Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Wreck of the Eclipse on Sanak Island, 1807

In September 1807, a new American sailing ship, the Eclipse, wrecked on Sanak Island, twenty five miles southwest of Unimak Island. Aboard was a young Scotsman, Archibald Campbell, whose account of the wreck follows here. But while Mr. Campbell’s tale is a quite riveting sea story, it also holds interest as part of a much larger narrative- the three-cornered trade route imagined and implemented by Alexander Baranov, the Governor of Russian America, between Alaska, China, and the Russian Far East. That trade brought Alaskan furs to China; Chinese tea, spices and silks to the Russian Far East; and supplies from the Russian Far East to Russian America; all of which made Kodiak the center of the North Pacific world in the those years.
The Grand Turk, a ship of similar tonnage to the Eclipse,
from chinaware, 1786. (Peabody Essex Museum)

What’s also interesting about this story is that the ship's master, an American named Joseph O’Kean, (O'Cain, in other accounts) apparently was the man who helped convince Alexander Baranov to use American ships to do the transporting of furs from Alaska to China. While space here does not allow a more detailed account of their relationship, it is worth noting that O’Kean had made other previous voyages carrying Russian American furs to market, and like other American merchant sailors, was deeply involved in the economics of Alaska decades before Russia sold Alaska to the U.S. in 1867.

Campbell however was merely a regular seaman, who had quit another ship and signed onto the Eclipse in Canton, China, in January 1807. It is believed the Eclipse had previously arrived from Petropavlovsk to offload Siberian furs and to take on silks, cotton cloth, tea, spices and rice. Campbell sailed aboard the Eclipse from Canton back to the Russian Far East, where in August, the Chinese luxuries were offloaded for shipment across Siberia to St. Petersburg, and supplies for Kodiak were put aboard.


On September 10, after an uneventful passage from Kamchatka, the wind came up hard from the south as the Eclipse was off the south coast of Unimak Island. In the afternoon land was sighted fifteen miles to the north. With the wind bearing them landward, the ship’s course heading was changed from northeast to east to avoid the coast.

About ten that evening the alarm was given of breakers ahead. Captain O’Kean, believing the white water ahead off the bow was frothed by the wind, not breakers on a shoal, ordered the helmsman to stay his course. Within moments however, the ship struck an uncharted reef with enough force to throw sleeping seamen out of their hammocks.

The breaking seas carried the Eclipse across the reef and into deeper water, where the anchor was dropped in seventeen fathoms, and the longboat lowered alongside in case the ship should sink during the night. At first light land was spotted about ten miles to the north, and the ship appearing seaworthy, the anchor was slipped and the ship pointed landward to make repairs. As the rudder had been broken off coming across the reef, the ship was steered with mizzen and jib sails until it grounded just before noon on the south side of what the natives called Sanak Island, 25 miles southeast of Unimak Island and 160 miles east of Unalaska.

The crew rowed safely to shore in the longboat, but later that afternoon the ship rolled over on her side, and later sank in four fathoms of water. They set up camp on the beach and used an axe found in the bottom of the longboat to cut a hole in the side of the ship, from which they recovered provisions, tools, sail cloth, hardware, and eventually much of the cargo. They were stuck however on a treeless, flat and waterlogged island about twelve miles long and four miles across, with nothing edible on it but berries. The sailors at first thought the island was uninhabited, though this was not the case. After considering their options, they made a plan to build another boat from the wreckage of the Eclipse and sail it to Hawaii, known then as the Sandwich Islands, to seek help from other American sailing ships.

Over the next few weeks the crew stockpiled the lumber and hardware necessary to build the new ship. At one point they recovered Campbell’s personal sea trunk, from which he pulled out his Bible, which he dried out and carried with him through a second, more disastrous ship wreck.

Aleut sea otter hunters at Sanak Island
(Alaska State Museum)
On September 28th three natives arrived in kayaks, who had followed the trail of wreckage along the shore. One of the natives, wearing a gold medal around his neck, spoke Russian, in which O’Kean was conversant. This native immediately sent one of the other natives to their village on the north shore of the island, and the other to the Russian settlement at Unalaska, 170 miles to the west. The next day about 40 natives arrived from the north side of island with berries, seal oil and dried salmon, which they shared with the shipwrecked sailors. The natives then proceeded to build barabaras from the ship’s planks and moss, and settled in to help on the salvage operation.

A week later the Russian commandant in Unalaska, a Mr. Bander, arrived with about twenty natives. Mr. Bander promised the help of a Russian carpenters from Kodiak, so the decision was made to make the longboat ready to sail there, a distance of about 500 miles. Planks were laid across the thwarts to form a deck, and sail cloth was nailed across to seal it somewhat, and allow for people to sleep below decks, out of the weather. The boat was rigged with a single mast and rigged as a sloop. She was twenty five feet long.

Sailing to Kodiak for Help

After provisioning the boat with dried salmon, berries and water, they set sail for Kodiak on the morning of October 18th, with a crew consisting of Mr. Campbell, Mr. Bander, the Eclipse’s 2nd mate, another seven of the ship’s crew, and an Aleut pilot. Captain O’Kean and the rest of the crew were left behind. A leak was discovered soon after embarking, but after going back to make the repairs, they set out again on the morning of the 19th.

Under a good breeze, they arrived the next day at a native village on Unga Island, in the Shumagin Islands, a run of 160 miles. Upon landing they found that all the male inhabitants had gone on a sealing expedition three weeks before and had been lost in a storm. Besides women and children, only the Russian agent and his son and an interpreter remained in the village. The village welcomed the sailors however, and even treated them to a banya, which Mr. Campbell describes in his journal. The sailors hunted deer on the island and replenished their supplies, and set sail again on December 6th.

Within a few days they were in the “harbor of Alexandria,” which we know today as Kodiak’s St. Paul Harbor. Upon landing, Mr. Bander and Campbell met with the Russian governor, presumably Alexander Baranov himself, who made arrangements to outfit a Russian brig then sitting in the harbor for a voyage back to Sanak Island to retrieve the Eclipse’s crew and cargo. Since this evidently might take some time, the governor advised the Campbell and the others to head back to Sanak immediately with Russian carpenters to help with the building of a ship from the timbers of the Eclipse. The idea was to sail this new ship to Hawaii- what Campbell referred to as the "Sandwich Islands.:

Shipwrecked Again

Campbell and his shipmates, along with the Russian carpenters, set sail in the longboat from Kodiak for Sanak on January 9th, 1808, sailing though Whale Pass into Shelikof Strait, provisioned with salt pork and bear meat, water, rum, berries and blubber.

The next day however, the wind went hard northwest, and they sought shelter on a beach within a small bay somewhere on Kodiak’s west coast, surrounded by a forbidding snow covered landscape. The weather remained foul, but on the 21st, running low on food, they decided to make a run for Karluk, “at no great distance,” to the southwest. Out in the Shelikof however, the boat sprang a serious leak and they decided to head back to the bay they had just come from. Snow squalls and fog obscured their view however, and running blind toward the coast of Kodiak Island they suddenly they found themselves being driven upon a rocky shore, the force of the wind and the closeness of the headlands on either side making it impossible to escape grounding. They aimed for the least rocky part of the beach and leapt out as the boat hit. The mate mistakenly threw the anchor over, which caused the nose of the boat to turn back into the wind and hold it within the surf zone, whereupon the vessel was immediately pounded into kindling.

They were now stranded on a narrow beach surrounded by snow covered mountains falling abruptly into the sea. They found shelter in a small hunter’s barabara nearby, but with only three or four days’ worth of food salvaged from the landing, Campbell and several of the others decided to work their way on foot along the shoreline to Karluk, still an unknown distance to the southwest. They left a Russian and a native behind to look after the items recovered from the boat.

Trying to get to Karluk along the shore was a disaster. While rounding a rocky headland, Campbell’s feet became wet and froze, and after a three day travail in arctic conditions, the party stumbled back to the shelter of the barabara. Leaving Campbell in the care of several Russians, the party made a second attempt to reach Karluk, and was successful. A rescue party of natives in kayaks arrived some days later, which delivered the survivors first to Karluk, and eventually to Kodiak.


Campbell’s feet developed gangrene and after thinking on it for three days, and realizing that the alternative was death, he agreed to have them and a finger amputated by the Russian surgeon in Kodiak. Upon hearing of Campbell’s misfortunes, Governor Baranov raised a hundred and eighty rubles for his sustenance, and after some months of recuperation Campbell sailed for Hawaii, and eventually returned to Scotland. The Bible he salvaged from the Eclipse apparently made it home with him. He published his account of the sinking of the Eclipse in 1816.

According to the Russian historian Kiril Khlebnikov, Captain O’Kean and the rest of the Eclipse crew did manage to build a ship on Sanak Island, and with the help of local Aleuts, set sail in it for Unalaska in February, 1808. That ship too was wrecked, this time on the south shore of Unimak Island, and although the crew managed to get safely ashore, Captain O’Kean did not. He died in the surf along with a dog and an unnamed “Sandwich Island,” woman.

The wreck of the Eclipse is presumably still to be found in the shallows between the reefs along the southern edge of Sanak Island. An artifact of Yankee seafaring technology lost while furthering the strategic aims of the Russian Empire in one of the great trading schemes of the last few centuries, the vessel or its parts would be an amazing discovery for a marine archeology team. Perhaps someday, someone will find it again.

This retelling of Campbell's story, by Kodiak Maritime Museum Executive Director, Toby Sullivan, appeared in the Kodiak Daily Mirror January 6th and 7th, 2015.

For Archibald Campbell’s full account of the wreck of the Eclipse, see “Tales of Terror and Tragedy,” by Edward R. Snow, 1979.

Joshua Slocum and the First American Salmon Fishing Venture in Cook Inlet.

While Joshua Slocum is famous among mariners as the first person to sail alone around the world, it is not as well known that he also led the first American commercial salmon fishing expedition to Cook Inlet, in 1871. Fishing off the Kasilof River with double ended Columbia River sailing dories, which later evolved into the famed Bristol Bay double-ender, Slocum and his crew gillnetted salmon, survived shipwreck, and visited Kodiak on the way home to San Francisco.

Slocum was born in 1844 in a little town in Nova Scotia and apparently deciding early on that work in his father’s small boot making operation was not for him, ran away to sea when he was fourteen. Determined, ambitious, and intelligent, he worked as a cabin boy on a Canadian fishing schooner, crossed the Atlantic to Dublin as an ordinary seaman, and sailed out into the wide world from Liverpool. Before he was twenty-one he had sailed twice around Cape Horn, crossed the Pacific to California, and risen to Chief Mate on vessels delivering coal from Australia to San Francisco.

In 1865 he came ashore in San Francisco, become an American citizen and headed north to the Columbia River to gillnet for salmon. At some point he became master of a schooner carrying freight and lumber between San Francisco and Puget Sound and in 1870, at the age of 26, was given command of the 332 ton barque Washington at San Francisco. His orders were to deliver general cargo to Sydney and return home via the salmon grounds in Alaska.

Sailing from Australia to California by way of Alaska might at first seem bizarre, given that the Washington’s owners were in the business of profit, not exploration. But given Slocum’s salmon fishing experience on the Columbia, and the recent 1867 purchase of Alaska by the United States, it is likely that Slocum believed there was money to be made catching and delivering Alaskan salmon to San Francisco, and somehow he convinced the ship’s owners to back the venture.  

There had long been a market for Alaskan salted salmon in California. The Russian American Company had been shipping salmon to San Francisco for decades, along with sea otter furs and even ice to cool gold miner’s drinks, from the lake on Woody Island, near Kodiak. But the world had changed since the Russians had colonized Alaska in the 1780s, and while the Americans were building the first west coast salmon cannery on the Sacramento River in California in 1864, and the first Columbia River cannery in 1866, the Russians lacked both canning technology expertise and the capital to use it in Alaska. By 1867, with the sea otters nearly extinct, and unable to efficiently exploit their Alaska salmon runs, they sold out.  Alaskan salmon became American salmon, and the recognition of the opportunity those salmon runs presented began to percolate though the west coast American salmon industry.

With this new economic reality in mind, Slocum’s plan was for the Washington to deliver its load of general cargo to Sydney, take on lumber and hemp there, and then sail for Alaska to catch salmon. On the way the crew would use the wood and hemp to build a small fleet of Columbia River dories and hang gillnets.

The Washington sailed into Sydney Harbor near the end of December 1870. While the cargo was unloaded and the materials for the Alaskan venture procured, Slocum strode confidently into Sydney society. 

At a local Christmas party he met Virginia Walker, the twenty one year old daughter of an American businessman who had emigrated with his family from New York to California in 1849, and eventually to Australia. Slocum courted Virginia for a month and married her on January 31st. The Washington set sail for Alaska soon after with Virginia and her twelve year old brother on board. What her parents thought about this turn of events is unrecorded, but Virginia would sail with Joshua for the next thirteen years, delivering seven children at sea and in various exotic ports.  

The Washington made the 9,000 mile passage from Sydney to Cook Inlet in 49 days, anchoring off the Kasilof River in the late spring of 1871. Slocum immediately directed the construction of a fishing camp onshore and soon after he and the crew began catching and salting salmon. At one point Virginia nearly shot her new husband when he returned to camp at night from a visit to a nearby native village. She heard someone approaching her tent and cocked a rifle at the door flap, demanding the intruder identify himself. Slocum called out and she put the gun down, and according to their son Victor, they laughed about it for years afterwards.

The fishing was good but in July a strong westerly storm blew up, which grounded the Washington on Kasilof reef. No lives were lost but the ship was wrecked. While the crew continued to fish, Slocum directed the construction of a smaller vessel from the timbers of the Washington. In August, with fall coming on and the salmon run diminishing, Slocum, his wife, her young brother, and most the crew sailed the newly built vessel to Kodiak.  In Kodiak, Slocum hired a vessel to sail back to Kasilof to pick up the salted fish and the caretaking crewmembers. A few weeks later the entire party and their summer’s harvest of salmon sailed from Kodiak to San Francisco on board the Czarevitch, a Russian American Commercial company ship.

Despite the loss of the Washington, but apparently impressed with Slocum’s initiative and ingenuity on the voyage, the ships owners gave Slocum a new command, the Constitution, which Slocum sailed between the West Coast, Hawaii, and Mexico. Slocum went on to a long career as a sailing captain, with Virginia and their growing family sailing with him until Virginia died of fever on board the Aquidneck in Brazil in 1884.

Two years later Slocum married his cousin Henrietta, who like Virginia, accompanied her husband on the Aquidneck. Over the next two years, Henrietta endured a hurricane, a cholera epidemic, an attack by pirates, an outbreak of smallpox among the crew, shipwreck on the coast of Brazil and a 5,500 mile voyage back to the United States in a thirty five foot boat Slocum built with materials salvaged from the Aquidneck. They arrived safely in South Carolina, but Henrietta was done with the sea.

Slocum continued to sail cargo vessels around the world, without a wife aboard, but as steamships replaced sailing ships, he became an anachronism and found himself ashore, unemployed at the age of forty eight. In 1892 a friend offered him a half rotten 40 foot Chesapeake Bay oyster boat “in need of some work,” in Fairhaven Massachusetts. Slocum rebuilt the boat and keeping its original name, the Spray, departed from Halifax, Nova Scotia in July 1895. Sailing west, he endured storms, loneliness and attacks by Tierra Fuegian savages before arriving back in Rhode Island in June 1898, the first person to sail alone around the world.

Besides sailing, Slocum also had a talent for writing, and his account of the circumnavigation, "Sailing Alone Around the World," was an immediate success. Noting the high dose of adventure in the book, one reviewer wrote that "boys who do not like this book ought to be drowned at once." The book also made him an instant celebrity, and gained him dinner invitations from Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain, among others. Land was not for him however, and in November 1909 he set sail alone again, this time for the Amazon, intending to sail up the river on a voyage of discovery. He never arrived at his intended first landfall in the West Indies. His friends believed he had been run over by a steamship, but the mystery of his disappearance has never been solved. Slocum and the Spray were never seen again.

The first Alaskan salmon cannery was at Klawock in 1878, and the Alaskan salmon industry still thrives. That Joshua Slocum played a small part in its beginnings, and that he once walked the streets of Kodiak with his young wife Virginia is remarkable. Virginia often talked about the beauty of Cook Inlet and Kodiak and vowed to return someday, but as far as is known, neither she nor Slocum ever saw Alaska again. 

This story, by Kodiak Maritime Museum Executive Director Toby Sullivan, first appeared in the Kodiak Daily Mirror December 9, 2014.

1966: High Water Mark of the Kodiak King Crab Fishery

Driven by a generation of ambitious and energetic men, the Kodiak king crab fishery in the 1960's was booming. In 1965, in a ten month season that ran from July 1st to May 1st, Kodiak fishermen delivered 94 million pounds of crab worth $12 million- about eight cents a pound. It was the biggest crab year Kodiak would ever see, and catches declined steadily thereafter until the fishery petered out in 1982. But the price kept going up- in 1966 it was 10 cents a pound, which came out to about a dollar per ten pound crab. Spread though a fleet of a hundred boats and a town of less than 10,000 people, that was serious money, and the getting of it encouraged fishermen to push the limits of both themselves and the technology of the time.

King Crab Fishing on the St. Mary II, late 1970s
(Kodiak Maritime Museum)
What “pushing the limits,” often meant was carrying as many pots on deck as possible. The pots weighed up to seven hundred pounds apiece, however, and every boat had a magic number of crab pots which could be safely loaded on deck without rolling over. Knowing what that magic number was, and carrying just one or two pots less than that number, was a life and death calculation, and all too often fishermen calculated wrong.

Another factor in a boat’s stability was the use of live tanks full of fresh circulating sea water to keep the crabs alive. Ten years before, fishermen had carried the crabs back to the processing plants stacked on deck or in dry fish holds, but this limited how far from town they could fish, because the crabs died after a few hours out of the water. With below-decks tanks full of seawater, crabs could be kept alive for up to two weeks, which made possible the exploitation of crab grounds far from town. The down side was that if the pumps failed, the water in the tank could drop to the level of the sea around the hull, creating a “slack tank.” When the water in a slack tank sloshed back and forth as the boat rolled, the center of gravity heaved from one side of the boat to the other, potentially rolling the boat over.

If those were the obvious risks of fishing year round in the Gulf of Alaska, there were plenty of other less foreseeable ways for things to go wrong. Even an ordinarily safe number of pots on deck could ice up from freezing spray, creating enough weight on deck to roll a boat over. A hull plank could come loose, a through hull fitting or the shaft stuffing box could fail, or the boat could simply fill up with water from “unknown causes.”

But a buck a crab tempted people to sometimes weigh those risks incautiously, and in those years before survival suits, life rafts, and emergency position locator beacons, when the boat went down, usually so too did the crew.

For many fishermen, the solution to the problem of safely carrying more crab pots was to get a bigger boat. Up until 1966, the bigger boats Kodiak fishermen brought into the crab fishery were designed for other fisheries- salmon seining, or Dungeness crab fishing, or California sardine and tuna seining. These were mostly wooden hulled, and none were designed to carry the dozens of steel crab pots on deck the new fishery demanded.

In 1966 that changed, and it was then, at the apex year of the Kodiak king crab fishery, that the stories of two boats, one a heroic triumph, the other an unmitigated tragedy, defined the range of what was possible in the Kodiak crab fishery.

Oscar Dyson and Seldon "Nellie," Nelson,
in the wheelhouse of the Peggy Jo, 1966
(Peggy Dyson photo)
In 1965, two long time Kodiak fishermen,
Oscar Dyson and Seldon “Nellie,” Nelson,
contracted with Martinolich Shipbuilding Corporation in Tacoma to build a 99 foot steel boat, specially designed for the king crab fishery by naval architect B.F. Jensen. When the Peggy Jo was launched in the spring of 1966, it had a flared bow to ride up and over big winter waves, was wide and deep enough to provide a stable working platform in heavy seas, and incorporated two crab tanks which could hold 156,000 lbs of crab. The deck was huge- the boat could carry 90 seven-by-seven pots at a time, stacked three high. When the Peggy Jo arrived in Kodiak in the early summer of 1966 she defined state of the art for crab boats, and in the next two decades hundreds of boats would be built following the general design parameters pioneered by the Peggy Jo- deep
The Peggy Jo on sea trials.
Puget Sound, April 1966
(Peggy Dyson photo)
hull, flared bow, a wide flat deck for carrying lots of crab pots, and a crane.

That same summer another boat, the Madre Dolorosa, “The Mother of Sorrow,” a 58 foot steel limit seiner, built three years before in the same shipyard yard as the Peggy Jo, untied in Kodiak and headed down the west side of the island with a load of crab pots. The next day, August 14, 1966, a mail plane spotted her floating off Cape Karluk, upside down and stern up, with no sign of life. The plane radioed the cannery in Larsen Bay, which sent a tender out to tow the Madre into Larsen Bay. On the way, the boat sank in 25 fathoms of water off Harvester Island. Most Kodiak fishermen have long assumed that the Madre had too many pots on deck when it rolled over off Karluk.

Lost on the Madre were skipper Don Vinson, 38, from Kodiak, his two sons, Boyd, 17, and Billy, age 12, and two crewmen, Ron Winberg, 24 of Seattle, and James White of Bellingham. Three of the bodies were found later inside the hull.

In the spring of 1967, Don Vinson’s business partner, a radar technician named Murray Gellis, hired diver Bob Moody to raise the boat. Moody scrounged five big cooker pots from the Shearwater cannery in Shearwater Bay, on the east side of Kodiak Island, to use as flotation tanks to raise the boat. After a month of nudging the Madre up a little at a time, Moody got the boat against the dock in Larsen Bay, where he pumped it out and welded up a seam which had burst when the boat had slammed into the bottom the previous August.

Murray Gellis tanner crab fishing on the Madre Dolarosa
Chignik, Alaska, about 1980 (Dave Gellis photo)
Murray Gellis had never fished before, but he bought out Don Vincent’s widow, refurbished the boat, and fished king and tanner crab around Kodiak and in the Bering Sea until the late 1970s. Even in a town already deckloaded with colorful characters, he stood out. Born in the Bronx, he carried the accent of that place his whole life. In later years he would regale his crewmembers with stories of shipping out as a 17 year old Merchant Marine radio operator in the early days of World War II, making convoy runs across the North Atlantic to the ice free Russian port of Murmansk, and watching as ships were torpedoed by German U-boats. He died of cancer in the early 1980s.

The Madre Dolorosa was sold by Murray’s widow after his death, and has worked as a Puget Sound purse seiner for many years.

Oscar Dyson continued his long career as a high line fisherman and industry leader. He died in 1995 in an automobile accident in Kodiak. For years he moored the Peggy Jo to the dock on the east side of the small boat harbor in Kodiak, until the dock eventually became known as “Oscar’s Dock,” at first informally, and then officially, with a plaque about Oscar embedded there. In 2003, in honor Oscar's long service on behalf of the fishing industry, the 208 foot NOAA research vessel Oscar Dyson was launched, and continues to work in the North Pacific and Bering Sea.  "Nellie” Nelson moved to Washington State and died a few years after Oscar.

In 2006 The Peggy Jo was sold to B&N Fisheries, an independent processing group headed by Joe Bundrant, the son of Chuck Bundrant, a founder of Trident Fisheries. The vessel continues to operate as a trawler in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea.

This story, by Kodiak Maritime Museum Executive Director Toby Sullivan, first appeared in the Kodiak Daily Mirror November 11, 2014.

The Early Years of the Kodiak King Crab Fishery


Paddy Mullan, 1966
As the King Crab fishery peaked in the mid-1960s, everyone in Kodiak knew that something extraordinary was happening. Millions of pounds of crabs were coming across the docks, new state of the art crab boats arrived every week, thousands of young people were suddenly in town, and fortunes were being made and spent with equal abandon. But while the work was lucrative- $50,000 crew shares were not unheard of- the fishery was extremely dangerous too, and boats and men were lost at sea on a regular basis every winter. These elements of youth and money and danger made Kodiak an exhilarating place to be.

And then, in 1982, it ended. The crab went away, for reasons still not fully understood. People moved on to other fisheries, to other occupations, or off the island. The fishermen got older and started having kids. The town quieted down. But the stories remained, filtering through the collective memory of Kodiak and other fishing communities along Alaska’s Gulf coast and down to Seattle, stories of huge catches and crazy paychecks, of wild behavior and hard, hard work, of being young and invincible, of a fishery that seemed at the time to be forever.

For many people in Kodiak, whether you were here to see it or not, this classic American boom and bust story is our community origin myth, the accepted version of Kodiak’s history of the last fifty years.  

But what happened before all those crabs started getting caught in the 1960's? How did the boom begin? Like many grand events, it started out small, with a few people laboring in obscurity, dreaming of something bigger. Hard work, new technology, government support, and the rising affluence of America after World War II all played a part. 

The Early Years, 1920-1938.

King crabs in three species live across the top of the North Pacific and the Bering Sea from Japan to British Columbia, and people have been eating them for thousands of years. No one tried putting crab meat into cans however, until the Japanese pioneered the technology in the 1880's, initially from their home islands, and eventually using factory ships in the Sea of Okhotsk and the western Bering Sea. In 1930 the Japanese began fishing for king crabs on American side of the Bering Sea as well. The first canned Japanese crab arrived in the U.S. in 1906, and by 1939 the American market was importing 400,000 cases of king crab meat a year from Japan. The fact that some of this crab meat was caught in Alaska did not go unnoticed by the Alaskan canning industry.

King Crab processing workers, 1930s. 

Alaskan salmon processors had been looking for another way to make money with their plants for years. The Alaska Packing Company put up an experimental pack in Seldovia in 1920 and through the ‘20s and ‘30s fishermen and canneries from Hoonah to Kodiak  harvested, processed and sold canned king crab meat  in ever larger amounts, with varying success.

One of the pioneers in this effort was “Kinky” Alexander, a salmon cannery man, who experimented with king crab at plants on Kodiak Island, at False Pass, and at Seldovia. In the mid ‘30s, Pacific American Fisheries set Alexander up with an experimental cannery in Seldovia to work on ways to process king crab and shrimp more efficiently.

L.G. Wingard, U.S. Bureau of Fisheries
Photo: University of Alaska Archives
Alexander’s work got the attention of Lemuel G. Wingard, the head of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in Alaska. In 1938, Wingard persuaded private investors to back a crab finding and processing expedition to Alaska with the Tondelayo, a steel hulled 113 foot former San Francisco lightship. Wingard hired Kinky Alexander to refit the ship with canning equipment and it headed north in August 1938.

Through the fall of 1938 the Tondelayo worked from Seldovia to the Aleutians, canning king crab caught by local salmon fishermen and a few Puget Sound trawlers who came north for the venture. While the expedition proved that king crab could be caught and processed on a fairly large scale, the venture was a bust for the investors, discouraging further private financing in a possible king crab industry.

1940: The Feds Step In

Touting the 1938 expedition as proof of concept, Mr. Wingard then persuaded various Congressmen and Senators, and even President Roosevelt, to support a much more ambitious crab survey using $100,000 in Federal money. Reportedly, Roosevelt was skeptical until the Secretary of the Interior brought in some whole king crabs. The crabs were impressive and Roosevelt okay'ed the funding.

Beginning in August 1940, the Tondelayo and the halibut schooner Dorothea caught and processed crab from Kodiak to False Pass. They experimented with trawl nets, crab pots, and tangle gear, or “diver” nets. The 200 fathom (1,200 feet) tangle nets were six feet high and were laid like fences on the bottom to snare perambulating king crab.

Early on however, it became apparent that the cork floats which held the nets upright on the bottom were being crushed by the depths to which they were being submerged. Without the necessary buoyancy the nets were lying flat on the bottom and the crabs were walking right over them. The bartenders and fishermen of Cordova solved the problem by donating a supply of recently emptied beer bottles, which, when sealed up, made excellent tangle net floats.

The Tondelayo and the Dorothea came north again the following March, this time accompanied by the 63 foot seiner Champion and the 54 foot seiner Locks. The 1941 expedition surveyed from Southeast Alaska to St. Laurence Island, finding notable king crab populations in the southeastern Bering Sea and around Kodiak Island. In December 1941 however, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and six months later bombed Dutch Harbor, and invaded Kiska and Attu. Further Federally subsidized king crab surveys would happen after the war, but combat operations put an end to those efforts for the duration.

Lowell Wakefield and the Deep Sea

Lowell Wakefield
Fishermen and processors kept thinking about king crab however. Using tangle gear left behind by the Tondelayo, Wakefield Fisheries continued to produce a few hundred cases of crab a year through the war years at Port Wakefield, on Raspberry Island, north of Kodiak. The product sold fast, perhaps because the usual supply of Japanese crab meat was interrupted by hostilities. Lowell Wakefield, the head of the company, began to hope that a winter king crab fishery could keep the plant operating year round, making money for the company and providing winter employment for local residents and fishermen.

The Deep Sea.
When the war ended in 1945, Wakefield outfitted a trawler, the Bering Sea, with nets and processing equipment to go after king crab. In 1947, using what he had learned with the Bering Sea, he gathered a group of investors and a Federal loan to finance and build the Deep Sea, a revolutionary 120 foot steel vessel specially designed to catch and process king crab in the Bering Sea. The venture ran in the red for the first few years, but eventually made money for all involved. The Deep Sea worked in the Bering Sea and around Kodiak Island well into the 1960's, and as an anchored floating processor in Akutan until the late 70's. In 2012 it burned at anchor in Puget Sound and was scrapped.

King Crab aboard the Deep Sea
(Photo: Bryan Nixon)
The Deep Sea pioneered the use of compressed air to get crab meat out of the shells, and froze the cooked crab meat, rather than canning it. Freezing was a breakthrough idea- the meat tasted better than canned crab, and Americans were buying refrigerators with freezer compartments as fast as they could be built, encouraging the consumption of new products like frozen crab. The American shipping and retail infrastructure was also rapidly improving too, allowing timely shipments from Alaska to supermarkets across the country. Frozen crab meat was an idea whose time had come.

The Fishery Matures

By 1950 fishermen had largely given up on tangle nets, which damaged the crab legs, and in a frenzy of experimentation went from four-foot round pots to larger square pots, which fished better and could be stacked more efficiently on deck. By the mid-1960's, seven-by-seven foot square steel pots were the fleet standard.

From the beginning of the fishery boats had delivered their crab stacked alive in dry fish holds, but the crabs had to be butchered alive and lived only a few hours out of water, which limited the distance a boat could fish from a processing plant. To allow for longer trips to further way fishing grounds, fishermen began spraying seawater over the crab and eventually built steel crab tanks into the hulls which, when filled with fresh circulating seawater, kept crabs alive for up to two weeks.

By the mid-1950's, with these technical innovations in place, a vast potential American market, and an apparently limitless biomass of king crabs, the boom was on. 

As it turned out of course, the biomass was not unlimited and the Kodiak king crab fishery peaked at 90 million pounds in 1966. Commercial catches declined steadily thereafter until the last year of the Kodiak commercial king crab fishery in 1982, when the fleet caught just under nine million pounds. While the Bristol Bay king crab season still goes on, the guideline harvest level for this year’s fishery, which starts this week, is 10 million pounds.

This story, by Kodiak Maritime Museum Executive Director, Toby Sullivan, first appeared in the Kodiak Daily Mirror, October 14, 2014.