Recently, volcanic eruptions on the Mainland triggered warnings of detrimental effects of ash fall coming to Kodiak Island. Those who have breathing issues were advised to wear masks outdoors.
This latest incident reminded Kodiak old-timers of stories their elders told about the 1912 Katmai eruption.
Over the years, I had the privilege of interviewing several people who either witnessed the 1912 disaster or heard stories from their elders.
It all happened on a bright day in the month of June. Mt. Novarupta, a volcanic mountain 100 miles away on the mainland of Alaska — thought to be extinct — unexpectedly and violently erupted.
Sergay Sheratine Sr., who I interviewed in 1981, told me that he worked at Northwestern Fisheries Co. at Uyak in 1912. On the day of the eruption, it was so dark that you couldn’t see several feet in front of you, Sheratine said. While the younger folk were mystified as to what was going on, the older people knew the mountain was erupting, he said.
Katherine (Kaba) Chichenoff was at the Russian orphanage at the time of the eruption. In a Kodiak Times interview in 1982, Kaba recalled that the church bells of Holy Resurrection Church rang loudly, directing people toward the harbor where the revenue cutter Manning would take them out to sea.
The Manning was skippered by Captain Perry (namesake of the village of Perryville.) The Manning whistle blew blast after blast as people, with dampened clothes tied over their faces, groped their way in darkness along fences and ditches, through drifting banks of ashes, to seek its searchlight.
But the ash was so dense that not even this powerful light could penetrate it.
One of the passengers on the Manning was Marian Fitzgerald, who had been born a few months before the eruption. Her parents, Frank and Mary Wills, told her what it was like to be rushed to the Manning as the sky darkened.
“It was a frightening thing ... to have it almost pitch dark on such a beautiful day,” Marian said. “Great huge pieces of pumice stones (were) flying through the air, blazing away. My parents wrapped me up so tightly… swaddled me up with all those blankets, and I was almost smothered by it.”
Anna Nelson Bigford was 21 when Novarupta blew its top. Volcanic ash fell like snow over Kodiak Island, she told me.
“I was working outdoors in my garden, planting little tiny plants and all of a sudden something started falling on me. I looked up and here were these little tiny particles. Just like somebody threw ashes on me,” Bigford said.
Once the townspeople were on board, the Manning traveled to Woody Island, picking up 60 people at the Baptist orphanage.
“They took us way out on the water,” recalled Katherine. “We were gone three days and three nights. I got seasick.”
At Kalsin Bay, Bill Baumann with the agricultural experimental station was having a heck of a time getting his little girl, Clara, to mind him. She wanted to go with him, but he said she had to go to the house.
Defiantly, Clara rebelled against her father by chasing a herd of sheep into the barn. It was meant as defiance, but days later Clara (who later was known as Clara Helgason) and her father would learn that her act of defiance actually saved the lives of those sheep, who were spared of being exposed to the falling ash.
Clara and her father rowed a dory to Kodiak where their friend, Karl Armstrong Sr. — the grand marshal — gave them shelter in his jail. At the time Clara cried because she didn’t want to be a prisoner.
Another little girl by the name of Laura Larsen (Laura Olsen in her later life) lived at an island that would eventually be named after her Norwegian immigrant father, Anton Larsen.
Anton had asked his friend, Emil Wasbrikoff of Woody Island, to come over to Anton Island in his absence keep an eye on his wife, Olga (Naumoff) Larsen and their children. Luckily Emil checked in on the family on that June day in 1912.
He looked at the sky and sensed that something disastrous had happened or was about to take place.
Emil told Olga to gather the kids and he would lead them to the back bay where his dory was tied up. They would go to Ouzinkie where they would be much safer. Emil told Olga to hurry because the sky was getting darker by the minute.
She quickly rounded up the kids and told them that they were taking a long journey. She bundled up her 10-month baby Mary, the diapers and bottles, and ordered the older kids to prepare to follow Mr. Wasbrikoff across the island.
Olga and the kids stumbled along a rugged trail beneath a black and red sky. Suddenly they heard the sound of a bell, ringing in the darkness.
It was Dolly, their pet cow. The engulfing darkness was scary and confusing for animals and humans alike.
A premature night enveloped them and Emil decided they better turn around and go back to the house. There was no way they could make it to the dory. But even if they did, they probably would not find Spruce Island where the village was located.
Frightened by the pumice stones, thunder and lightning, Olga and her children clung to each other on their walk back to the buildings. Every once in awhile Emil lit matches to brighten the cow path they followed. When he bumped into a post, Olga directed him to turn to the right.
“We’re by the barn,” she said.
They didn’t go any further. All they could do was sleep and wait for this terrifying night to pass.
The next morning they were greeted by precious sunshine, which appeared as a long-lost friend. Olga and Emil walked to the beach and saw an ocean full of floating pumice stones. They were scattered as far as the eye could see.
Soon a big skiff with 20 fishermen aboard came ashore. Emil, Olga and her kids crowded into the vessel and the captain took them to Ouzinkie where the sky was clouded with ashes.
The church bells were ringing. The people were on their hands and knees praying. They thought for sure that the end of the world was fast approaching.
Back in Kodiak, the Manning brought the people back to their homes.
“It was terrible,” Kaba Chichenoff said. “ When we walked from the ship, it was just like walking on snow, except it was darker than snow. Warm, tan ashes, real fine, just like flour.”
“We couldn’t get to the door at first,” Anna Bigford said.
It took years to get rid of the ashes.
Eventually the ashes were swept away by wind, rain and the erosion of time. In Marian Fitzgerald’s words, Kodiak became beautiful again. Yards were clean, free of mounds of trash. It was “a very lovely little town, clean as a whistle.”