Whale Passage is a waterway about 10 miles (16 km) long and the site of a historic logging camp, situated between Thorne Island to the east and Prince of Wales Island to the west, about 40 miles (65 km) southwest of Wrangell and 11 miles (18 km) west-northwest of Coffman Cove, Alaska. The passage was named in 1886 by Lieutenant Commander Albert S. Snow of the U.S. Navy who was in command of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey steamer Carlile P. Patterson that conducted surveys and charted much of Southeast Alaska. The waterway is at the eastern edge of the Alexander terrane and roughly aligned with a shear zone of minor faults the run northwest to southeast in rocks representing the Descon Formation. These are sedimentary rocks that developed during the Ordovician to Silurian and consist of mudstone and greywacke turbidites, with some limestone, chert, basalt flows and breccia. The rock underlying the community of Whale Pass is mostly limestone. Pleistocene glaciation buried all but the highest peaks of Prince of Wales Island with up to 3,000 feet (900 m) of ice and created the present-day topography of steep-sided mountains and fjords.
Before the Alaska Purchase in 1867, logging was limited to the needs of the Tlingit and Haida peoples for building canoes and cedar plank houses. Russian settlements at present-day Sitka and Wrangell also demanded lumber but extraction was relatively localized. After the transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States, the history of the timber industry began with hand logging operations that targeted specific high-value trees or stands of large trees extracted from easily accessible low lying and beach fringe areas. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Alexander Archipelago Forest Reserve, and in 1907, another presidential proclamation by Roosevelt created the Tongass National Forest. In 1908, the two forests were joined, and the combined forest area encompassed most of Southeast Alaska. In 1947, Congress passed the Tongass Timber Act authorizing 50-year timber contracts mostly to support the Ketchikan Pulp Company and the Alaska Pulp Company. The 1970s, and continuing through the 1990s, were years of conflict and change for the Tongass National Forest and the timber industry. They were also years of very active logging and timber export from lands transferred from the Tongass National Forest to the private Alaska Native corporations established by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. During the 1990s, the region’s two pulp mills closed permanently. By the end of the century, most private timberlands had been harvested and logging activity declined rapidly.
The Whale Passage waterway was historically used extensively by tugboats, oil barges, and freight boats servicing a logging camp at the northern end of the channel on Prince of Wales Island. The area was used intensively from 1964 until the early 1980s by a series of floating and shore-based logging camps. Murray E. Gildersleeve came to Alaska from British Columbia in 1953, and with his brother Roger, founded Gildersleeve Logging Company. They had one of the first contracts with Ketchikan Pulp Company and operated several logging camps in Southeast Alaska including a floating camp at Whale Pass. The floating logging community could be moved from cove to cove depending on the location of the logging contracts. The camp consisted of 20 trailer homes bolted to a large floating deck and fastened to huge spruce logs with steel cables. The structure included a school, mess hall, and residences. Most groceries, small equipment, household goods, mail, medicine, and other miscellaneous supplies arrived by seaplane. When the last camp moved out, the area was permanently settled following a State of Alaska land disposal sale and is now the community of Whale Pass. Read more here and here. Explore more of Whale Passage and Prince of Wales Island here: