Monday, March 8, 2021

Two Men and Three Centuries of Alaskan Shipwrecks

Warren Good arrived in Kodiak in 1972 and like a lot of other young men in those years, went crab fishing. Kodiak was booming, deckhand jobs were easy to get, and fishing was grueling but fun, if you liked hard work. And the money was good— it was not unheard of for 21-year-old deckhands with a scant year of nautical experience to make $100,000 in a single four-month king crab season. The dark side of the high times was the casualties.

In the years before the Commercial Fishing Industry Vessel Safety Act of 1988 commercial fishing was far and away the most dangerous job in America, and the deaths of Alaskan commercial fishermen drove that statistic. 

Sometimes the accidents were the result of simple bad luck, but often they were the predictable product of inherently dangerous work, lax safety regulations, and enthusiastic but inexperienced fishermen making poor decisions. Catastrophic mechanical failures, fires, breached hulls, groundings, capsizings, men swept overboard, and ferocious winter sea conditions were common, and these often occurred in “cascading event,” scenarios, where several bad things happened at the same time. Too often, with the small leeway for human error in such circumstances, people died.

Warren Good off Kodiak Island, 1970s. 

Warren Good reveled in the money, the work, and the high adventure, but in the early 1980s, as he watched people and boats he knew disappear, he wondered if anyone was recording the particulars of these events in a systematic and publicly accessible way. The Coast Guard and insurance companies kept their own lists of losses for their own proprietary reasons, but as far as Good knew, no one else was tracking  the names of the lost boats and their dead crewmembers except for friends and families.

At the same time, no one seemed to recognize Alaska’s commercial fisheries as part of the larger fabric of Alaskan and therefore, American history. Perhaps that was because the fishing boom and the losses that went with it were happening in the present and people were too busy living it, but Good wondered if anyone had ever tried to list all the other marine disasters that had happened in Alaska before the 1970 during the World Wars, the Gold Rush, the whaling days, all the way back to the 18th century Russian fur hunting era.

With the vague notion that if a comprehensive list of Alaskan shipwrecks didn’t exist it was something the world needed, he began researching in Kodiak’s A. Holmes Johnson Library between fishing seasons. There he found an Alaska Packers Association list of Alaskan marine accidents on microfiche, donated by a Washington state historical society and apparently sent to every library in Alaska. The APA list was itself culled from an old Customs Service publication. Good cross referenced the names and dates on that list against citations in books and newspaper articles and began keeping a file. He took photos too of the boats and fishermen on Kodiak’s waterfront in that present moment of the 1970s and 80s, knowing they would not all be afloat or alive in some near and uncertain future.

At some point he realized he was on a mission to document all the vessels which had ever untied from an Alaskan dock and never come back. As far as he knew he was alone on his own crusade.

But Good was not alone. A Federal employee named Mike Burwell was doing the same work in Anchorage as part of his job with the U.S. Mineral Management Service (MMS), a division of the Department of the Interior.

Mike Burwell in Kodiak 2011

In the mid-70s MMS was planning to lease millions of acres of underwater real estate in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea to oil companies. Being a Federal agency, MMS was required by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act “…to take into account the effects of their undertakings on historic properties.” As a first step in that direction an MMS employee named Everett Tomfelt wrote a technical paper listing a few known Alaska shipwrecks. Burwell, an MMS technical writer, was asked to edit the paper but soon was passionately researching and expanding the list himself. He began with the same Customs Service shipwreck list that Warren Good was working on in Kodiak.

In 1992 MMS published Tomfelt and Burwell’s shipwreck list. The list was mentioned in an Anchorage Times article but except for a few Alaska historians it remained virtually unknown to anyone outside MMS and the oil industry.

For two decades Good and Burwell researched and catalogued many of the same shipwrecks from the same sources, including books, newspaper stories, Coast Guard reports, and court documents from lawsuits against insurance companies. Until computers and the internet arrived in the mid-90s, everything was on paper or microfiche. Burwell catalogued his list temporally, by year, month and day, while Good catalogued his alphabetically, by ship names.

At some point in the early 2000s they became aware of the other’s work but continued to work independently until Burwell uploaded his database onto the MMS website and retired to Arizona in 2011. By then his list had grown to a 600 page table of shipwrecks from 1729 to 2000. That same year Good, who had stopped fishing in the 1990s and moved to Florida, put his own database online as the Alaska Shipwreck website.

The MMS/BOEM database has not been updated since Burwell left the agency in 2011, but since then, he and Good have worked together to update the Alaska Shipwreck website archive. It now includes thousands of documents, articles, photographs, Coast Guard records, obituaries, and marine charts. Good also has a modest collection of physical artifacts and ephemera including crew share contracts and pay stubs, old Kodiak bar and restaurant menus, photographs, slides and film negatives, and hundreds of 19th and 20th century books and magazines.

The two men continue to research independently, Burwell compiling his findings by date and Good alphabetically, but the combined database is now searchable by both year and ship name. Burwell sends Good his findings, which Good “scrubs,” to crosscheck information he may already have, and then he uploads the data to the Alaska Shipwreck website. The website itself generates hundreds of inquiries every year from other researchers and relatives of lost mariners. Good answers all of these, often with arcane details not listed on the website. The cost of doing the research is not inconsiderable, including hardware and printing costs, newspaper subscription fees, and for Good, website expenses.

While paper records have their own preservation issues with floods and fires, Burwell’s hard drives have failed, Good’s have been hacked and destroyed by lightning. They keep each other’s files backed up, which has saved the day, but the threat of future mishaps is never far from their minds.

Lately, mortality being what it is, they’ve also started wondering what happens when they can no longer do the research themselves. Both men are in their 70s and their “somewhere down the road,” plan options include handing the database and files over to some Alaskan state agency which can safeguard it and continue the research, though no one in the state bureaucracy has expressed much interest in this scenario. Another possibility is for a private institution to take over the project, but so far, this idea has also not elicited any takers with the necessary resources.

The Alaska Shipwrecks database can be found here: