Whalers Cove, Killisnoo Island

Whalers Cove, Killisnoo Island

by | Nov 12, 2021

Killisnoo is a small island in the Alexander Archipelago of Southeast Alaska located in Chatham Strait opposite Peril Strait and just off the central west coast of Admiralty Island, about 42 miles (68 km) northeast of Sitka and 2.5 miles (4 km) south of Angoon, Alaska. The island was historically called Kenasnow, but the name Killisnoo was adopted when a post office was established at a cannery on the island with that name. The name Killisnoo was derived from a Tlingit word for Admiralty Island, a form of the word “Khutz-n’hu” meaning “bear fort”. Admiralty Island has been continuously inhabited since the Last Glacial Period about 11,700 years ago. Archeological sites include the areas of Angoon, Chalk Bay, and Whitewater Bay. Angoon is the only permanent community on the island and is a traditional village of Tlingit people who consider the island a sacred place. Admiralty Island was named by Captain George Vancouver in honor of his Royal Navy employers. Lieutenant Joseph Whidbey, the sailing master with Vancouver on the HMS Discovery, explored the island in 1794. The island is rich in historic structures and sites, including whaling stations, canneries, mining structures, and abandoned villages. In 1909, Admiralty Island was added to the Tongass National Forest and recognized early as an exceptional habitat for brown bears and bald eagles. An estimated 1,600 brown bears inhabit the island as well as one of the highest densities of bald eagles in the world. In 1978, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act was passed by Congress designating Admiralty Island National Monument most of the island as the Kootznoowoo Wilderness, except for the Mansfield Peninsula, the village of Angoon, and Native lands along the island’s western shore.

The North West Trading Company was organized in Portland, Oregon in 1879 by Paul Schulze, Henry Villard, and other railroad tycoons in order to do business in Alaska. In 1880, Paul Schultze and Captain John M. Vanderbilt traveled to Alaska with the company steamer Favorite for the purpose of establishing a series of stores for trade with the natives. One store was located at Killisnoo, an old Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, and the site of a shore whaling station. In 1881, members of the ‘Hutsnuwu’ tribe of Tlingit were brought from the villages of Angoon and Nahltushkan at Whitewater Bay to work at the whaling station. See a short video about shore whaling in the late 1800s and early 1900s here. In 1882, the accidental discharge of a whale bomb caused the death of a village shaman. The event culminated in the bombardment and destruction of Angoon by U.S. Naval forces under Commander Edgar C. Merriman of the USS Adams.  Merriman hired the company tug Favorite and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Thomas Corwin under the command of Michael A. Healy and with a company of marines, a Gatling gun, and a howitzer. The subsequent public reaction to the bombardment was instrumental to the passage of the first First Organic Act of 1884 which transferred the Department of Alaska from military to civilian control. After a few years, the Northwest Trading Company abandoned whaling in favor of the herring fishery. Pacific herring were abundant in Kootznahoo Inlet and the first commercial herring fishery in Alaska began at Killisnoo when a saltery was built and a small plant was installed for extracting oil. The fish plant, a school, and a Russian Orthodox church attracted more Tlingits from neighboring villages. The oil extraction, or reduction, operation gradually enlarged and in 1884, a plant for processing the residual herring into fertilizer was installed and the output of Killisnoo was 350,000 gallons (1,324,890 l) of oil, 1,500 tons of fish guano, and 500 barrels of salt herring for the season. A barrel of herring weighing 200 pounds contains about 700 to 800 salted fish. Depending on the time of year, a barrel of herring provided between 0.5 gallons (1.9 l) of oil in the spring, about 3.5 gallons (13 l) of oil in the summer, and about 2 gallons (7.6 l) of oil in the winter. Most of the extracted oil was shipped to San Francisco, New York, and England, and was used for tanning, lubricants, and the manufacture of soap. One hundred barrels of herring made 2.25 tons of dry fish guano, and most of the guano was shipped to Hawaii. In 1888, due to numerous factors including a recession, rapid expansion of the company, and the uncertain nature of railway markets, the Northwest Trading Company went into receivership and the trading station was sold to Alaska Fish Oil and Guano.

In 1901, Jefferson F. Moser of the U.S. Fish Commission on the USS Albatross stopped at Killisnoo and documented the operation. A large fish trap had been built in Kootznahoo Inlet but was abandoned when not enough herring were caught for the investment. The local herring were very rich in oil and had a strong market in the eastern U.S. The salted herring were also in demand and the plant could not fill the orders. The herring of Southeast Alaska are found in many localities and once ran in immense schools, but by 1901 the population was showing signs of stress and had disappeared in some places where they were formerly abundant. In April, the herring come close to shore in countless numbers to spawn and deposit their eggs in the seagrass, rockweed, and on the bushes hanging in the water at high tide. The Tlingit place hemlock twigs at the low-water mark, where they become covered with herring eggs, after which they are gathered in canoe loads. The inlet at Kootznahoo had been a favorite habitat for spawning herring, but by 1901 they were considerably less abundant. At that time, the Tlingit also fished for herring but only during the time they were locally present, and generally, none were cured for winter food. The fish were caught using a long stick or poles with sharp-pointed nails at the end. This pole would be swept through the water with a paddle-like motion, impaling the fish on the nails. At the end of the movement, the pole was brought into the canoe and given a shake which detached the fish. In 1928, the town of Killisnoo was destroyed by fire and although the fish plant was saved, many homes were lost and most of the Tlingit moved to Angoon. In 1940-1942, the reduction fishery was closed due to the low abundance of herring. In June 1942, during World War II, the U.S. Army Transport Delarof arrived at Killisnoo with 85 villagers evacuated from Atka in the Aleutian Islands who would spend the remainder of World War II interned at the abandoned fish plant. The Killisnoo townsite is now a sportfishing lodge. Read more here and here. Explore more of Killisnoo here:

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