Port Graham, Kachemak Bay

Port Graham, Kachemak Bay

by | May 22, 2022

Port Graham is a deglaciated fjord at the southern entrance to Kachemak Bay with an Alutiiq Sugpiat community with the same name, on the southwestern end of the Kenai Peninsula, about 23 miles (37 km) south-southwest of Homer and 3.4 miles (5.5 km) east of Nanwalek, Alaska. The bay was named Grahams Harbour by Captain Nathaniel Portlock in 1786. The Russians called this bay Bukhta Anglitskaya or ‘English Bay’ because of the British mapping and exploration in the late 18th century, and today this name is used on charts for the small bay adjacent to Nanwalek. Port Graham fjord was scoured by repeated glaciations from the Chugach accretionary terrane. The terrane is represented in the geology surrounding Port Graham by three rock formations. The outer third of the bay is comprised of the Talkeetna Formation which formed during the Early Jurassic and consists of at least 17,000 feet (5,270 m) of andesite and dacite tuff, volcaniclastic conglomerate, sandstone, mudstone, and minor coal and limestone. The presence of coal in Coal Harbor on the north shore of Port Graham indicates that some of the formation was deposited in a nonmarine environment. The middle third of the bay consists of the Port Graham Formation characterized by dark-gray limestone, volcanic tuff, sedimentary rocks consisting of tuff, and chert. The estimated minimum thickness is 5,000 feet (1,500 m). Bivalve fossils indicate a Late Triassic age for most of the unit. The inner third of the bay, including most of the Port Graham River watershed in the Kenai Mountains, consists of the McHugh Complex which is mostly conglomerate and massive greywacke that are of turbiditic origin. Regionally, the greywacke was formed during the Early Jurassic through Early Cretaceous.

The current residents of Port Graham and Nanwalek trace their origins directly to the Alutiiq people who lived in a number of permanent and seasonal settlements along the outer coast of the lower Kenai Peninsula between Kachemak Bay and Prince William Sound. The subgroup of Alutiiq who occupied the outer Kenai coast are called Sugpiat. The first documented contact with Europeans is from accounts by Captain James Cook in 1778. Russian fur traders of the Northeastern Fur Company in pursuit of sea otter pelts arrived shortly after Cook’s visit. In 1785, a redoubt or fort called Alexandrovsk was built at present-day Nanwalek by Grigory Shelikhov, head of the Shelikov-Golikov Company. In 1786, Captains George Dixon and Nathaniel Portlock established trade relations with the Alutiiq in Prince William Sound and lower Cook Inlet. Portlock described scattered huts along Port Graham bay suggest seasonal fishing and hunting camps used by outer coast people who traveled to the area to take advantage of the rich salmon runs. The Russians were quick to forcefully suppress the Sugpiat by occupying villages, enslaving and killing men, and taking women and children as hostages for ransom. Men and women were put into workgroups with Russian overseers and were committed to working for a specified period and meeting harvest quotas. The various work tasks included hunting sea otters, bird hunting, fox trapping, and gathering all manner of wild foods including dried salmon, whale meat, and edible plants. In 1794, the first Russian missionaries were sent to Kodiak at the request of Shelikov and Simon Golikov for instructing the Alutiiq in Christianity. The church probably had its most profound impact by providing a new set of beliefs and customs to replace many traditions destroyed by early Russian oppression. The establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church was a major legacy of the Russian occupation which has lasted to the present day. In 1867, the Alaska Purchase transferred the territory from Russia to the United States. In the 1880s, the last permanent occupants of the outer Kenai coast villages moved to Nanwalek and Koyuktolik Bay at the request of the Russian Orthodox priest residing in Kenai, and this caused major changes to the culture and social organization of the Sugpiat. The diseases brought by Euro-Americans, the social disruption caused by forced labor, the dispersal of communities, and the admixture of the population all resulted in drastic declines in the Alutiiq population.

The greatest immediate influence of the American takeover of Alaska was on the local economies through the development of salteries and canneries that accelerated the development of the commercial fishing industry. In 1883, the Alaska Commercial Company operated a saltery at a trading post on the southern shore of Port Graham. In 1912, a cannery was built by the Fidalgo Island Packing Company where residents of Nanwalek worked seasonally at the cannery, walking the 3.5 miles (5.5 km) to and from work each day until a row of frame houses was built on pilings along the gravel beach west of the cannery. These structures served as worker housing until the cannery grew and larger crew quarters were built. In the 1940s, the frame houses were sold to individuals who moved them to higher ground south of the cannery. Several of these houses served as stores. The cannery was supplied with salmon caught in fish traps. Logs to be used for trap pilings were cut at Windy Bay, Port Chatham, and Koyuktolik Bay. Traps were constructed at key coastal locations where salmon passed through narrows or around points of land. After World War II, Port Graham’s population grew as people from Nanwalek, Port Chatham, and Koyuktolik Bay moved there to take advantage of employment in the cannery. In 1960, a fire destroyed the cannery and many families had to move to other communities for employment and were only able to return when the cannery was rebuilt in 1968. The cannery wharf is now occupied by a salmon hatchery owned and operated by Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association. This hatchery was originally built in 1991 and then rebuilt in 1998 after a fire. The hatchery closed in 2007 and was reopened in 2014 after a major renovation to modernize and make the hatchery more efficient. Today, Port Graham is an unincorporated community with a five-member tribal government recognized by the federal government as a traditional governing council. Although there are local roads connecting Port Graham and Nanwalek, there is no road access to this part of the Kenai Peninsula. Like many rural Alaskan communities, Port Graham relies on air service from Homer as the primary transportation link. Read more here and here. Explore more of Port Graham and Kachemak 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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