On the evening of June 6, 1912, Erskine’s ruined dinner party was the start of a three-day ordeal for her and the 430 other souls in Kodiak who survived the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century.
The Novarupta-Katmai eruption, as it is known today, was bigger than Krakatoa, bigger than Pinatubo and bigger than Mount Saint Helens.
Its effects linger today, and not just in the Valley of 10,000 Smokes, a blasted, ash-filled crevice of the Alaska Peninsula. Any time a Kodiakan takes a shovel to earth, he or she turns up volcanic ash. Any time someone walks down one of Kodiak Island’s black beaches, he or she sees the effects of Novarupta.
In the first part of this three-part series, we look at the terror and fright of ordinary Kodiakans who endured the disaster. Subsequent parts of the series will discuss the science behind Katmai-Novarupta and Kodiak’s volcanic readiness today.
For the residents of the Kodiak archipelago, June 6, 1912, dawned sunny and warm. Fishermen pursued the season’s first salmon, while the village of Kodiak welcomed the arrival of the cutter Manning of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service (predecessor to the Coast Guard) on its way to patrol the fur seal hunting grounds farther west.
Away from Kodiak proper, there was already some cause for alarm. The preceding days had brought earthquakes that rattled Uyak and other small villages along the Alaska Peninsula, but most residents of those towns were away, fishing in the archipelago. At about 1 p.m., the passengers onboard the steamship Dora, bound for Kodiak through the Shelikof Strait, noticed something new — a pillar of smoke rising from what appeared to be Mount Katmai.
In reality, the smoke was coming from a vent seven miles away, an enormous crack that eventually drained the cauldron of magma below Katmai, causing the volcano to collapse. That fact was not discovered until years later.
For the Dora, the smoke — soon revealed to be ash — came on quickly.
By 4 p.m., it was overhead. By 6 p.m., ash was falling steadily, and by 6:30, the Dora was enveloped in so much darkness that Alaska’s “midnight sun” turned to darkness.
“(Ash) fell in torrents. It swirled and eddied. Gravity seemed to have nothing to do with the course of its fall. The underside of the decks seemed to catch as much as the sides or the decks under our feet. Bright clusters of electric lights could be seen but a few feet away, and we had to feel our way about the deck,” wrote Dora passenger J.E. Thwaites in a 1913 edition of Outdoor Life.
Rather than risk a blind entry into Kodiak’s port, the captain of the Dora decided to sail on to Seward and safety.
Kodiak, meanwhile, continued in blissful ignorance for most of June 6. At 3 p.m., an enormous explosion was heard as far away as Dawson City and Juneau, but by some freak of nature, Kodiak heard nothing.
The ash comes
Kodiakans saw the ash cloud’s approach about 4 p.m. but first believed it to be an afternoon storm. By 5 p.m., the truth was apparent as ash began to fall. Hildred Erskine, a teacher at Kodiak’s school, recalled that some people ran out with spoons to collect the ash, thinking it would soon be blown away.
“As I look back, I know no one was very sane,” she later wrote.
By 7 p.m., the sky was pitch black with the ashfall, lit only by flashes of lightning generated from electrical charges within the ash. The radio onboard the Manning was disabled by electrical interference, and the antenna of the U.S. Navy’s radio station on Woody Island was struck by lightning. As the station burned down, Kodiak was cut off; there was no way to pass messages to the outside world.
On the Alaska Peninsula, John Orloff wrote what he thought were his final words to his wife: “I do not know if we will be alive and well. Every minute we are awaiting death. Of course, don’t be alarmed. ... Here it is dark and hell. Thunder noise. … Kissing and blessing you both, goodbye. Forgive me. Maybe we shall see each other again if God is merciful.”
As the ash piled up over night, fear grew. While a few of Kodiak Island’s residents knew of volcanoes, that knowledge only made them more fearful.
“We began thinking of the fate of the people of Pompeii and of being buried alive. We were sure our time had come,” wrote Hildred.
By early Friday, June 7, many in Kodiak were at their wits’ end. The ash brought with it the rotten-egg smell of sulphur and dust that crept through cracks into every home.
“When the sulphur gas came into the house, we decided it was time to make a desperate effort to save ourselves,” Nellie Erskine wrote. “It seemed an even chance that we could ever reach the (Manning).”
The revenue cutter, as a symbol of government, was a rallying point for many Kodiakans on that Friday. The ship’s officers did their best to accommodate the flood of people. The officers’ quarters were given over to women and children, while others were put into every available space. A crude deckhouse was built to keep some of the ash away.
At 9 o’clock, the ash stopped falling, allowing the Manning to distribute distilled water — a necessity because the ash had clogged every stream and lake.
The ash resumed at noon, heavier than before, but not until more people had come to the Manning. By the June 8, 835 people were counted onboard the ship and in a nearby warehouse, having gathered from all of Kodiak, the surrounding islands and nearby ships come into port.
“During the fall of ash, a log building of 20 rooms burned to the ground and people 200 feet away were unaware of the blaze. That will probably explain to some extent the terrible density of the ash,” wrote Hildred Erskine.
Onboard the Manning, the crew worked to clear the decks of ash, which was weighing down the cutter.
“Men often collided in working about decks, as the feeble glow of the electric lights and lanterns failed to dispel the awful darkness for any distance,” wrote the ship’s captain, K.W. Perry. “The crew kept constantly at work with shovels, and four streams of water from the fire mains were playing incessantly in what at times seemed a vain effort to clear the ship of its horrible burden.”
On Saturday, Perry made the decision to flee Kodiak with the refugees.
‘Poor old Kodiak’
About 10 a.m., the Manning left dock with more than 480 people onboard. Others remained behind in warehouses or rode on a barge towed behind the Manning. The going was treacherous, since visibility was zero. The ship scraped a rock, and fearing for his ship’s safety, Perry moored the Manning off Woody Island.
When the refugees awoke on Sunday, June 9, the ash had stopped.
“Poor old Kodiak, once so beautiful is now a barren desert and I fear nothing can live there,” wrote Nellie Erskine in a letter to her mother three days later.
All around Kodiak was a sea of gray. Around the village of Kodiak, 24 inches of ash lay in three distinct layers. Heavier than wet snow, it drifted into piles six feet thick and caused landslides that rumbled off Pillar Mountain, crushing homes and damaging a cannery on the site of today’s Cannery Row.
“At the back of the town below the hill, (landslides) just buried the houses and one house it came through the back door and filled the rooms at least three feet,” wrote Nellie Erskine on June 20.
Onboard the Manning, Anne Olsen died from tuberculosis compounded by ash inhalation, the only known victim of the disaster.
Perry ordered a relief party in a small boat to sail to Seward to pass word of the disaster in Kodiak.
When the party returned, they brought good news; help was on its way from Seattle, and President William Howard Taft himself had asked Congress for $100,000 in aid.
Ash from the Novarupta-Katmai volcano spread as far as Europe. Acid rain, generated when sulfur combined with soggy clouds, fell on Seattle and Victoria. Worldwide, temperatures plunged on average by 0.9 degrees Celsius.
In the Kodiak archipelago, animals suffered from the ash. Bears crawled onto the beaches in search of food. Salmon stayed away from their clogged streams, which “were converted into mud. The streams were for the time choked and deposits several feet deep formed at their mouths. The salmon in the streams were either driven back to the deep water or perished in the streams,” read a government fisheries report.
Slowly, the land recovered. Ash compacted by rain and time became soil that sprouted new plants. Because the ash came early in the salmon run, later returners reestablished fisheries.
By July, the Woody Island Baptist orphanage wrote in its newsletter, “As days passed, conditions improved; the water in the lakes began to clear, and we had good spring water for drinking. ... The beds in the kitchen garden which were uncovered and resowed are already furnishing us with radishes and lettuce, the finest ever.”
Aid came in from the federal government, and people rebuilt.
“After the eruption was over, I heard a few people say they had not been frightened, but for the most part, I believe they felt as I did,” wrote Hildred Erskine. “They would not take a million dollars for the experience, but neither would a million dollars bribe them to go through it again.”