The Katmai Eruption
Afognak Village History, Chapter 2
Compiled and Written by Dr. Gordon Pullar
Copyright © 2004 Native Village of Afognak
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While the people were walking back and forth along the road they noticed that the sky was very red and they thought that very strange. Then a dark cloud arose from the southwest over the mountains. The old astronomers of Afognak said that it would either snow or rain very hard. Then it began to get dark and the people became frightened and hurried to church. The old women put on their best clothes and prepared to die. - Jessie Petellin, Afognak resident at the time of the 1912 Katmai eruption1
On a hot day in early June of 1912, fifty-two days after the sinking of the Titanic, the largest volcanic eruption of the twentieth century took place on the Alaska Peninsula.2 Springtime was in full swing with summer fast approaching for the people of Afognak. People were gathering red salmon and preparing food as they always had that time of year.3 With the bright warm weather and a strong run of reds it was a time of great optimism because it was going to be a productive summer. Then on June 6, 1912, all village activities came to an abrupt halt.
The eruption of Mt. Novarupta on that day near the Alutiiq village of Katmai was ten times more powerful than the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens4 and twice as powerful as the 1883 eruption of Mt. Krakatoa in Indonesia that claimed 35,000 lives.5 The volcano was just across the Shelikoff Strait from Kodiak and Afognak Islands and about 90 miles from the village of Afognak. The northern two-thirds of Kodiak Island and all of Afognak Island, including the village, were buried in ash.6 The explosion was heard as far away as Juneau and Fairbanks and ash fell even in Seattle.7
The Alutiiq people living in villages on the mainland near the volcano knew what was happening when it erupted.8 They knew what to do based on the traditional knowledge passed down through the generations. Having this knowledge, they began gathering water as they did not know how long the eruption would last or how contaminated the water might become from the falling ash.9 But this eruption was far more severe than anything they could imagine and the mainland villages were forced to evacuate. The village of Katmai was nearest the volcano and following the eruption 115 of its residents were transported to Afognak on the Coast Guard cutter Manning.10
The arrival of the massive cloud of ash was described by Hildred D. Erskine, who was a teacher in the Territorial School in Kodiak and fishing in one of the nearby small lakes.
About three oclock in the afternoon, as we emerged from the forest we saw, for the first time, a huge fan-shaped cloud directly west of the village. It was the blackest and densest cloud I have ever seen. Lightening frequently flashed through. This lightening did alarm us, for electrical storms just do not happen in Alaska. We hurried along, thinking we might reach home before the most unusual storm should break. When we reached town, we found that we were not the only people who were frightened. No one knew what was going to happen, but felt certain something terrible was in store.11
The Manning was anchored at Kodiak when the volcano erupted. The ship blew its whistle so people could find safety in the darkness of the ashfall.12 About 500 people eventually were able to get aboard the Manning.13 Most people were crammed on the deck, but the white women were sheltered in Captain K. W. Perrys quarters.14 According to Hildred Eskine, Nearly all suffered from nervous shock and were in fear for their lives.15
Because of the heavy ashfall Captain Perry thought he might not be able to get the Manning out of Kodiak harbor so sailed out to sea and anchored off a Woody Island point. This way he could put out to open sea if the ashes got too thick in the water. A tug boat, the Norman, was sent to pick up the residents of Woody Island village who were stranded in the thick ashfall. With these additional people the Manning was so crowded that there was little room even for people to sit. Woody Island was the site of the Navy wireless station and the only place where radio contact with the outside world could be made. But the lightening that accompanied the eruption and ashfall had struck the radio towers and they burned to the ground.16
George Kosbruk, a young man at the time, remembered some 70 years later the evacuation of Katmai village by the Manning:
We all boarded the boat. To where? China? We had no slight idea of where they were taking us. We felt pretty safe though. Looking back, our home was disappearing where we had enjoyed our life. We arrived in Afognak, the village on Kodiak Island.17 We were placed in vacant homes. We spent about two weeks there till the Coast Guard boarded us to proceed on our journey west. Where? Japan? We never knew where they were bringing us.18
Ignatius Kosbruk, the son of George Kosbruk, was born in Perryville in 1917 and recalled stories he heard while growing up. There was an old couple there in Katmai, he said. They knew everything that was going to happen. And they told people way ahead of time, before the eruption, You people have to get away from Katmai, because the mountains going to erupt soon. They knew ahead of time.19
The people of Afognak and other Kodiak area Alutiiq villages did not have this same history involving volcanoes so did not react in the same way. They believed the world was ending and that they were about to die.20
After a brief stay in Afognak the Katmai villagers were transported to the location of what is now the village of Perryville and then to Ivanof Bay. They did not stay in Ivanof Bay as it did not seem like a suitable living place at the time. They then returned to the Perryville site where they first pitched tents and then built houses.21 The new village was named Perryville after Captain Perry, the captain of the Coast Guard cutter Manning that transported the villagers to their new home.22 The descendants of Katmai continue to live in Perryville today.
Jessie Petellin was a young girl in Afognak during the eruption and wrote about it in 1921 when she was in the eighth grade at Afognak School:
One hot June day in 1912, about three oclock in the afternoon the mail boat came from Kodiak. Nearly everyone was out watching as they always are when the mailboat arrives, especially in the summer when everything is so quiet and lonely. While the people were walking back and forth along the road they noticed that the sky was very red and they thought that very strange. Then a dark cloud arose from the southwest over the mountains. The old astronomers of Afognak said that it would either snow or rain very hard. Then it began to get dark and the people became frightened and hurried to church. The old women put on their best clothes and prepared to die.
Soon it became so dark that one could not see very far even if he had two lanterns. Then there was lightening and thunder and the ashes began to fall. It made the people more afraid to hear the rumbling of the thunder and to see the sparks of light flitting by every few minutes. The first two days the people stayed in the church both day and night during which it was dark all the time. On the second day our family started from the church but we did not reach home. That night we stayed at the Chichenoffs house.
On the third day the people were all frightened to see a red spot in the sky at about noontime. That was the first time we saw the sun and even then we didnt know it was the sun for everybody said it was the moon. We reached home on the third day and everything looked so different from the way it did when we left it. The branches of the trees reached to the ground because they were so loaded with the ashes. When our cow met us she was all white with ashes and everything around looked dull. There were about three feet of ashes on the ground and we had to wade through it.
There were three different layers of ashes. The first layer was coarse and coffee-colored, the second layer was not so dark and coarse, the last layer of ashes was just like powder. All the people thought that there would be a lot of berries that year but they were all spoiled by the ashes. Some people picked the berries and washed them before using them because they did not want to leave them there when they were so big and black.
It was a pity to see the dead seagulls and ducks on the beach. Most of the fish in the sea were also killed by the ashes. Even yet there is about a foot of ashes in the woods and other unused places. Many swamps and small lakes have been filled up and other changes made by the ashes.23
In 1967, Mary Sheratine, who was born 1899 and survived both the Katmai eruption of 1912 and the Great Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami of 1964, said from her Port Lions home:
On June 6, 1912, we were fishing at Malina Beach. It was hot. I was baking bread on the beach. My friend and her mother came down to visit me. My friend told me to look at the sparks falling from the sky. Thats what we thought they were. The sky got hazy, and we thought there would be a thunderstorm so I went to tell my mother.
At about five-thirty in the afternoon, it got pitch black. We wondered what was happening. There were loud earthquakes all day and night. A man came and told us to come to his barabara.24
On June 8, we had no water. Ashes covered the creeks. The men went out to dig for water which was strained through flour sacks. It was still dark. We all got up and prayed. Daylight seemed to come then. The noise of the thunder stopped. I went out and walked along the beach and saw dead salmon and many big pummy stone (pumice). (Here the lady stretched her arms to show that some of them were apparently about a yard long. Some of them were black and some were white.)
Then we started to row home. It took us seven or eight hours to get to Afognak. When we got home, everyone was cleaning roofs, shoveling paths, and trying to save potatoes by digging them out. The ashes were about one foot deep, in three layers. The bottom was dark brown; the top was like a fine sand. The government sent out food and hay for our cows.25
Alfred Nelson, Sr., born in Afognak in 1888, also survived both the 1912 and 1964 catastrophic events said in 1967:
On the evening of June 6, 1912, something was falling from the sky that made the sky get hazy, then pitch dark. The darkness lasted for a day and one night. Around three oclock in the afternoon of the next day it started to get light, but the sky was still like fire. Every few minutes we had an earthquake and thunder.
Nobody died, but birds and fish did. I caught some birds and cleaned the ashes from their eyes and let them go. The ashes buried birds nests and killed the fish in the rivers. When it rained, the ground, being hot, cracked. The water we got in buckets from the creek was half-full of ashes after they settled. It was like quicksand after it rained and soaked into the ground. For even two years afterwards, when big winds blew, the ashes still blew around.
Some men were caught in the ashes while getting groceries from Petellins store. They had no flashlights, so they had to burn grass to see their way back home. The ashes were ten inches deep in many places.26
Mike Chernikoff, who was 12 years old during the eruption, remembered it some 69 years later. His family moved from Afognak to Ouzinkie five years after the eruption. He said:
There used to be a bear here who would tear up the cattle. What he didnt eat hed bury. Thats what happened over there in Afognak during the 1912 eruption of Katmai when we had about two and a half feet of ash. I was over there in Perenosa Bay where they are logging now. Seal Bay I think they call it. The reason they call it Perenosa, it means in Russian where you can walk. From here to there other side like you see. I walked there a long time ago, thats where I was, there was a bunch of us over there. I was a kid then, 12 years old.
All of a sudden it got dark and a thunderstorm started all the lightening started coming around, going over the tent! Nobody knew what was happening. In them days there was no radio or anything. We just stood there and night came and the next morning it didnt get too bright. It was dark all day; I think it was two days. The people used to go out and take their dinner plates and catch ash, they didnt know what it was.
Finally after two days my grandfather and one other fisherman started to walk to Little Afognak. From there you can see Perenosa. They ran into a bunch of bear in the mountains and they were scared from the thunder. Finally the tender came to see us during fishing. The bay was full of reds that died. Their gills were filled up with ash. We made a haul and caught quite a few reds and put them where the little creek runs. Put the rocks on the front and filled it up with salmon, you see. From there they took us back, there wasnt any motor; they rowed everywhere. Each gang, four in a gang, had two skiffs. That year we didnt do any fishing because of the ash fall.
All the furs were no good. The belly part of the otter was all shot from the ash. You see, they like to slide all the time. We went back to Little Afognak and from there the government boats came and they were going to take us over to Wrangell. They took us to Afognak Village, the village was still there then and the school hall was full of people. We were all there and people from the mainland too. My grandparents wouldnt leave. Most of us left. My father, mother, sister and brother stayed there for about three weeks. Then the old man decided to go back to see the old folks. If the time comes to go, well go right here. So they didnt move.
We had cattle over on Afognak. And after the eruption some bears got at the cattle. Some came back with their guts hanging. Some had their horns torn off. It had never happened before; but everything was hungry because there were no fish in the creeks. A good sized boat brought some food for the cattle. They took quite a few people from the mainland to Wrangell and I guess some of them stayed. Some came back and we all settled back again the way we started. Finally we moved over here to Ouzinkie in 1917. 27
Of course, not all Afognak residents were at home when the mountain erupted. Ivan Orloff, a 48-year-old man whose father was born at Fort Ross, California, was away at fish camp in Kaflia Bay. Three days after the eruption the conditions looked so grim that he wrote what he thought might be his last words in a letter to his wife, Tatiana, and daughter, Natalia. We cannot see the daylight... We are expecting death at any moment, and we have no water
So kissing and blessing you both, good-bye. Forgive me. Perhaps we shall see each other again. God is merciful. Pray for us (Erskine 1962:55).
The author Barrett Willoughby had a conversation with an unidentified Alutiiq in the 1930s who had been 12 years old and living in Kodiak during the eruption. He was hunting in the hills near Kodiak when the eruption took place. While we may never know his name, his description is graphic, including his premonition that something was about to happen.
The young man described the atmosphere just prior to the eruption:
There is something in that day a strangeness, a hush. Cattle on the hills do not graze. They all bunch together, as if they are afraid. Gulls and ravens act queer, flying around in circles and crying like they are lost. I feel strange, too, and keep looking behind me all the time. I dont know why.28
After hearing the loud sounds of the volcanic blast, the young man aborted his hunting trip and ran for home. He described his ordeal:
I begin to run across the hills toward home. Pretty soon I feel above me a dark shadow. I look up. Half the sky back of me is covered with a monster black cloud that has arms like a devil-fish, and the arms are clawing fast across the rest of the blue sky about the ocean. It is horrible. I am scared.
I drop my gun so I can run faster, and all the time I hear that boom, boom, far way. The black cloud crawls faster, until I can see it ahead of me. Then all the earth and sea are covered with it, and it grows dark dark in June, when it never should be dark at all. Then from the cloud it begins to rain hot sand and ashes, and the wind blows them into my face and eyes, stinging like pins. And the air is filled with a hot, terrible-smelling breath, like sulphur. It burns my eyes and my throat.
As I run it gets darker, and I am bumping into ravens and seagulls who are flying low, this way and that, squawking and crying. They have ashes on their backs. Many are dying and dropping around me. And now the mountain under me begins to tremble and shake and pull and strain, so I fall down as I run. Big flashes of lightening are shooting up in the dark. And all the time there is a horrible loud rumble and knocking, as if giants pounded on the door of the world. I am scared like hell now. My stomach is tied into hard knot. I think this is the burning time of the world the priest tells me about. I try to pray as I run through the dark, but the hot blizzard of ashes blows into my mouth.29
The young man could not see where he was going and was on the verge of giving up on getting back to Kodiak when he heard the church bells ringing which guided him back to presumed safety. But even the church was not a safe sanctuary and everyone left there for the Coast Guard cutter Manning that was blowing its whistle to guide people to it. So many people arrived at the Manning that not all could get aboard.30
According to the young man, when the sky cleared on the third day it revealed a dead gray world of ashes. He continued his graphic description:31
All along the shore the kelp is dead. All the crops have been killed. Mussels and barnacles on the rocks are dead. Most of the cows belonging to families are dead. All the wells and springs are filled with ash, and the rivers have turned to quicksand, killing the fish in them. The rabbits and squirrels that have lived all are blind. The great Kodiak bears have come from inland. They are blind and starving. They wade through the ashes and come right down to the edge of town and kill dogs and sheep and cows that have lived through this terrible time.
The people go back to their homes, but the houses are filled with ashes. Roofs have fallen in. All porches have tumbled down under a load of ash. Outside the air is free from that awful smell, but inside it is still there. And it is still in the clothes, the hair, even the skin of the people. And it is in the food that has been saved in the houses.
Right away, the rain begins to fall; a bitter-tasting rain that beats down the ashes into a crust, and eats into the skin like acid. But all the people are grateful to God because they are alive. We make a big thanksgiving in the church, with bells ringing and the choir singing. And then
- then begin to clear away the ashes.32
As with catastrophic events of the past the Alutiiq people showed their strength and resilience by picking themselves up and moving on. The future would hold more such events but in 1912 the eruption of Mt. Novarupta became a part of the shared history of the Alutiiq people of Kodiak and Afognak Islands and the Alaska Peninsula. Miraculously, there was no loss of life. This fact is even more incredible when one considers the 35,000 people lost in the less powerful Krakatoa eruption.
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1 Petellin, Jessie. "The Katmai Eruption." The Kaliga, Afognak School unpublished yearbook. 1921.
2 Alaska Volcano Observatory website:
3 Petellin, Jessie. "The Katmai Eruption." The Kaliga, Afognak School unpublished yearbook. 1921
4 U.S. National Park Service Website, Geology Fieldnotes - Katmai National Park and Preserve. April 2000.
5 Rozell, Ned. "Journey into the Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes." Alaska Science Forum. Article #1550. July 12, 2001. Online at: http://www.gi.alaska.edu/ScienceForum/ASF15/1550.html
6 Griggs, Robert F., The Valley of the Ten Thousand Smokes. National Geographic Society, 1922. p. xvi
7 Chaffin, Yule, Trisha Hampton Krieger and Michael Rostad. Alaska's Konyag Country. Pratt Publishing. 1983. p. 47. Willoughby, Barrett. Alaska Holiday. Little, Brown and Company. 1943. p. 28.
8 Kosbruk, George, The Cama-i Book, Doubleday. 1983. p. 22.
9 Kosbruk, George, The Cama-i Book, Doubleday. 1983. p. 22. Kosbruk, Ignatius, In: Looking Both Ways: Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People. University of Alaska Press. 2001. p. 235.
10 Chaffin, Yule, Trisha Hampton Krieger and Michael Rostad. Alaska's Konyag Country. Pratt Publishing. 1983. pp. 50-51.
11 Erskine, Hildred D. "Katmai's Black-out," In: Ashes and Water. Kodiak Historical Society. nd.
12 Chaffin, Yule, Trisha Hampton Krieger and Michael Rostad. Alaska's Konyag Country. Pratt Publishing. 1983. p. 49.
14 Erskine, Hildred D. "Katmai's Black-out." In: Ashes and Water. Kodiak Historical Society. nd.
16 Chaffin, Krieger and Rostad. pp. 49-50
17 Afognak village was on Afognak Island, not Kodiak Island, but Mr. Kosbruk may have been referring to "Kodiak Island area."
18 Kosbruk, George. "We were very lucky..." In: The Cama-i Book, Doubleday. 1983. p. 23.
19 Crowell, Aron, Amy Steffian and Gordon L. Pullar (eds). Looking Both Ways: Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People. University of Alaska Press. 2001. pp. 235-236.
20 The Kaliga, Afognak School unpublished yearbook. 1921
22 State of Alaska, Department of Community and Economic Development. Website: http://www.dced.state.ak.us/cbd/commdb/CF_BLOCK.cfm
23 Petellin, Jessie. "The Katmai Eruption." The Kaliga, Afognak School unpublished yearbook. 1921
24 Barabara is the Russian word used for the traditional sod house of the Alutiiq. In the Alutiiq language it is ciqlluaq.
25 Nelson, Janice, Shirley Nelson, Victoria Nelson, Darlene Garner and David Boskofsky. "History of Afognak: 1780-1964." Unpublished manuscript at Rasmussen Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks. 1967.
27 Mike Chernikoff interview. Conducted by Michael de Villers, James Anderson, and Anna Rae Bent. In: Ukulaha , No. 1, 1981. pp. 21-22.
28 Willoughby, Barrett. Alaska Holiday. Little, Brown and Company. 1943. p. 29.
29 ibid pp. 30-31.
30 ibid pp. 31-32.
31 ibid p. 34
32 ibid pp. 34 - 35
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