Kodiak History & Culture
Cultural explorers and history buffs that visit Kodiak can easily immerse themselves in research and discovery.
The Sugpiat or Aluitiiq people were Kodiak’s first inhabitants. Visitors can learn much about this fascinating culture at the Alutiiq Museum.
The arrival of Russian pioneers had far-reaching and long-lasting impact on Kodiak’s early people. Previously dependent upon the island for all food, clothing and shelter, the Russians introduced sugar, tobacco, flour and other staples. One of the most lasting signs of Russian immigration to Kodiak is the Russian American Magazin, which is the oldest structure in Alaska and he oldest of all Russian-era buildings in North America. Used as storage for fur pelts and later converted to a home, the building now houses the Baranov Museum and is a treasure-trove of historical insight for the eager visitor.
The other last legacy of the Russian era in Kodiak is represented by the blue-cupolas of Holy Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral in the heart of downtown. Often photographed, the current structure was built in 1940 after a fire devastated the previous church. Services are held at the cathedral on Sunday mornings.
Once Alaska was sold to the United States in 1867, change happened rapidly once again. Sea otters were hunted to near extinction with rifles instead of spears and word traveled fast about the abundance of fish in Kodiak waters. Within 20 years, the first fish processing plant was established and salmon became the new industry upon which the archipelago riled and grew.
In spite of rapid growth and change, Kodiak was still largely a sleepy little fishing village full of close-knit families that loved island life. By 1910 there was a new cannery and even a doctor on the island. The future looked bright.
No one anticipated the sudden and violent eruption of Mt. Novarupta in 1912. Nearly two feet of ash engulfed the island and once again lives and landscape changed.
This would not be the last change for Kodiak – far from it. World War II brought a military presence to the island and again, signaled dramatic change for the character of the town. But even a volcano and world war were no match for the devastation that resulted from the largest earthquake in North American history. The earthquake itself did little damage to the island, but the giant series of tsunamis wiped out most downtown landmarks. Fishing vessels were scattered like toys in the streets of Kodiak. The rebuild left Kodiak much the way you see it today including the World War II liberty ship next to the visitor center in downtown Kodiak. This ship, “The Star of Kodiak” (nee’ Albert Boe) was brought in to serve as a temporary fish processing plant and is still in use today.
No one could have predicted that one of Kodiak’s worst disasters would be man-made. In March of 1989, the Exxon Valdez went aground in Prince William Sound spewing 11 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Alaska. Prevailing winds and currents swept oil south into Kodiak waters. All commercial fisheries – the core of Kodiak’s economy – were cancelled. Unemployed fishermen went to work cleaning beaches and attempting to save birds, otters and other wildlife. Mass mortalities of wildlife were recorded with estimated numbers of seabird deaths in the hundreds of thousands. Over 20 years later damage from what had been the nation’s largest oil spill is still being assessed.