears that a road from any Pacific entrance would be prohibitive in cost, if not impossible. The deep ashes mentioned drift around like snow with every wind. It lies on the steep slopes like so much ground coffee and is always ready to slide when disturbed. Until vegetation has again penetrated it, and formed a sod or soil as a binding, it will not pack and can not be held in place. [22]

Later recommendations for roads came from NPS officials. Roads, for example, were urged as part of the park's first master plan, completed in 1942, and shortly after the establishment of the Alaska Recreation Survey, in 1950, planner George Collins advocated the construction of "a short section of road" that would connect the south end of Iliuk Arm with the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. [23] But because Katmai, with its remote location and light visitation, was low on the agency's priorities, road construction projects were never funded. The only road that was constructed during this period was a short, rough road between Brooks and Naknek lakes, built during the early 1940s.

In 1956, the NPS began work on its Mission 66 program, a servicewide program to upgrade the parks' infrastructure by funding the construction of roads, visitor centers, campgrounds, trails, and other improvements. An April 1956 prospectus revealed that the agency, at Katmai, planned to spend "about $680,000 for new buildings and about $80,000 for improved roads and trails." In the latter category, the agency envisioned limited road projects ("these will be principally jeep routes," the prospectus said) from the mouth of the Ukak River to "Valley Junction" and from King Salmon to Lake Camp. By April 1957, the final Mission 66 program somewhat revised the above priorities; it called for the construction of two jeep roads, one a twelve-mile route from Iliuk Arm up the Ukak River valley to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, the other from Brooks Camp to the site of a proposed airstrip. Compared with other Mission 66 projects, however, the Valley road was not a top priority; an employee headquarters, a visitor center, and an airstrip were all deemed more important.

The idea of a road to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, like previous plans, seemed destined to remain in the proposal stage. But in February 1961, a meeting in Washington, D.C. radically changed that scenario. Northern Consolidated Airlines head Ray Petersen met with NPS and legislative officials and was told that, because of opposition from the "Sierra Club or other preservationists," there was little likelihood that a road would be constructed in Katmai in the near future. Petersen was taken aback by the statement because a year earlier, Director Conrad Wirth and other top bureaucrats had promised verbal support for a road connecting Brooks Camp with the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes if Petersen undertook a large development program. So in response, Sen. Ernest Gruening (D-AK) agreed to arrange a meeting with both Petersen and Wirth. At that meeting, Gruening got so angry at Wirth that the NPS director reluctantly agreed to fund road construction. The 22-mile "Valley Road," which cost slightly over $150,000, was built during the summer of 1962, and tours up the rough dirt road began in 1963. Trips from Brooks Camp to Three Forks Overlook (at the southeastern road terminus) have been a staple of the Katmai tourist experience ever since.

Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Road Corridor
Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes Road Corridor, October 1993. NPS-Akso LCS Katmai file.

No sooner had the NPS agreed to build the Valley Road than the State of Alaska, which was in the planning process for its ferry system, began to press for further road development in the monument. On March 6, 1961, less than a month after the Gruening-Wirth meeting, the Alaska House of Representatives passed a resolution asking "that a road be planned and constructed by the state and the federal government from the Bristol Bay area through the Mount Katmai National Monument to the southern coast of the Alaska Peninsula" and "that the Kodiak-Homer ferry system be extended by the state to include a terminal at the east end of this road." On March 30, the state senate passed the same resolution. This action was followed a year later by a plea for even more construction. In February 1962, the Alaska House passed two more resolutions: one for a road from the outlet of Naknek Lake (where the existing road ended) to the Lake Brooks terminus of the Valley Road, the other from Three Forks Overlook to Kukak Bay, where a state-sponsored ferry terminal was to be built.

NPS Director Conrad Wirth, upon hearing of the resolutions, threw cold water on any road construction ideas. Recognizing the Service's limited budget for Alaska construction items, and because had just funded a major road project in the lightly visited park, he told Senator Gruening that Katmai roads ranked lower than long-delayed capital projects in the Mount McKinley and Glacier Bay park units. Gruening himself reflected a similar set of priorities.

These objections did not dissuade Alaska legislators from advocating road construction in the monument, and resolutions to that effect were passed during both the 1963 and 1964 legislative sessions. The Good Friday Earthquake forced legislators to pursue more immediate interests for the next several years, but in 1967 and 1968, road-construction advocates were back with a vengeance, urging roads to either Kukak Bay or Geographic Harbor. These pleas eventually reached the desk of NPS Director George Hartzog who, in January 1968, told state officials in unequivocal terms that any new roads "would be particularly destructive to park values." Road advocates made one last try in the mid-1970s, during the planning process that preceded the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The result of that process, however, was ultimately discouraging to its advocates, and the creation of huge wilderness areas when ANILCA became law doomed any future attempts for a long-distance road in the present park. [24]

Water Transportation

People have been traveling by water along the Katmai coast for hundreds if not thousands of years. The coastal Sugpiat/Alutiiq, Russian fur traders and priests, and Euroamerican explorers crossed the treacherous Shelikof Strait using kayak and baidarkas. Katmai coastal inhabitants traveled great distances along the Alaska Peninsula for trade and for sea otter hunting. Later craft appearing along the Katmai coast included schooners and other wind-driven vessels; they, in turn, were replaced by steamships and mailboats. Many of these craft, particularly the smaller early boats, attempted to increase the safety of trips between the Katmai coast and Kodiak Island by waiting long periods before calm weather permitted a crossing. Even the most careful, however, sometimes succumbed to unexpected storms. Numerous shipwrecks, as a result, have taken place.

Ships operated by the Russian-American Company traveled between Kodiak and the company's Alaska Peninsula posts. Katmai was one of the primary depots, ships anchoring there provided supplies and picked up furs. One of the Russian ships, the Tri Sviatitelia, wrecked in Kamishak Bay in 1796. Unable to repair the ship, the men scavenged the iron parts and bolts and burned the rest. [25] During the early American period, the Alaska Commercial Company and rival trading firms operated schooners to make the station rounds. The Douglas Station apparently had more marine traffic than did the Cook Inlet posts. The ships would deliver merchandise, pick up furs, and transport sea otter hunters. [26] Shirpser, Haritonoff and Company used the Clara L. West as a tender for its Douglas Station, making stops several times a year. During the 1870s, this ship was replaced by the Petaluma and then by the Urania schooner, which was wrecked in 1875. [27] After the firm became the Western Fur and Trading Company, the Douglas Station manager used a smaller schooner, the Diomedes Herman, to make the rounds of the smaller villages and scattered sea otter hunting camps. In 1883, the Alaska Commercial Company purchased the Western Fur and Trading Company's property, although two schooners were not included in the purchase. [28]

The area's second known shipwreck occurred in November of 1886, when John W. Smith, the Alaska Commercial Company's Douglas Station manager, put his wife and five children on board the schooner Flying Scud bound for Kodiak. The Flying Scud never reached Kodiak. It was not until five months later that another schooner, the Kodiak, arrived at Douglas with the news. [29] No evidence of a shipwreck was ever located, so it can only be assumed that all hands were lost during the Shelikof Strait crossing.

ship repair
Above: Locals hired to help with repairing the Pilgrim at Katmai Bay in 1898. Another ship, the Western Star wrecked during this storm. The wood from this ship was salvaged and used towards the building of coastal chapels. Photograph courtesy of Moran Bros. Collection, Whatcom Museum of History & Art, Bellingham, WA.

During the 1898 gold rush, the so-called "Moran Fleet," consisting of twelve river steamers, sailed from Seattle to St. Michael. To increase the safety factor, the vessels stayed close to the shoreline. On June 29, 1898, some of the steamers traveling west from Kodiak through Shelikof Strait were forced to anchor at Katmai Bay because of hurricane winds. Several of the steamers were beached at Katmai Bay including the Pilgrim, the D.R. Campbell, the F.K. Gustin, the Robert E. Kerr, the Tacoma, the St. Michael, the Mary F. Graff, the Western Star, and the Seattle. Seven of the nine steamers were immediately refloated. The Pilgrim, however, required repair work, and with the help of local villagers it was repaired at Katmai Bay. The Western Star was not so fortunate. It became a total wreck; some parts were scavenged, while others were auctioned off. [30] It is highly doubtful if any parts remain in situ from this vessel, though the site has not been surveyed for this purpose.

By the early 1900s, the sea otter population was declining, and shipping activity dropped off as a result. With the rise of commercial fishing, however, maritime traffic began to rise again. The canneries at Karluk, on the west side of Kodiak Island, sent cannery tenders to Kaflia Bay to pick up salmon from the bay's fishery. Some of the Alaska Steamship Company vessels, traveling from Kodiak and Karluk to Unalaska, would occasionally put in at Katmai Bay to deliver mail. [31]

Following the 1912 volcanic eruption, only seasonal fishermen and perhaps some prospectors still traveled to the coast by boat. Some shipping activity occurred during 1915 and 1919 as the National Geographic Society's Katmai expeditions shuttled between Kodiak and Katmai Bay. The NGS's expeditions to Bristol Bay, undertaken in 1918 and 1919, used cannery boats to take participants up the Naknek River, perhaps as far as the rapids.

On June 29, 1898, the Pilgrim and several other steamers in the Moran Fleet were beached at Katmia Bay. The Pilgrim after repairs, sailed away, but a sister ship, the Western Star, was wrecked beyond repair. Photograph courtesy of Moran Brothers Collection, Museum of History and Industry, Seattle, WA.

One known shipwreck occurred along the Katmai coast in 1929. On September 5 of that year, the steamship Golden Forest ran aground at Cape Ilktugitak, located between Amalik and Dakavak bays. The Golden Forest, an Oceanic and Oriental Steamship Co. freighter, was carrying general merchandise en route from San Francisco to Yokohama when it ran aground at Avatanak Island, just east of Unalaska. It was refloated at Akutan Island, and was being towed back to Seattle when it got hung up on two sharp rocks at Cape Ilktugitak. The event generated great interest among the locals, who hoped that the ship would break up so its goods could be salvaged. The ship, in fact, was never moved; the merchandise, however, ending up being purchased by the H. T. Erskine Co., which owned several general stores on Kodiak Island. A 1984 coastal survey noted that a large assemblage of rusted parts remained both above and below the high tide line. [32]

During each of the next two years, additional shipwrecks occurred. On August 13, 1930, a gas screw named the GoGet was destroyed by fire at the Seashore Packing Company dock (which was owned at the time by the Hemrich Packing Company) in Kukak Bay. Just a year later, another gas screw named the Mary C. Fisher was wrecked on the rocks about three miles east of Cape Kubugakli; it foundered and sank in strong, storm-tossed seas. [33] So far as is known, no additional shipwrecks have befallen the Katmai coast since the early 1930s.

During the 1940s, shipping in the area continued with private shipping companies, particularly the major fish packers, sailing between the Lower 48 and the various Bristol Bay canneries. The Alaska Steamship Company served the villages located on both sides of the Alaska Peninsula. [34]

With the establishment of salmon and clam canneries at Kukak and Swikshak bays, shipping resumed along the Katmai coast from the 1920s into the 1950s. Docks and wharfs were built at Swikshak and Kukak bays to accommodate the tenders that arrived to pick up the fisheries' products.

The result of one shipping mishap at Amalik Bay led to the legend of Katmai's wild horse. In September 1956, a barge carrying sixteen horses from Kodiak to Puale Bay starting taking on water. The skipper pulled into Amalik Bay, off-loaded the horses and hurried on to Kodiak. The horses, abruptly left on their own, were ill-prepared to fend for themselves in such a wild, hostile environment, and fifteen of the sixteen horses, not surprisingly, did not survive the first winter. The one surviving bay gelding became a living legend as passing fishermen and pilots would see the horse year after year. A fisherman found the horse's bones, surrounded by wolf tracks, in 1974. It is estimated that the horse had lived 25 years, 18 of those years having been spent around Amalik Bay. [35]

At the western end of the monument, the NPS and the concessioner established a presence at Brooks Camp in the spring of 1950. No sooner had the camp buildings been erected than the agency began to plan for the possibility of accessing the site by water. As part of the Alaska Recreation Survey, plans developed for a transportation system that included concessioner-operated boats on Lake Grosvenor as well as a possible route across Naknek Lake as well. Five years later, however, the NPS abandoned those plans and concluded that planes were better suited to Katmai than boats. [36] In the meantime, NPS Katmai rangers were using boats to patrol the monument with boat docks under construction at Brooks Camp in 1963. [37] In 1965, the agency became reinvigorated about boat transportation when its master plan declared that "a program must be devised to permit access to the Monument for greater numbers of people by means other than float plane," and it proclaimed the need for a large boat that would shuttle passengers across the lake. Those plans, however, were squelched because the water in the Lake Camp area (where a major boat dock was proposed) was too shallow. In response, officials moved their proposed dock to the northwestern end of the lake in its 1971 and 1973 master plans. [38] As late as 1976, NPS officials were convinced that boat transportation would eventually replace float planes, at least on Brooks Camp service. And that summer, Wien Air Alaska investigated the practicality of a Naknek Lake boat service. But the company quickly turned down the idea. As part of its 1983-86 master planning process, the NPS proposed that "boat service on Naknek Lake, provided by private enterprise, would be encouraged." That proposal, however, was doomed to remain on the drawing boards. [39] Neither the NPS nor the concessioner has ever established a commercial boat service on Naknek or any other lake within the present-day park.

Air Transportation

Because maritime shipping is so treacherous, and because roads—for both economic and technical reasons—have been so hard to construct, the advent of air transportation was a boon to the Katmai country and other areas inaccessible by Alaska's poorly developed road system. Aircraft began arriving in the monument well before the NPS began active management, and it has long been the chief method by which tourists and park managers have traveled to and within the park unit.

So far as is known, the first airborne travelers who considered the monument a visitor destination came in 1929, when Anchorage Air Transport debuted tourist flights to the area in the form of a one-day tour. For $265—a king's ransom in those days—the company offered to fly visitors into the still-active volcanic area and provide them eight hours for exploration and sightseeing. [40]

Of the few who visited Katmai during the 1930s and 1940s, most came by air. Lou Corbley, the first NPS staff person to visit the monument, arrived by chartered plane in 1937; three years later, Mount McKinley Superintendent Frank Been, along with biologist Victor Cahalane, flew over the monument before making a more extended boat-based survey. Military men stationed at Naknek Air Base flew into the monument to fish for rainbow trout, and airplanes also attracted cannery personnel, wealthy sportsmen, and Fish and Wildlife personnel to the area. [41]

Given that context, it perhaps should not be surprising that the individual most responsible for "opening up" Katmai to visitors was an airline official. Ray Petersen, head of Northern Consolidated Airlines, had been an Alaska pilot since 1934; he had first become acquainted with the Katmai country during World War II, and he been NCA's head since 1945. By agreeing to open up five area fishing camps, two of which were located in Katmai National Monument, Petersen provided both tourist accommodations and tourist access. [42] The company opened its fishing camps in the late spring of 1950, and ever since, virtually every Katmai visitor who has ventured east of Lake Camp has entered the park by airplane.

Petersen's initial plans called for each of the camps to be accessed by floatplane, but in the spring of 1954—a year before his concessions contract was due to expire—he began to lobby for an airstrip near Brooks Camp. Arguing that NCA wanted to access the camp directly from Anchorage as well as from King Salmon, Petersen also felt that having an airstrip would be safer for incoming pilots. He darkly hinted, moreover, that his acceptance of a new contract might be linked with getting an airstrip approved. Conrad Wirth, however, didn't accept Petersen's arguments and urged that further study be undertaken first. An informal study, conducted in 1955, located two sites near Brooks Camp that would be acceptable for an airstrip; both were in the Beaver Pond area. [43] The Mission 66 program, unveiled in April 1956, did not initially call for an airstrip, but the final plan, issued a year later, included provisions for such a facility. Another site survey, urged by Mount McKinley Superintendent Duane Jacobs, followed in the spring of 1958; regional NPS officials, however, fought the idea and instead urged that the airstrip idea needed further study. [44]

Petersen, naturally, was miffed that the NPS had refused to agree with his plans. Even before he received his first response from Wirth, however, he proceeded with airstrip development plans in another location. In the spring of 1954, at the same time that he laid out his Brooks Camp airstrip plans to NPS officials, he also decided to carve out an airstrip near the company's Kulik Camp facility. Here, on Bureau of Land Management land, he encountered no bureaucratic stumbling blocks—he applied for a public airport lease to secure legal use of the 80-acre parcel—and construction of a 1,500-foot airstrip began that summer. The following year the strip was extended out another 500 feet, and by August 1956, workers had completed a usable if rough road between the camp and landing strip. [45] By this time, Petersen was well aware that the NPS had little interest in a Brooks Camp airstrip; perhaps as a result, he brought a sawmill into Kulik Camp and commenced construction that year on the large, wooden Kulik Lodge. The lodge was completed in 1958 or 1959.

No sooner was the lodge complete than he began to develop more sophisticated plans for Kulik Camp. In the fall of 1958, NCA acquired the first of several Fairchild 40-passenger propjets, which were intended to move a larger number of passengers in greater comfort than the airline had been previously able to do. In conjunction with that purchase, the airline chose the Kulik airfield to fulfill the role of intermediate stop on the Anchorage-King Salmon run; in so doing, they hoped to stimulate visitation to the newly-enlarged camp. But the new airplanes required a longer runway, so in 1958 NCA added an extra 2,000 feet to the existing airstrip. Propjet service to Kulik Lake began in 1959. But by 1963, NCA officials had reluctantly concluded that propjet service to Kulik Lake was not a paying proposition, and traffic thereafter was limited to small bush planes, most or all of which came from either King Salmon or the other NCA camps. [46]

The need to establish a Brooks Camp airstrip flared up again in 1966, when NCA officials began contemplating the need to purchase its first jet airplanes. Shortly thereafter, plans were announced to merge NCA with Wien Air Alaska, another Alaska-based regional carrier. NCA officials, at the time, reasoned that if access restrictions at Brooks Camp could be eased, greater site development would ensue. And although they ideally wanted a runway 5,000 to 6,000 feet in length, they were willing to settle on a 3,000 to 3,500-foot runway, enough to land a Twin Otter or Skyvan SC7. NCA officials presented their proposal to the NPS in March 1967. Two months later, however, agency officials rejected the idea yet again, reasoning that an airstrip would change the "wilderness atmosphere and the feeling of isolation and remoteness that it now has." The airstrip idea, having been spurned three times in fourteen years, was by now effectively dead. The monument's wilderness plan, issued in 1974, reaffirmed the existing state of affairs, noting that "no aircraft landing strips are planned within the monument." Today, the proposal remains on the back burner, although the area designated for the proposed airstrip remains one of the few areas in the present-day park that has not been recommended for the National Wilderness Preservation System. [47]

In 1980, Kulik Camp and its nearby airstrip were included within the boundaries of an expanded Katmai National Park and Preserve. The inclusion of those two parcels within an NPS-managed area brought immediate controversy between the agency and the Wien Air Alaska, the camp's concessioner, because the concessioner had long claimed that the airstrip was private. That claim had caused the BLM to investigate the situation in 1978; the report emanating from that investigation had recommended that the airport's lease (which had been renegotiated in 1974) would be cancelled if Wien did not allow public use of the strip. When the NPS began managing the surrounding area, agency officials demanded in even stronger terms that the airstrip be made public. To that, Wien officials made an about-face and stated that the company "recognizes and understands the right of the public to use the runway." [48]

Affairs remained placid regarding access to the Kulik Lake airstrip until the fall of 1982 when a new company, KatmaiLand, Inc., became the concessioner for the various Katmai-area camps. Shortly after the properties changed hands, one of the new owners, Raymond F. ("Sonny") Petersen, made it known that he intended to make the airstrip private. NPS officials had no immediate reaction to Petersen's announcement. It did, however, learn that the airstrip, having been lengthened in 1958, was not entirely within the confines of the 80-acre public airport lease; the airstrip's eastern end was on public (NPS) land. The public, therefore, was entitled to land at the airstrip so long as it remained east of the 80-acre parcel.

NPS officials became more actively involved in the matter in 1986, when a U.S. Geological Survey employee was refused permission to land at the airstrip. (His work needs demanded a large plane that needed the entire airstrip.) Tensions further rose when Katmailand officials intimidated or threatened private pilots using the airstrip. Following those incidents, a three-year tug-of-war ensued between the NPS and the concessioner. The fight, which involved lawyers on both sides, resulted in an agreement that Katmailand pilots had the legal right to use the entire airstrip and that the public could legally use the airstrip's eastern half. But the NPS has not maintained its half of the airstrip and has left it in a state of benign neglect. [49]

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Last Updated: 22-Oct-2002