Squatters made Abercrombie a community

Ed Apperson at Miller Point in Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park.

The eyes of the nation are on Seattle’s Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone, or CHOP, a gathering of radicals who have an agenda to push.

Throughout its history, the United States has seen various communities founded on philosophical and political ideals. I recall that Kodiak had its own community-within-a-community.

A group of people, known as “squatters” by the greater Kodiak community, set up makeshift homes in Abercrombie State Historical Park. But this populace was driven not by some political or social agenda, but by the need for affordable housing. 

Most of the squatters were really pretty decent people who provided valuable skills to the community. Within their ranks were government workers, divers, nurses and teachers. Some had kids, good jobs, dreams of building a nice home. 

Abercrombie was their residence ... for the time being. 

But Abercrombie was established as a park, not a commune.  

During the days preceding the Second World War, Fort Abercrombie was used as a military installation. On January 30, 1969, it was officially established as a historical park. In 1970, Abercrombie was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

 For many years, Abercrombie was one of Kodiak’s best-kept secrets. Very few people went into the park. It had no on-site ranger and its vast areas made good covering for the squatters.

Some put up housekeeping in bunkers along the cliffs; others parked school buses and RVs in inconspicuous places. 

A few resided in cardboard and Visqueen tents.

Some of the townspeople were afraid to go to the park. 

Hikers felt like they were trespassing onto private property as they walked by clotheslines of drying pants and towels, and barking, vigilant dogs. 

Elaine Smiloff Apperson, who worked with her husband, Ranger Ed Apperson, at the park recalled that, during her childhood, she was not allowed to go to the park unattended.

The buzz about “squatters at Abercrombie” grew louder and louder, and finally personnel within the State Parks division of the Department of Natural Resources decided it was time to take the park back.

In February 1980, Ed Apperson, a seasonal worker for Alaska State Parks, was summoned to Kodiak to investigate the situation.

Apperson spent his first week in Kodiak learning the physical layout of Fort Abercrombie. He met with the Park “residents,” and learned who they were. 

Quite a motley crew. Some included felons, Apperson claimed. “We found a drug lab and a duffel bag full of passports and IDs.”

Apperson couldn’t help but wonder if some kind of foul play may have occurred at the park. He got several “missing person” reports from law enforcement officers in other parts of the country who said that Abercrombie was the last place these people had been seen 

Abercrombie is faced on three sides by cliffs and these people could have easily been pushed into the water where they would never re-surface. Very possible. 

A  wiry guy originally from Maryland, Apperson had the demeanor of Mr. Rogers. How was he going to drive out the squatters? Well, he had the authority of Wyatt Earp to back him up.  He wore a badge and had state and community support behind him.

Being the public affairs person that he was, Apperson talked to the squatters on a one-to-one basis to hear their stories.

They told Ed that they had their own system of justice. Some of the campers had been locked up in bunkers and kept there for several days to keep them in line and that a self-proclaimed  “mayor” demanded payment or rent from the squatters. 

In his discussions, Apperson gave the squatters a “heads-up” that the next time he came through, he’d be handing out eviction notices.

At the time, I was writing for the weekly paper, the Kadiak Times, and Apperson asked if I’d like to accompany him as he handed out the notices. 

At first I was a little hesitant. After all, he was driving people from their homes. Who knows what kind of violence would erupt.

But,  looking for a good story, I hopped in his truck (he would drive a brand new state vehicle later) and we headed to the park.

We were met by a pretty congenial crowd of folks amid the trees and quonset huts. They made it clear that they weren’t bums looking for a free ride. They were honest, hard-working people who desired to live in Kodiak, but just couldn’t afford the high costs of housing.

After some pleasant conversations with Apperson, the squatters packed their bags and a caravan of buses and other vehicles drove out of the park by deadline.

Many of them found other places to bunk, like the nooks and crannies near Buskin Lake, a forested area about halfway between Kodiak and the airport, or the inlets on Near Island.

No sooner were they flushed out of those areas than they showed up again at Abercrombie.  But Apperson was on to them in no time.

For awhile it became a musical chairs game, but eventually the game ended. Some of the squatters left the island, while others looked for more permanent places where they wouldn’t have to worry about getting served an eviction notice. Some of these folks became established and were able to afford fancy homes in the Bells Flats area overlooking Women’s Bay. 

A few years ago, I talked with some of the former Abercrombie “residents” about doing a follow-up story. They declined. A little shy, I think.

But I have another idea: Perhaps we could get Apperson and these former “Abercrombie residents” together for a picnic at some nice spot in the park, not far from one of the bunkers where a few of the residents set up housekeeping years ago.

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