Shearwater Bay Cannery, Observation Point

Shearwater Bay Cannery, Observation Point

by | Apr 3, 2022

Kadiak Fisheries operated a remote salmon cannery at Observation Point from 1926 until 1964 when it was destroyed by a tsunami, on the north shore of Shearwater Bay on Kodiak Island, about 36 miles (58 km) south-southwest of Kodiak and 18 miles (29 km) northeast of Old Harbor, Alaska. Kadiak is a historical spelling of Kodiak, which along with Kad’yak was derived by early Russians from the Aluttiq word  ‘qikertaq’ meaning ‘island’. Shearwater Bay extends northeast for 3 miles (5 km) from the northern shore of Kiliuda Bay. The descriptive name for the bay was given by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1904 probably for the abundance of short-tailed shearwaters inhabiting the area. Observation Point was named for the location used by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1904 for making triangulation observations to calculate latitude and longitude for a survey of Shearwater Bay. Underlying all of Shearwater Bay and the outer part of Kiliuda Bay are the metamorphic and tectonic Ghost Rocks Formation which is the mélange and trench-deposited rocks of the Prince William terrane. Kodiak Island is primarily composed of a large accretionary complex that developed about 200 million years ago. However, over that broad time interval accretion was episodic. By far, the largest fraction of the accretionary complex is the Kodiak Formation which formed most of Kodiak Island during the Late Cretaceous, and the Ghost Rocks Formation which accreted later during the Paleocene. Both units are composed of greywacke and turbidites but the Ghost Rocks Formation contains a higher percentage of greywacke and has experienced more tectonism. The Contact fault separates the Kodiak Formation from the Ghost Rocks Formation. The Kodiak batholith intruded into the Kodiak Formation, whereas the basaltic trenchward belt rocks intruded into the Ghost Rocks Formation. The trenchward belt consists of magmatic rocks consisting of small plutons, dikes, pillow basalt, and andesite that were intruded from 63 to 60 million years ago. Overlying these ancient rocks in Shearwater Bay are unconsolidated sediments deposited during the Quaternary. Sand, gravel, and cobbles eroded from sea cliffs, or delivered to the coast from rivers, are worked into a variety of depositional shoreline forms. A common feature is a spit, which is a beach and associated backshore connected to the coast at one end. Most spits grow in the direction of the prevailing longshore current and are often a continuation of the beach that is adjacent to the coast. The free end of the spit may terminate in a hook or recurve forming a cuspate spit. Observation Point is a cuspate spit formed by unconsolidated sediments eroded from the Ghost Rocks Formation and deposited by wave-driven currents.

In 1807, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson authorized the first Survey of the Coast to be headed by Ferdinand Hassler, an immigrant from Switzerland. The Survey of the Coast soon became known as the Coast Survey, and later in the 19th century, it was renamed the Coast and Geodetic Survey and now is known as the National Geodetic Survey which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Geodesy is the ancient science of the size and shape of the earth and the determination of the exact locations of very specific points on the earth’s surface. In the early 19th century, shipping took place primarily along the coast because land transportation was often difficult. This reliance on ships and the sea sparked a need for a comprehensive survey of coastal waters and published charts. The Survey of the Coast was founded to create an accurate chart of every part of the coast. Each chart would be built from two types of surveys. The first was a hydrographic survey, which mapped the depths of coastal waters and offshore hazards. The other was a topographic survey, which mapped the land, including the shoreline, natural and cultural features, and elevations above the sea. The coastal mapping effort grew as new territories were claimed and especially on the U.S. west coast with the discovery of gold in California, Oregon, and Alaska. In 1867, the Alaska Purchase transferred the territory from Russia to the United States. The Coast Survey was dispatched to begin charting the coastlines of the vast territory. In the 1870s, the Coast Survey tied the coastal networks of the Atlantic and Pacific together along the great arc of the 39th parallel with a series of connected geodetic triangles which became the major spatial reference system for the United States. But it would take many decades to extend this reference system to Alaska, so very precise astronomical observations were made to determine latitude and longitude at critical locations along the coast. In surveying for navigational charts, triangulation is the process of determining the location of a point by measuring only angles to it from known points at either end of a fixed baseline, rather than measuring distances to the point directly. The point can then be fixed as the third point of a triangle with one known side and two known angles. Accurate historical surveys of the coast started with a very large reference triangulation network. Points inside the triangles could then be accurately located with reference to it. Such triangulation methods were used for accurate large-scale land surveying until the rise of global navigation satellite systems in the 1980s. The precise location of Observation Point was triangulated from the surrounding reference network, and then radial lines, each with a measured distance and angle, were used to establish known positions along the Shearwater Bay coastline for making a navigational chart.

Kadiak Fisheries built a cannery at Observation Point in 1926 to process the large runs of pink salmon caught using fish traps on the east side of Kodiak Island. The cannery was on a broad roughly triangular cusp that juts out into Shearwater Bay. That year was very successful with the highest catch of salmon since the beginning of commercial fishing in Alaska. In October of that year a windstorm blew down the main buildings and the cannery was not rebuilt in time for the 1927 season. But it operated in 1928 and intermittently in the following years. In 1944, 55 percent of the catch was from fish traps, 37 percent from purse seines, and 8 percent from gill nets. Alaska gained statehood in 1959 and immediately abolished fish traps, resulting in the closure of the cannery; however, a caretaker was hired to maintain the facility. Cannery operators pulled out the trap pilings and thereafter used the only remaining legal fishing gear at the time which was purse seines, beach seines, and gill nets. In 1963, a grass fire spread by high winds burned many of the structures. This was followed by the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake. The Kadiak Fisheries cannery was damaged by the seismic shock during the earth­quake, and immediately afterward a tsunami swept the Kodiak coastline destroying the remaining cannery buildings and 30 vessels anchored in Shearwater Bay. The most severe shaking oc­curred in areas of thick unconsolidated water-saturated Quaternary deposits. In these areas, structural damage resulted mainly from foundation failure attributed to partial liquefaction and differential ground settle­ment. The sole structural failure re­ported in the area was the partial collapse of the main building of the Kadiak Fisheries cannery. The structure split in half when it was shifted off its piling foundation. Local subsidence of beach deposits was 2-10 feet (0.6-3 m) more than at adjacent bedrock areas. The cannery site is now mostly submerged at high tides. Read more here and here. Explore more of Observation Point and Shearwater Bay here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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