Ghost Town Wednesday: Afognak, Alaska

afognak_mapThe area around today’s ghost town was settled thousands of years ago.  All along the Kodiak Archipelago the Alutiiq people lived, and like most other natives  they hunted marine mammals (sea otters) and fished.  The community was well organized – men and women both had work to do and goods were traded with other natives and settlements in the area.

In 1784, a Russian state-sponsored company arrived and began the conquest of Kodiak and the surrounding area by establishing an outpost at Three Saints Harbor.  The area is said to have been well-populated at the time, perhaps around 8,000 residents, and after it was settled by the Russians became known as “Russian America”.

The Alutiiq were forced to work for the Russians – the men hunted for sea otter and the women sewed clothing.  The Alutiiq way of life was now seriously out of balance, leaving little time for attention to basic needs – hunger and disease became an issue.  As the Russians settled in, they brought their own culture and religion and even intermarried with the Alutiiq.

Smallpox and influenza epidemics occurred throughout the nineteenth century, at times sharply decreasing the population.  Over time, however, the two cultures came together – the native population became more accepting of Russian culture, language and religion (Russian Orthodox).  What became known as Afognak was the merger of two towns, Russian Town and Aleut Town, located on the southeast tip of Afognak Island about 20 miles northwest of Kodiak Island.

In 1867, the Russians decided to sell Alaska to the United States for $7.2 million dollars, ostensibly to avoid a war with Britain over the land.  The acquisition of Alaska added 586, 412 square miles to the United States.

AK Purchase CheckThe American oversight of Alaska and its people brought yet another cultural change to the native population.  Schools were established, taught in English even though the populace did not speak English.  Eventually, the younger generations absorbed the new language and actually became tri-lingual – speaking Alutiiq, Russian and English.  The fishing business flourished and canneries were built in the area.

afognak_compAlaska joined the Union officially on January 3, 1959.  Just over five years later, the Good Friday earthquake of 1964 would bring about the demise of Afognak.  Alaska, no stranger to earthquakes and volcanic activity, was rocked by the second largest earthquake ever recorded in world history – a whopping 9.2 by today’s revised measurement (originally 8.4).

The quake was centered in Prince William Sound, about 75 miles east of Anchorage and 55 miles west of Valdez.  The ground shook for at least four minutes, but probably felt like an eternity!  Two kinds of tsunamis brought further devastation – one an ocean-wide tsunami capable of traveling at 500+ MPH (there were deaths in Oregon and California) and the other a more localized event which commenced immediately following the earthquake.

Just minutes following the quake one village, Chenega, was wiped off the map.  A total of 128 Alaskans lost their lives as a result of the earthquake and tsunamis.  Three Afognak fishermen lost their lives when the tsunami hit as they were returning to the island, breaking their boat apart.

Soon after the quake it was determined that the devastation had made Afognak uninhabitable – besides the destruction of homes, the well water supply had been contaminated.  At that time the population of Afognak was less than 200 with perhaps about 45 structures (general store, churches, school) besides the homes.  There was no central utility system and the only place in town that had flush toilets was the school.  A few residences had electricity via generator and running water, but most had to carry in water from nearby creeks and shallow wells.

Amazingly, the initial quake did not cause much damage and some residents even prepared to head over to the community hall for a showing of the movie “King of Kings”.  Some residents were listening to their radios and watching the bay for signs of tidal waves.  When reports of “a little bit of a tidal wave” on the west side of Kodiak Island were picked up on short-wave radio, word spread throughout the community and people began to head for higher ground.

The first tsunami hit within approximately 30 minutes of the initial earthquake and actually didn’t cause much damage, but did serve to convince people who hadn’t yet fled to higher ground to do so hastily.  Residents spent Friday night on the mountainside with snow on the ground and cold temperatures, although down in the village it had been clear and sunny that day.  Few people had the forethought to bring blankets or sleeping bags so fires were built to keep warm.

During the night four more waves washed over the village at approximately 1 hour and 40 minute intervals – between waves men would rush down to the village to retrieve food and blankets.  According to one person’s account “the experience was almost like a community camp-out.  People laughed and joked–except during the repeated aftershocks and when we would hear a news broadcast. [Then] it would get all quiet for a while.  [But soon] the sense of humor [would return].” (The Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, p. 385)

When the residents ventured down to the village the next morning, there was no cause for laughing or joking.  Their community hall was gone, the general store had moved about a quarter-mile, the churches were damaged and debris was everywhere.  Some houses had been carried away and some were just off the foundation.  Another wave was thought to be on its way so residents headed back to the mountains.  On Sunday morning, the first outside contact from Kodiak arrived by plane.  (Click image to enlarge)

afognak_comp2Since Afognak had no village council, a recovery committee was formed to address village needs for the next two weeks.  Assistance was offered for those who wanted to leave but many stayed – some in the sawmill which had escaped major damage and the school.   Snow and rain began to fall on Sunday night, bringing more misery.  By Tuesday, cleanup and recovery efforts were finally ready to begin.

It soon became apparent, however, that just “fixing the place up” wasn’t an option.  The beach was gone and roads were underwater, as well as contamination of water wells.  Some people began to consider moving away instead of rebuilding.  Some proposed that the village be rebuilt across the bay on western Kodiak Island.   Bureau of Indian Affairs regulations, however, did not allow entire villages to be rebuilt in a new location and neither could other governmental agencies offer much assistance.

On April 4 the 49th District Lions Club made an offer to the BIA to rebuild a native village devastated by the earthquake.  By a vote of 50 to 2, residents voted to move their village and a few days later several men began scouting nearby for a suitable location to rebuild.  Villagers unanimously voted to select Settler Cove as the new village site, located about 10 miles south of Afognak on Kodiak Island.  Notably the new site provided some protection from tidal wave devastation in the future.

A delegation of BIA officials and Lions Club members met with the villagers, and based on the devastation that had occurred in Afognak, they mutually agreed to proceed with the project.  In honor of the generosity of the Lions Club, the new village would be named Port Lions.  Offers poured in to assist with the project – a million and a half board feet of lumber from Portland and Seattle and the Mennonite Disaster Service sent ten volunteer workmen, working alongside villagers who would be paid $2 an hour.

By December 10 a few people began to move to Port Lions, although some of the housing was only rough-finished and plumbing had not yet been installed.  Even though there was still much to do a year after the earthquake, residents were thankful for the opportunity to start over.  Since the residents had formed a council which met regularly, the village began to come together and function better as a community.  In 2000, the census recorded 256 residents, 89 households and 76 families.

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2013.

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