Thoms Place, Wrangell Island

Thoms Place, Wrangell Island

by | Nov 10, 2021

Thoms Place is an embayment, and a widely distributed remote community, along Zimovia Strait on the southwest coast of Wrangell Island, about 62 miles (100 km) north-northwest of Ketchikan and 22 miles (35 km) south-southeast of Wrangell, Alaska. Zimovia Strait is a water passage bounded by Wrangell Island to the east and Woronkofski and Etolin Islands to the west and is about 30 miles (48 km) long from the north end of Wrangell Island to Ernest Sound. Wrangell Island is in the Alexander Archipelago of Southeast Alaska at the mouth of the Stikine River and separated from the mainland by the narrow Blake Channel. In 1793, James Johnstone, who served as sailing master for Captain George Vancouver, charted the east coast of the island but did not recognize the mouth of the Stikine River. According to William Healey Dall, the river was first found by American fur traders in 1799. In April of that year, Captain Cleveland on the sloop Dragon visited the Stikine River delta, and later that same year, Captain Rowan on the Eliza found the Tlingit locality called ‘Stikin’. That same year, the Russian-American Company was granted a monopoly by Tsar Paul I of the fur trade on the Pacific coast north of 55° latitude which it held until 1839. In 1834, the Russians established a trading post at the north end of the island and it was named for Baron Ferdinand Petrovich von Wrangel, a Baltic German explorer in Russian service, and later a chief manager for the Russian-American Company. The location was chosen to capitalize on ancient Tlingit trade routes up the Stikine River to the interior. In 1839, the Hudson’s Bay Company leased the trading post from the Russians and named the stockade Fort Stikine, but they abandoned the fort in 1849 after the sea otter and beaver furs were depleted. Fort Stikine remained under British rule until the Alaska Purchase in 1867, and the old fort was occupied by the U.S. Army. The pioneer settlement of Wrangell was established surrounding the military post and grew as outfitting hunters, explorers, and miners heading up the Stikine River to the Yukon became profitable, and the economy eventually turned to fishing, logging, and mining. The only other community on Wrangell Island is Thoms Place on the southern portion of Zimovia Strait across from Etolin Island.

 The USS Albatross was a U.S. Navy iron-hulled, twin-screw steamship, and reputedly the first vessel ever built specifically for marine research. The vessel was built in Delaware and launched in 1882, and for the next 12 years was assigned to the U.S. Fish Commission, a civilian government agency created in 1871 to investigate, promote, and preserve the fisheries of the United States. In 1893, Jefferson F. Moser was assigned as a hydrographic inspector with the U.S. Coast Survey, and in 1894, he was promoted to lieutenant commander. On May 19, 1896, Moser was given command of the Albatross with a U.S. Navy crew. In 1889, the Albatross, with four members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, visited the principal Tlingit and Haida settlements in Southeast Alaska. They located the remains of an ancient village at the head of a bight and adjacent to a salmon stream called Thoms Creek about 4 miles (6.4 km) north of Found Island at the southern entrance to Zimovia Strait. Moser reported the establishment of several salmon canneries at Wrangell that were using fish traps to catch salmon on the Stikine River and in Zimovia Strait. The Tlingit Packing Company of Portland Oregon operated the Zimovia trap as well as seine boats at several streams including Thoms Creek. The fencing off of entire streams with fishing nets was banned in 1889, and the commercial fish trap evolved to take advantage of the tendency for salmon to migrate along the shoreline and to congregate at the mouths of bays. The fish traps were relatively simple to construct and extremely efficient for catching salmon. Traps generally consisted of a long series of vertical wooden pilings hammered into the bottom and reaching out at an angle into the sea like a picket fence. Fishing net was fastened to the piles and extended to the bottom. Salmon would encounter the net and swim along it until they passed through a narrow funnel that opened into the trap which is completely covered on the bottom from which there is no escape. The fish are lifted out of the net at specific periods and dumped unceremoniously into waiting scows. The capacity of the scows used in Alaska was about twenty thousand fish and it was common to see two of these barges coming from the trap each day completely filled with salmon.

In 1890, Moser returned to Alaska on the Albatross to carry out fishery investigations and to determine the physical and natural history of the region. At Thoms Creek, Moser sent Lieutenant Hugh Rodman to survey the stream and he found that it flowed for 6 miles (10 km) from a lake through a broad valley between mountains reaching elevations of 2,000 to 2,500 feet (610-762 m) on the east, and 500 to 1,000 feet (152-305 m) on the west. At the bight called Thoms Place, the stream entered tidal flats extending about 600 feet (183 m) from the tree line. The shoreline was heavily wooded with considerable areas of boggy, moss-covered flats. The stream bottom was gravel with patches of rock and boulders, but there were large areas well adapted for salmon spawning. Vegetation was typical Southeast Alaska temperate rainforest with wildlife including deer, wolves, black bear, marten, and a small population of brown bear and moose. Between 1887 and 1890, the seine boats from Wrangell were catching an average of 20,000 sockeye salmon and 5,000 coho salmon per year from Thoms Creek. Today, Thoms Creek is accessible by road and still supports a major sockeye salmon run and a subsistence fishery. The bight called Thoms Place is now an Alaska State Marine Park of 1,198 acres (485 ha) bounded on the east by Fools Inlet, on the south by Ernest Sound, and on the west by Zimovia Strait. Although the bay is protected from development, the natural integrity of the surrounding area has been severely impacted by roads and clear-cut logging especially to the north. There are currently 35 state marine parks in Alaska, that can be found in protected coves, hidden bays, and the outer coastlines representing some of the most relatively undeveloped coastal areas in the world. Read more here and here. Explore more of Thoms Place here:

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