Petersburg, Mitkof Island

Petersburg, Mitkof Island

by | Oct 23, 2021

Petersburg is a community on the north end of Mitkof Island where the northern entrance to Wrangell Narrows meets Frederick Sound, about 116 miles (187 km) southeast of Juneau and 32 miles (52 km) northwest of Wrangell, Alaska. Mitkof Island is in the Alexander Archipelago of Southeast Alaska situated between Kupreanof Island to the west and the Alaskan mainland to the east. The island is bordered by Frederick Sound to the north, Dry Strait to the east, Sumner Strait to the south, and Wrangell Narrows to the west. Frederick Sound separates Mitkof Island from the Alaska mainland. Dry Strait is a shallow tidal passage near the mouth of the Stikine River that connects Frederick Sound to the north with Sumner Strait to the south. Despite being the widest strait of the Inside Passage at this latitude, Dry Strait is not commonly used by vessels because the strait is strongly influenced by the shoaling waters of the Stikine River Delta. The Stikine River Delta is continually expanding as sediments are deposited creating tidal flats that are difficult to navigate. Marine traffic between Wrangell and Petersburg, mostly fishing boats and Alaska Marine Highway ferries, generally use the deeper but narrower Wrangell Narrows while larger cruise ships will avoid the Inside Passage completely and take an open ocean route via Chatham Strait. Wrangell Narrows is a winding channel about 22 miles (35 km) long between Mitkof Island and Kupreanof Island marked by about 60 lights, buoys, and range lines. It was named in 1838 by G. Lindenberg after Admiral Baron Ferdinand Petrovich von Wrangel. The town of Petersburg is at the north end of the Narrows and was named after Peter Buschmann the town founder.

The northern tip of Mitkof Island was historically used by Tlingit people for a summer fish camp. Earlier cultures of indigenous people also used the island and remnants of fish traps and some petroglyphs have been carbon-dated to 10,000 years ago. The first European to sight the island was James Johnstone in 1793 who was one of Captain George Vancouver‘s officers during his voyage of discovery. In 1844, the island was shown on Russian hydrographic charts as Mitkova, presumably named after Admiral Prokofy Mitkov. In 1897, Peter Buschmann began developing the townsite that would bear his name. The Peter Buschmann family immigrated to Washington State in 1891 from Aure, Norway to seek fishing and salmon packing industry opportunities. In 1892, the family was salting fish near Port Townsend, at Scow Bay, and then moved to Bellingham and salted and smoked fish caught in a pile fish trap they built at Lummi Island and a small floating trap on Lopez Island. In 1893, Buschmann fished halibut on a schooner in Alaska out of Ketchikan, and later in the season fished salmon, dogfish, and sharks. In the fall of 1893, he located a cannery site in Mink Bay off Boca De Quadra Inlet, and in the spring of 1894, he built his first cannery there. In 1896, Buschmann purchased a Trade and Manufacturing Site of 40 acres (156 ha) at the north end of Wrangell Narrows, using Civil War-era soldier script as currency. A community developed around a salmon cannery and a sawmill built by August Buschmann, Peter’s 17-year-old son. The settlement of Petersburg was named after its founder and flourished as a fishing port. Fish traps in the Stikine River provided most of the salmon and icebergs adrift from the nearby LeConte Glacier provided a source of ice for cooling fish for shipment to Seattle. The town attracted immigrant fishermen mostly of Scandinavian origin, thus giving Petersburg the nickname “Little Norway”. By 1902, Peter Buschmann owned and operated several cannery operations in Southeast Alaska including the Quadra Packing Company, Icy Straits Packing Company, Petersburg Packing Company, and Chatham Straits Packing Company. After ten years of financial success, Peter sold his Alaska interests to the Pacific Packing and Navigation Company. He was paid in common stock and bonds that became worthless just a year later when the company went bankrupt. Peter Buschmann, overwhelmed with personal financial loss took his own life in 1903. Peter’s son Eigil Buschmann became the general manager of the Northwestern Fisheries Company which purchased the bankrupt Pacific Packing and Navigation Company. Peter Bushmann’s original cannery was later purchased by Pacific American Fisheries.

Pacific American Fisheries was one of the world’s major salmon canning companies, operating in Puget Sound and in Alaska between 1899 and 1965, with headquarters in Bellingham, Washington. As one of the world’s largest processors of Pacific salmon, the company claimed a global market and contributed many significant innovations to the development of the industry, including floating canneries, mechanized salmon processing, and shipbuilding. As the fishery flourished in the early twentieth century, the center of Pacific salmon canning moved north from the Columbia River and Puget Sound to Alaska, and the company opened new canneries to exploit the untapped and less regulated resources on the Skeena River of British Columbia and remote districts of Alaska. The company’s fortunes began to fall in the 1930s with the abolition of fish traps, uncertain salmon supplies, and corporate changes that served to transfer directorial power to individuals with no ties to the fishing industry. In the mid-1960s, the seafood industry was in decline and the company decided to close the Petersburg plant. A group of local Peterburg fishermen pooled their resources, purchased the plant, and founded Petersburg Fisheries, Inc. In 1977, the company name was changed to Icicle Seafoods which is now one of the largest seafood processing companies in Alaska and operates plants throughout the state, including Petersburg. In 2017, Icicle Seafoods was purchased by Cooke Aquaculture. Commercial fishing is still the dominant industry of Petersburg’s economy and the main producers are the limit seiners, so-called for the 58 feet (17.7 m) maximum length. These vessels catch salmon, halibut, black cod, king crab, tanner crab, and herring. Many travel west to trawl, longline, and pot cod in the western Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. A large contingent from Petersburg also goes to Bristol Bay each year to fish at Naknek, Dillingham, and King Salmon. Locally, there is also a vibrant salmon troll and gillnet fleet, as well as Dungeness crab and dive fisheries. Today, Petersburg is homeport to one of the most productive and diverse commercial fishing fleets in Alaska, and the location of major seafood processing plants and several small custom processors. On average, over 70 million pounds (31,751,466 kg) of fish and shellfish are landed each year making Petersburg one of the top fishing ports in the United States. Read more here and here. Explore more of Petersburg and Mitkof Island here:

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