Building in an Ashen Land: Historic Resource Study
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AT EXTREME ENDS of Katmai National Park and Preserve are located the remains of operations related to two distinctly different primary economic activities. At the northwestern end of the park are the dilapidated remains of a reindeer corral, while along two offshore islands in Shelikof Strait are ruins associated with former fox farms. Both activities began in Alaska in the late nineteenth century, and the legacy of both activities can be seen in many areas outside of the park boundaries. In the Katmai area, the primary impacts of the reindeer industry were felt in the early to mid-1930s, while fox farms (at least in an administrative sense) were most significant in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Reindeer herding will thus be considered first.

Reindeer Herding

Sheldon Jackson, the General Agent for Education for Alaska, was almost single-handedly responsible for the initial growth of Alaska's reindeer industry. Jackson, acting on a tip from a Revenue Cutter Service captain and a zoologist—both of whom were familiar with conditions in the Native villages of western Alaska—began importing Siberian reindeer in the early 1890s. Persistence eventually paid off, and by 1900 Alaska's reindeer population—owned and cared for, for the most part, by Alaska Natives—was doubling every three years. [1]

By 1904, reindeer herds had spread from the Seward Peninsula (where the first successful herds had propagated) to Bethel, and a happenstance event beginning in December of that year brought reindeer to the Katmai area. An Alaska Reindeer Service employee named Hedley E. Redmyer announced his intention to drive 300 Bethel-area reindeer 500 miles east to Copper Center, a small town north of Valdez. Having only a vague idea of how to proceed, Redmyer and his crew made it only as far east as the Lake Clark-Iliamna area. There he stopped, stymied by wolf country, rugged terrain, and the lack of moss for forage. He asked for, and received, permission to establish a government reindeer station at Kakhonak, on the south shore of Iliamna Lake. [2] The population of, and prospects for, Alaskan reindeer continued to grow, and by 1906 the Kakhonak reindeer population had almost doubled. The herd had grown geographically, too, some of the herd grazing south to Kukaklek Lake, within today's Katmai National Preserve. So bountiful was the reindeer population that, in 1909, a portion of the herd was driven to Koggiung, at the mouth of the Kvichak River, where a new station was established. In 1913 the Kakhonak herd was divided again when a new station was established at Iliamna Village, at the east end of Iliamna Lake.

By the 1920s, herds were being managed in many areas in and around the present-day park. By 1926, herds were being tended at both Egegik and Ugashik, southwest of the park, as well as in the Iliamna area; three years later, the same three locations boasted reindeer herds. No information is available regarding herds being managed within the park; in their effort to improve the Natives' lot, government agents appear to have brought the reindeer herds to Native villages rather than locate herds in remote areas that may have offered superior browse. [3]

Reindeer management remained a vital aspect of life in southwestern Alaska villages during the early to mid-1930s, and it was during this period that the only known incursions of reindeer into Katmai National Park took place. According to Frank Been, who visited the park for several weeks in 1940, a herd of 10,000 reindeer had been brought "to the vicinity of the Naknek River sometime within the past 10 years," and that a portion of that herd "could graze into the north west corner of the park"that is, in the area west of Lake Coville and north of Naknek Lake. [4] At least one reindeer station was established in the monument at this time; it was located on Northwest Arm, near the northwestern end of Naknek Lake.

The area's reindeer population apparently remained healthy until 1936; it then declined dramatically. Two reasons have been given for the change. First, the December 1936 death of one of the area's chief reindeer herders meant that the herd was cared for less skillfully than before. A more plausible explanation, however, was that wage rates at the Bristol Bay-area canneries brought area Natives sufficient income that they did not have to depend on reindeer herding, a far less lucrative occupation. Within just two to three years, as a result, reindeer herding in the Iliamna-Katmai region was abandoned and the animals either assimilated with the wild caribou herds or were transferred to other stations. [5] By 1940, the herd had dissolved so completely that Frank Been, the 1940 visitor, was assured by his Fish and Wildlife Service host that there were no reindeer in or near the monument. Reindeer have not reentered the country since that time.

Fox Farming

Meanwhile, an activity of a far different sort—fox farming—was taking place at the opposite end of the monument. Fox farming, like reindeer herding, had begun in Alaska in the late 19th century; the first Alaska fox farm began in the Semidi Islands, southwest of Kodiak Island, in the 1880s, and by the mid-1890s an operation had begun on Long Island, along Kodiak Island's eastern coast. Because of a rising interest in the fox trade, the Long Island operation was being copied in other parts of the territory as well, and by 1900, 35 islands in southcentral and southeastern Alaska were being leased from the government. But in 1903, fur prices began to bottom out and many islands were abandoned. They remained low until about 1913, then they continued to rise for the next several years. By 1919 or 1920, prices had become sufficiently attractive that fox farming entered its "golden age," and throughout the 1920s, Alaska boasted several hundred fur farms. Most of these farms were on offshore islands, because an island was the easiest environment to manage a fox herd. Others, however, were located inland, usually in lacustrine or riverine environments. [6]

fox farm
Fox farm on Kiukpalik Island, near Swikshak Lagoon. Photograph taken in 1953 by NPS biologist Victor Cahalane. NPS Photo Collection (at HFC), negs. 11,830 and 11,832.

During fox farming's "golden age," the first farms began to appear on the margins of the present park. In 1922, John Brodtkorb established a blue fox farm on Kiukpalik Island, a 390-acre island that was ten miles east of Swikshak Bay and slightly more than two miles from the coast. By 1924 he was living full time on the island, and in 1927 he filed for a fur farming lease in accordance with a recently-passed congressional act. By this time, he stated that he had invested more than $10,000 in improvements on the property. In 1929, he obtained a ten-year fur farm lease for the island. About two years later, however, he left the island, only to be replaced in 1936 by Earl L. Butler, a Kodiak resident. The following year, the U.S. government issued to Butler a ten-year fur farm lease.

Shortly after Brodtkorb became established on Kiukpalik Island, another island off the Katmai coast became a potential fur farming site. In December 1928, Peter J. Voth obtained a ten-year fur farm lease for Takli Island, a 1,050-acre island located in Amalik Bay. Voth, however, never established a fox farm there, and in July 1931 the lease was canceled. A year later, Joe Tanzer filed a new application for a fur farm lease for the island. The lease application process, however, was never completed, and in June 1935 it was rejected.

Two years later a more serious applicant, John A. Smith, received a fur farm lease. But just a year later Interior Department investigator A. C. Kinsley visited the island. He discovered that the island lay less than a mile off the Katmai coast "and that it was possible that fox might escape to the mainland in severe Winters when ice may form sufficiently to permit the fox to escape," and he further discovered that Smith had not yet purchased any foxes. In order to satisfy the terms of the lease, Kinsley ordered him to do so, but when he and local Fish and Wildlife Agent Jack Benson returned to the island in July 1941, they found no evidence that such purchases had ever been made. They did, however, find considerable evidence of mink, marten, beaver and fox trapping. Kinsley noted that although Smith protested vehemently to the contrary, "Wildlife agent Benson is of the firm opinion that Mr. John A. Smith has simply used the fur farm lease for Takli island as a base for depredations upon the fur within the Katmai National Monument." Kinsley agreed with Benson's assessment.

The National Park Service, which had had authority over the coastline adjacent to Takli Island since 1918 and the Kiukpalik Island coastline since 1931, knew little about what had been going on in the monument during the 1920s and 1930s. But in 1940, two NPS officials spent several weeks in the monument, and while on that trip they became aware that trapping was taking place along the Shelikof Strait coastline. Kinsley's investigation, therefore, merely reconfirmed what had long been suspected.

Victor Cahalane, one of the Federal officials, had a ready solution to prevent further trapping: extend the monument's boundaries to include the offshore islands. Both he and Been suggested that the line be extended two miles offshore; that proposal would have excluded Kiukpalik Island, because an active fox farm had been operating there for a number of years. Kinsley, asked to comment on the NPS's proposal, noted that John Smith and Earl Butler were the only two people who claimed land along the offshore islands. Smith, he noted, had failed to live up to the terms of his lease, and "Mr. Butler's success with this island [Kiukpalik] has been small." Based on Kinsley's report, Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes, in November 1941, recommended a five-mile boundary extension, which would include both Takli and Kiukpalik islands. He noted that "it would in no way be harmful to potential business enterprises in that general part of Alaska" because, he reasoned, the monument's extension would not affect existing fur farm leases. That recommendation was forwarded to President Roosevelt, who signed a proclamation on August 4, 1942 reflecting Ickes's proposal. [7]

Although Roosevelt's proclamation had no direct effect on either Smith's or Butler's fur farm leases, neither operation remained for long. Based on Kinsley and Benson's investigation, Smith was exposed as a trapper masquerading as a fur farmer, and soon afterward the two officials recommended that Smith's lease be cancelled. He lost his lease in May 1942. Butler, for his part, lost interest in his fur farm for entirely different reasons. By 1941, economic opportunities related to the World War II buildup had lured Butler to move to Kodiak Island, where he was engaged in construction work at the navy base. A medical condition also forced him to be away from the island. Those factors, plus his admittedly small success in the fur farm business—fur farms throughout the territory were faring poorly during this period—caused him to abandon his operation. Butler probably vacated the island either during or shortly after the war, although the Bureau of Land Management did not close his fur farm license until October 1950.

fox farm
Remains of the Kiukpalik Island fox farm in 1996. Photograph taken by Mike Hilton. NPS-LAKA Cultural Survey Inventory file, KATM 96:1:20:24.

Historic Property Summary and Recommendations

The above sections detail activity that surrounded three park sites: one reindeer herding complex and two fox farming sites. But inasmuch as the Takli Island "fox farm" should more accurately be categorized as a trapping cabin, site information regarding Takli Island's historical resources are included in Chapter 8 which relates to the park's trapping context.

The Northwest Arm reindeer corral and cabin is located near the northern shoreline of Naknek Lake. The streamside complex, as suggested above, was near Mike Shapsnikoff's cabin site. It was active during the 1930s and was doubtless abandoned by 1940. According to Mike Tollefson, a Katmai National Monument ranger whose 1977 study was based on interviews with local experts, more than one corral may have existed here; Steve Behnke, a subsistence specialist, notes that Pete Olympic was one of several reindeer herders who had used the facility. NPS personnel, thus far, have only an inexact idea regarding the complex's specific location. It is highly unlikely, however, that any standing structures remain. It is therefore recommended, after the site has been located, that NPS cultural resource personnel conduct a survey of the site's historical archeology.

The Kiukpalik Island Fox Farm (AHRS site number AFG-192) is located near the island's western shore and toward its northern end. In 1927, the applicant for the island's fur farm lease noted that the island had 100 blue foxes and that $10,000 in improvements had been expended there. No specifics are available, however, regarding those improvements, and no evidence has surfaced that the following lessee, provided further improvements. When NPS biologist Victor Cahalane visited the island in 1953, he noted two residences, including a two-room cabin; three small structures for feed, pelt storage, etc., all in poor condition; and the remains of a 100' x 150' enclosure. A 1985 NPS coastal survey noted that the island's "cabins are still standing." But by 1990, these resources had significantly deteriorated. An archeologist that year noted six to eight remnants of buildings plus ancillary equipment, domestic artifacts, fence remains, and a few remnants of the former water and power system. Heavy vegetation, however, obscured many of the remaining cultural features.


1 Joan M. Antonson and William S. Hanable, Alaska's Heritage (Anchorage, Alaska Historical Commission, 1985), 474-75.

2 Harlan D. Unrau, Lake Clark National Park and Preserve, Alaska, Historic Resource Study (Anchorage, NPS, 1994), 309-11.

3 Ibid., 311-15.

4 Frank T. Been, Field Notes of Katmai National Monument Inspection (November 12, 1940), 8.

5 Unrau, Lake Clark 316-17.

6 Linda Cook and Frank Norris, A Stern and Rock-Bound Coast; Kenai Fjords National Park Historic Resource Study (Anchorage, NPS, 1998), 112-13.

7 Frank B. Norris, Isolated Paradise; An Administrative History of the Katmai and Aniakchak National Park Units (Anchorage, NPS, 1996), 62-65.

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Last Updated: 22-Oct-2002