Pauloff Harbor, Sanak Island

Pauloff Harbor, Sanak Island

by | Oct 3, 2021

Pauloff Harbor is a historical community established as a codfish station in 1886 on the north coast of Sanak Island and the west shore of Pavlof Harbor, about 160 miles (257 km) east-northeast of Dutch Harbor and 45 miles (72 km) south-southwest of King Cove, Alaska. Pavlof Harbor provided a good anchorage and protection from storms in the Gulf of Alaska. A post office was established here in 1949 and mail was delivered by the MV Expansion. The name of the post office was apparently a misspelling of the name for the adjacent harbor. Sanak Island is in the Fox Islands group of the Aleutian Islands and has an area of about 29,440 acres (11,914 ha). The island is generally low in elevation with many lakes, streams, and swamp areas. The highest point on the island is Sanak Peak at 1,740 feet (530 m). The island is surrounded by many reefs and a number of small islands. The fishing banks around Sanak Island provided the community with economic stability for about fifty years. When the abundance of codfish declined in the late 1930s, the codfish station closed and the local fishermen switched to fishing for salmon centered around the cannery at False Pass, on neighboring Unimak Island. The relative stability of salmon fishing in other towns that had schools, medical facilities, and churches caused the population of Sanak to move to Sand Point, King Cove, and False Pass.

There is a nearly 10,000-year history of human presence in the western Gulf of Alaska, and Sanak Island has a 7,000-year archaeological record, the 3,000-year difference is most likely due to the remoteness of the island archipelago. The earliest explorers of Sanak Island reported two village sites. One on the northwest end of the island called Sannahk and one on the southeast end of the island called Kasiq. In 1824, the administrators of Russian America removed the island’s Unangan Aleut population to the Alaska Peninsula in order to preserve the sea otter hunting grounds in the surrounding waters. In 1864, Thomas McCollam started the McCollam Fishing and Trading Company in San Francisco with the schooners Wild Gazelle and Flying Mist, part of a six vessel cod fishing fleet from California that mostly fished in the Sea of Okhotsk, north of Japan. McCollam established curing stations on Belvedere Island in the San Francisco Bay to salt and dry the thousands of tons of fish that were brought back by these vessels. The Belvedere Island processing plant became known as Union City and the newly expanded operation referred to itself as the Union Fish Company. In addition to cod fishing, the company’s vessels carried provisions to Alaska and often returned with both fish and furs. In 1886, Thomas McCollam established a cod fishing station at Pavlof Harbor. The advantages of a fishing station on Sanak Island were to be close to the cod banks where fishermen, both men and women, could go out daily in dories and the catch could be processed and stored ashore until a sufficient cargo accumulated to warrant a shipment to San Francisco. In 1890, another station was opened at Kasaska, on the south side of Sanak Island at the head of Peterson Bay, and was operated for several years before being abandoned because of the numerous reefs that made navigation dangerous for sailing vessels close to shore. A third station was established in 1891 in Johnson Harbor but was abandoned a few years later. A competing cod station owned by the Alaska Codfish Company, also headquartered in San Francisco, was located at Sanak Harbor, also known as Company Harbor, on the western end of the island. All of these stations operated only in the winter months and during the rest of the year, the fish are too far offshore in water too deep for fishing with shore-based dories. The methods for catching and processing cod and the fishing and transporting vessels for the industry were brought to San Francisco from the east coast of the U.S. where there was a long tradition of cod fishing. The first fishermen to work at the Pauloff Harbor codfish station were mostly from Scandinavia where cod fishing was well known. These fishermen brought their fishing knowledge and skills with them and many of them settled here to raise families.

In 1930, a decline in the abundance of cod caused a shift to salmon fishing, possibly using fish traps, weirs, or seine nets. Many of these salmon were caught near the stream that empties the lake at the southeast end of the island at Salmon Bay. Pavlof Harbor provided enough space to shelter several salmon fishing boats and there were 12 men involved in delivering fish to the cannery in False Pass. The salt salmon business was also lucrative at this time and 7 men were involved in salting salmon to be shipped to Seattle. Two men also ran fox farms which were on small islands near the main island of Sanak. In 1942, the U.S. Navy Seabees based out of Kodiak established outlying coastal defense positions to provide protection for the main base on Kodiak Island. They undertook the job of landing supplies on islands surrounded by very dangerous water. Facilities were established on Sanak Island included a radio range, radio and radar beacon, and a weather-observation station. It was commissioned in January 1943 and decommissioned in 1945. In the 1970s, a few people still lived on Sanak Island to tend free-range cattle but this business failed, and the cattle and all the land on Sanak now belong to the Sanak Corporation based in Sand Point. Although Sanak is no longer inhabited, the island is still owned by its former residents who mostly live in Sand Point, False Pass, and King Cove and visit the island occasionally to harvest the feral cattle. Travel to the island is currently done by fishing vessels, and the trip takes about five hours from King Cove. Read more here and here. Explore more of Pauloff Harbor and Sanak Island here:

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