The Long Blue Line: Katmai—Part II. The Apocalypse comes to Kodiak and the Revenue Cutter Service

By Evan J. David, author of Our Coast Guard: High Adventures with Watchers of Our Shores


[Editor’s note: The following essay is adapted from a chapter of the book by Evan J. David, Our Coast Guard: High Adventures with Watchers of Our Shores (New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1942), 209-233.] 

The forested landscape after the eruption shows trees covered in ash. (Library of Congress)10.	Homes in Katmai Village, Alaska, buried in volcanic ash by the Katmai eruption June 6, 1912. (Library of Congress)Everyone prayed that the dawn of Saturday, June 8, would be clear and the sun visible again. But there was no dawn over Kodiak Island, Alaska, on that day. Ashes had been falling continuously over the island and harbor and now covered the decks, the yardarms, and the ship’s boats like a winter coat of snow.

During the night, the ashes had changed to fine dust and flakes. They were a yellowish color. Sulfurous fumes nearly overcame everybody, but fortunately they came and went in gusts like the wind. All who had ever heard of Pompeii now thought of the complete destruction, which had buried that ancient city and every one in it. They expected a similar fate themselves, and were very silent and thoughtful.

Meanwhile, the ashes on the neighboring hills blanketed the island and became so deep that the people aboard the Manning could hear the rush of avalanches even when there were no earth tremors. They sent forth clouds of suffocating dust and ashes to mingle with what was falling from the sky, making things much harder for the people on the terror-stricken island.

From 7:00 a.m., all hands were on duty sweeping the falling ashes, but the darkness in broad daylight was so dense the men working about the decks often collided with one another. The feeble glow of the electric lights and lanterns failed to dispel the darkness for any distance. The crew had to keep constantly at work with shovels. In addition, four streams of water from the fire mains had to be kept playing incessantly on the ash on the deck in what, at times, seemed a vain effort to clear the ship of its horrible burden.

To add to the weirdness of the scene and occasion, through the terrible shower and blinding darkness, the bells of the Russian Orthodox Church boomed out. They echoed and re-echoed against the hills of Kodiak Island, and few, if any, of its followers failed to grope their way to that call for prayer. Most of the other inhabitants found their way to the wharf in the hope the Manning might take them out of danger with their most precious belongings.

At about 8:30 a.m., so many had assembled they could not get on the little cutter, so the big storehouse on the wharf was thrown open for all the inhabitants of St. Paul at Perry’s request. As soon as they had assembled, the captain held a consultation with the chief citizens to determine how best to cope with the catastrophe. They agreed it might be safest for the people who remained in the Russian Orthodox Church to be aboard the Manning or in the warehouse. So they sent a messenger to the priest with that information. He readily agreed to the suggestion and the last of the inhabitants crowded down on the wharf.

12.	Drifts and piles of volcanic ash surround homes and buildings in Kodiak, Alaska following the Katmai eruption, June 6, 1912. (Wikimedia)Prior to this, many of the inhabitants had joined the first refugees aboard the cutter. Perry now called all together and formed a committee of the leaders to aid the officers in handling the new situation. Several of the citizens expressed the opinion that the Manning should put out to sea to avoid being buried like the ancient city of Pompeii. However, the local pilot and the officers on the cutter pointed out that since every landmark in the harbor and on shore was obliterated. It would be impossible to see more than a couple of feet from the bridge through the steadily falling cinders, and that the chances were vastly against the ship’s making out of the narrow channel without striking one of the many rocks. It was, therefore, decided to stay where they were and take what most of the men believed was only a fighting chance to escape from being completely buried by the ashes of the volcano.13.	Satellite image of the blast area surrounding the Katmai caldera showing the devastation to the local area. (NASA)

During this meeting, the noise of the sliding avalanches made it evident that the catastrophe was worse in Kodiak village, some distance away, than the settlement close to the Manning. Terrible clouds of volcanic debris kept sweeping down from the hills close to Kodiak village and adding to the fall of ashes coming from above.

By 10:00 a.m., the people of the villages amounting to 149 had collected in the warehouse and on the wharf, and 185 had taken refuge on the Manning. Some of these were from the salmon canneries and Woody Island where the now useless radio station was located. The people on the cutter were so crowded together that boards and canvas had to be used on the quarterdeck to provide a shelter for the exhausted and blinded workers.

All this time, the stream of a hose inserted under the temporary deckhouse washed off the dust and fumes somewhat, so that all hands sought this shelter when blinded or suffocating or needing first aid. Owing to the darkness and density of the air, much confusion existed. But it was remarkable how every man worked, how promptly every man carried out his orders, and how all the people from the island looked to Perry for instructions, even though he had never had any experience in this kind of a catastrophe. Undoubtedly, it was because he was the ranking officer of a revenue cutter, which people everywhere on the coast knew came to the aid of people during an elemental calamity.

Shortly before 11:00 a.m., Lt. Warner Thompson of the Manning informed Perry that several men were cut off in the cannery about half a mile’s distance from their dock. Thompson stated that he had organized a party of volunteers and asked for orders to go out through the falling ashes, the blinding darkness, and suffocating fumes to try to rescue them from being buried by one of the many avalanches. These avalanches were, from time to time, and at each earthquake, sliding down the precipitous hills with thunderous roars.

Perry replied that he would not give Thompson orders, for it might be the party had his permission to make the attempt if they wished to risk their lives. Thompson then asked the men if they still wished to go. They volunteered to the last man and then set out with lanterns and stretchers in case any of the cannery workers had to be carried back.

A Russian Orthodox Church surrounded by a layer of volcanic ash after the volcanic eruption of Katmai Volcano, June 6, 1912. (Library of Congress)By now, the throng aboard the Manning and in the warehouse needing medical assistance had become very large. The ship’s surgeon, Dr. Nelson Brecht, U.S. Public Health Service of the Manning, and the village doctor, Dr. Joseph A. Silverman, had to work to the point of exhaustion in removing particles of ashes from eyes and throats. The men, who had to work outdoors trying to keep the deck and the wharf free from the rain of ash, suffered continually. When men working on deck became blinded by the dust and ashes and the doctors could not get to them immediately, they were led below and the women volunteers were called in to act as nurses to wash out their eyes and bathe them with medicinal preparations the doctors provided. This enabled the men to return to their work and battle on against this rain of dust, which never seemed to stop and submerged everything on shore to a depth of several feet. Meanwhile, the darkness, which even the sun could not penetrate with the faintest gleam, continued to hamper the work and keep the spirits of all very low. Many times, the men were so overcome by breathing the ashes and fumes that, even though protected by veils over their eyes and sponges on their nostrils became completely disabled. If not for the ministrations of the doctors and nurses, many would undoubtedly have died.

Thoroughly believing that they would be buried alive under the storm of ash, the officers and men of the Metha Nelson and the barge at the docks, worked their way through the darkness and the falling cinders to the Manning. These able-bodied seamen were quickly put to work in the battle to keep the deck of the Manning free of the hot powder and pumice.

Finally, Thompson returned from the cannery with the remaining men, after being nearly suffocated by fumes and dust. The streets of the village were filled with hot ashes, which sent hot clouds into their nostrils and eyes with every step. It gave the men a weird feeling to be walking over ashes a foot deep from a gigantic volcano somewhere nearby. They were received with cheers when they reached the wharf.

Shortly after, the last four men of the naval radio station at Woody Island arrived at the dock where the Manning was moored. They had remained at their station, trying to get messages through, but the static made it impossible. Finally, a bolt of lightning struck the station and set it on fire. Then the men groped their way through the darkness and ashes, expecting every instant to be completely submerged by the hot fumes and blinding pumice, until they arrived at the Manning, which they hoped had not yet put out to sea and might save them. They had no knowledge of how the inhabitants in the village had fared because it was so dark they had not met up with anybody on their way over. Everybody hoped and prayed their friends had survived, but the cuttermen and the able-bodied seamen were so busy battling the falling ashes they could not leave.

Indeed, the ashes were still coming down so rapidly that the four radiomen, even in their semi-exhausted condition, had to be put to work keeping the Manning’s decks passable. The cutter had to be ready to move out into the darkness of the bay in case it became light enough to see where they were going. The cutter might also have to risk navigating in the darkness if it became so weighted down by its horrible burden that remaining there might make it impossible for them to move the Manning at all.

Nobody had the slightest idea how long the fall of ashes, which had now been coming down almost constantly for three days, would continue. Perry decided to ration food to all the people assembled in the warehouse and aboard the vessel. The captain of the Metha Nelson, which was still lying at the dock alongside the Manning, gave over their stores of food for that same purpose.

At 2:30 in the afternoon, the faintest gleam of a twilight began to appear directly overhead. There was great rejoicing among the crews on deck and the men trying to keep the piers near the warehouse clear. The word was soon passed below. Then everybody wondered whether the light wasNative Alaskan homes near Katmai Village, Alaska, buried in volcanic ash and dust, June 7, 1912. (USGS) going to increase or if it would be followed by darkness as it had on the morning of June 7, when the sky partly cleared for a few hours and the resumption of falling ash and sulfurous fumes became worse than ever. Gradually, the sky began to assume a reddish color. Finally, objects became dimly visible through the still-falling ashes.

It was a shocking picture that now presented itself to the men on deck and dock. Everything, from the masts to the roof of the warehouse, was clothed, or rather festooned, with volcanic ashes. The rigging and reefed sails of the schooner Metha Nelson looked like an Arctic vessel covered with snow and ice. It was a sinister phenomenon, for the whole countryside, as it gradually became visible in the mysterious reddish glow, was completely submerged in ash to the depth of several feet! Where the avalanches had slid down from the hillsides, great mounds of ashes stood as if dumped there by thousands of steam shovels.

But the earthquake shocks had not yet ceased. This meant that the eruptions were not yet over. Everybody feared that the worst was still to come, so Perry hastily summoned a committee of citizens. After hearing their various opinions, he decided that to stay at the wharf might mean death to the 400 people now assembled there. He decided, while there was even the faintest glow of light, to take a chance on getting the ship out to sea or at least far enough away from the land not to be submerged by the falling debris.

Consequently, everybody was taken aboard the Manning except U.S. Deputy Marshal Karl Armstrong. Armstrong decided that duty required him to remain in case anybody groped to the wharf and needed help. Thereupon, three other men volunteered to stay with him to aid any unfortunates who had not been able to reach the Manning before it sailed. Armstrong’s parting from his wife was very touching. She was convinced she would never see him again, but he refused to shirk his duty.

At 5:30 p.m., the Manning cast off through the gloom, with Captain Brown, a skillful old Kodiak pilot, at the wheel and a crew of men making lead soundings on each side of the vessel as it made its way slowly through the pumice-covered waters. Carefully, Brown conned the Manning through the twilight, around the pColor photograph recently shot from outer space showing the volcano and immense blast area from the 1912 eruption. (NASA)rojecting ledges, and through the narrow channel. Slowly the cutter scraped by the rocky shores. To add to their worries the only bearing, which the officers and the crew could take in that vault of yellowish, falling dust was the mountain peak on Woody Island, standing like the top of a steeple in a fog.

Finally, the Manning anchored in the outer harbor with its bow pointing out toward the safe passage to the sea and a full head of steam up ready to plow through in case another volcanic eruption made it necessary. By the time this was done complete darkness again shut them in, although bright daylight should be prevailing in this latitude until nearly nine o’clock at night. This was most discouraging, for it was nearly impossible to take that boatload of almost 500 souls out onto the ocean in case an all-enveloping eruption now took place near at hand.

No word had been received from the village on Woody Island. The captain of the motorboat Norman, which had followed the Metha Nelson from the wharf, notified Perry that he would navigate through the darkness to the island and find out if anybody had survived. After making very slow progress through the gloom and shower of ash, the Norman’s crew discovered 103 people all huddled together in a warehouse, believing the fate of Pompeii was to be theirs at any minute. They had been unable to secure any fresh water since the beginning of the eruption June 6 and their food supplies were exhausted. The dry dust and the fumes had nearly strangled many of them; thirst had driven most of them nearly mad; all were famished and utterly exhausted.

Boatload by boatload, without panic, the motorboat conveyed Woody Island’s survivors out to the anchored Manning and placed them aboard. Nurses and medical doctors provided fresh water, food, and medical attention at once. On this day, 486 people, outside of the crew received water and food. Some 414 were quartered on the Manning and 72 aboard the tug Printer, which had followed the Manning out into the harbor and moored alongside.

It is impossible to describe the crowded condition on the little cutter and the tug. The panicky men, women, and children huddled together in the strangest storm, which had ever descended upon them from the heavens above. Here were Americans, Native Americans, Europeans, and even some Chinese and Japanese workers from the canneries, who could hardly move below decks without bumping into one another. Some prayed, some moaned, children cried out. The braver spirits joked to keep up the hopes of the frightened and depressed.

Many who had been taken aboard were ill. A long list of the crew and men who had battled to keep the decks and rigging clear of dust were in the sickbay giving the nurses and the doctors all they could do to soothe their burning eyes, noses, and throats. Naturally, a great number of people believed it was the end of the world. Even some of the more intelligent feared the mountains all around were being destroyed in one cataclysmic eruption after another and that it would be only a question of time before those surrounding the harbor would blow up. Hardly once during the two days and three nights had the earthquake shocks, or the thunder, or the lightning ceased entirely. This, together with the endless falling ashes and the impenetrable darkness even at midday, was enough to strike terror into the hearts of the strongest and stagger the imaginations of the dullest.

Click here to read the first part of the Katmai eruption. 

Stay tuned for the final installment of this story…

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