1912 Volcanic Eruption

The people of Kodiak endured the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century when Mount Novarupta at Katmai on the Alaska Peninsula spewed six cubic miles of earth into the air on June 6, 1912.  As townsfolk prepared their evening meal, a dense ash cloud descended on the islands.  By 8:00 p.m. the ash cloud had obliterated light. For two days, the ash was so thick that light from a lantern held at arm’s length could not be seen.  Evacuating villagers depended on the sound of the Russian Orthodox Church bells to guide them to the waterfront and the safety of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Manning. Nearly two feet of ash engulfed the settlement of Kodiak and its 500 residents.  Homes filled with the gritty ash; verdant hillsides were smothered. Residents were unsure if Kodiak would be habitable post-eruption. A cross-section of Kodiak soil reveals traces of this and other spectacular eruptions. Visitors can easily see the ash at White Sands Beach at Monashka Bay on the east end of the road system.  The story is told best by Hildred D. Erskine below.

Katmai's Black-Out

By Hildred D. Erskine

(provided courtesy of the Baranov Museum)

I lived through two days and nights of the most terror-producing experience that has ever come to a person in Alaska. No one who has not passed through such a horror-producing cataclysm can realize what it is to have the feeling that you were going to be buried alive, all the while being hemmed in by a blackness such as you had never previously known and from which there seemed to be no escape.

Such a sensation came to the people of the little village of Kodiak during the terrific eruption of Mount Katmai, nearly a hundred miles away in June, 1912, while I was living there.

The people of Kodiak, while knowing of the existence of numerous volcanoes on the mainland, never dreamed that the eruption of one of those smoking mountains could affect them in the manner that it did. Shelikof Strait separates Kodiak from the mainland and the breadth of its waters seemed ample to provide protection from any but a catastrophic occurrence on Alaska Peninsula, due west. However, on Thursday, June 6, 1912, my cousin and I, who were teachers in the Territorial school in the town of Kodiak, went fishing at one of the nearby lakes. It was as perfect a day as one could wish to see.

During the day we heard deep rumblings, but we were not particularly disturbed. Men were rebuilding one of the docks and we decided they must be blasting for a new foundation.

About three o'clock 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 that I have ever seen. Lightning frequently flashed through. This lightning 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.

The Revenue Cutter "Manning" was tied up at the dock. Her officers did not know what to make of the weather conditions. Static was so bad that radio operators did not dare go near their instruments. There was more lightning and thunder. The electrical disturbance increased and that awful black cloud came closer and closer. It grew dark. This was very strange, for in June in Kodiak, the daylight is almost continuous.

By five o'clock a very light ash began to fall. We went out with spoons and began dishing it up. Perhaps we thought the ashes would melt. I don't know, but as I look back, I know no one was very sane.

By eight o'clock that night it was pitch dark. The ash was failing so heavily that our greatest anxiety was whether we should be able to get another breath. The gases were nauseating and to add to our terror, earthquake shocks became almost continuous. The terrible bombardment grew louder and louder; the ash sifted through cracks around the windows and doors causing such a haze in the room that, had we not known who the other occupants were, we should not have been able to recognize them.

We began thinking of the fate of the people of Pompeii and of being buried alive. We were sure our time had come.

There was a slight lull at about ten that night and we thought maybe the worst was over. Our relief was short-lived and for four long hours the noise, gas and shocks became almost unbearable.

That was a night of horror, but we consoled ourselves that we were still alive at six o'clock Friday morning when truly things did become quieter.

We decided perhaps we had better eat some breakfast and that, by keeping busy, we might not be so terror-stricken. We had not sat down to the table when our front door flew open and in walked the village doctor. He was terrible excited. He paced up and down the room with a lighted lantern in his hand, although I'm sure I don't know why he carried the lantern. He could not have seen its light, let alone find his way in that awful blackness. He assured us that there was nothing to worry about, but he hoped we had our valuables packed as he had come to take us aboard the "Manning."

Needless to say, we lost our appetites for breakfast. The doctor ate that meal while we hastily crammed our most valued possessions in one suitcase.

I can't describe the walk of about three blocks down to the dock, but one may have some idea of the ordeal when I say I think that was the longest walk I ever took. We tied dampened cheesecloth over our faces, but the ash penetrated several thicknesses of the material. We followed fences and ditches and somehow reached our destination. The officers of the "Manning" turned on the searchlight, but the ash was so dense that even its powerful light gave no aid.When we boarded the "Manning," we discovered that we were there at the orders of Captain K. W. Perry. He had turned over his quarters to the white women.

What a relief it was to get into the snug cabin of that ship. The gases were not nearly so bad and the noise, too, seemed shut out. All day Friday we stayed aboard, doing what we could to help and trying not to be nuisances. The ship's crew were more than busy, shoveling ash from the decks to keep the ship from sinking at the dock.

It was agreed, by then, that if things didn't get better that we should have to get out to sea. We didn't know which volcano it was until the following Wednesday when we learned that it was doubtless Mount Katmai, on the mainland. One woman who had been particularly brave, said, "Well, if I've got to go, I'd like to know what dirty old volcano killed me!"

The priest of the Greek Catholic Church had told his flock that they must hasten aboard the "Manning" if they heard the church bells ring.

Saturday morning at four o'clock things grew decidedly worse. The Captain came down for a cup of coffee. He said he had been taking a little rest, but should have been called sooner. He was afraid we might never get out of the harbor to where it would be possible to go out to sea.

Right away the church bells began to ring, the ship's whistle sounded blast upon blast and the poor people began coming aboard. They were almost crazy with fright. We, who had been aboard ship for a day and night began to realize how much worse the storm had grown.

Not all were able to board the one ship; so most of the men were put aboard the barge, "St. James," which was towed by the tug "Printer." We had five hundred men, women and children on the "Manning." Nearly all suffered from nervous shock and were in fear for their lives.

At about ten o'clock Saturday morning, we started out. We had not gone a quarter of a mile when the "Manning" scraped a rock, but so slightly that no damage resulted. We anchored off Woody Island, about two miles distant from Kodiak and how glad we were to get there. We knew that if it became absolutely necessary we could steer a straight course out to sea.

The men who had shoveled ash from the decks were worn out and their eyes were in a pitiful condition; the ash had penetrated the bandages they wore over their eyes and had painfully cut their eyeballs.

A little native woman, ill with tuberculosis, had been left in her home by her family. She later somehow found her way to the ship, but died very shortly. The ship's carpenter build her a casket and on Sunday when, for the first time, it was possible to see the sun, her family and the priest were permitted to take the corpse ashore for burial. The casket was solemnly lowered in the lifeboat.

Her relatives sat around the coffin and as the priest was seating himself his knee accidentally knocked aside the lid. To the surprise of all present, the casket was found to be empty! In the excitement, the corpse had been left aboard ship.

On Monday we went back to the Kodiak dock. After forty-eight hours of that awful blackness, that desolate town certainly did look good to us, ash-covered though it was. The ash was eighteen inches deep on the level, but the numerous slides that came down the cliffs were many, many feet deep.

One house at the base of a hill was completely wrecked by the ash. Many roofs collapsed from the great weight and the water mains were so choked that new mains had to be laid. The water situation might have been quite serious had not the "Manning" distilled water for drinking and cooking.

During the fall of ash, a log building of twenty rooms burned to the ground and people two hundred feet away were unaware of the blaze. That will probably explain to some extent the terrible density of the ash. Lakes that had had a depth of five feet were completely tilled and have never since been lakes. Ptarmigan were killed in their nesting season; trout were destroyed. Several of the famous Kodiak bears came down to the beaches seeking food. One was killed near town.

One of the most disastrous results was the fact that when the ash filled the streams, it made it impossible to tell where the streams had been and the dampened ash became quicksand. One man sank in the sand to his armpits before rescuers found him. It took only half an hour for him to sink so deep, but it took two and one-half hours to dig him out. His body was blue from the pressure and he later died from the effects of the ordeal.

For weeks we dug ashes out of our houses, but every time the wind blew from the west, the dust was so thick and the gases so bad we were about ready to give up and return to our homes in the states.

The ash was of three distinct colors; the first was a grayish-white sand which was about six inches deep. On top of that was an extremely fine sulfur-laden ash that was all of ten inches deep. It was very heavy. The third layer was like powdered pumice and was not more than two inches deep.

All that summer we had occasional earthquakes, but none that caused any real damage. Most of the buildings in the village were low and built of logs; so naturally would stand quite a shaking before collapsing.

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. They would not take a million dollars for the experience, but neither would a million dollars bribe them to go through it again.