George Islands, Cross Sound

George Islands, Cross Sound

by | Mar 24, 2022

George Island is the largest of the George Islands located at the entrance to Port Althorp, between the Inian and Althorp Peninsulas on northern Chichagof Island and on the southern coast of Cross Sound, about 28 miles (45 km) north-northwest of Sitka and 28 miles (45 km) southwest of Gustavus, Alaska. Chichagof Island was named by Yuri Lisianski in 1805 for Admiral Vasily Chichagof. Cross Sound is a large passage that links to Icy Strait and connects the northern waters of the Alexander Archipelago to the open sea. Secondary inlets join this waterway from the north and south. At its western margin, Cross Sound broadens out into a complex of small fjords and offshore islets that face the open sea. Cross Sound was named because of its proximity to Cape Cross, which in turn, was named for a mark on the chart used by Captain James Cook to indicate the position of HMS Resolution on May 3, 1778. Captain George Vancouver in 1794 with the ships HMS Discovery and HMS Chatham entered Cross Sound on returning from Prince William Sound. He spent three weeks mapping Port Althorp and some of Cross Sound. Meanwhile, three of his small boats under the leadership of Lieutenant Joseph Whidbey explored Icy Strait and Lynn Canal. On one of his maps, Vancouver showed Chichagof and Baranof Islands as King George III Archipelago. In 1880, George Island was named by William Healey Dall of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. In 1948, some of the geologic features exposed along the shores of Port Althorp, the George Islands, and the Inian Islands were examined in detail for potential ore deposits. The western part of George Island is predominantly Jurassic schist and schistose greenstone including chert and limestone. The eastern portion of George Island consists of a Late Jurrasic and Early Cretaceous pluton that may be part of the Chitina Valley Batholith composed predominantly of quartz monzodiorite and diorite. Cross Sound is one of the most glacially dynamic parts of Southeast Alaska which was repeatedly overrun during the late Pleistocene by part of the Cordilleran ice sheet complex that largely shaped the topography and bathymetry of present-day Cross Sound and the fjords of Chichagof Island.

Chichagof Island was one of the last of the large islands in southeastern Alaska to be settled by Euro-Americans, and little is known of the history of the area before 1800. The Sheet’ká Kwáan were a clan of the Tlingit people that inhabited the western half of Baranof Island and most of Chichagof Island. The archaeological record indicates a reliance on fish and shellfish for food. Starting over 3,000 years ago, the Sheet’ká Kwáan began using fishing weirs to catch salmon.  With the onset of summer, members of the same house groups moved from their winter villages to fishing camps. The camps sat at various salmon streams that were the traditional territory of a house group. There they caught and cured salmon and gathered a wide variety of berries and other plants as they became available. Several techniques were used to catch salmon in rivers and offshore including trolling with a hook and line, trapping with basket-style fish traps, and using gaffs, spears, and stone or wood stake weirs. They stayed in summer encampments until the fall when the salmon stopped spawning. When the people returned to the winter villages, they continued harvesting plants and hunting for bears, mountain goats, and deer. The wealth of the summer and fall harvests made winter an ideal season for holding the traditional potlatch. Winter villages were situated at large long-term occupation sites with well-maintained storage facilities. Highly structured food storage practices created a stable food supply within family groups, as well as an elaborate system of social storage based on ritual inter-tribal exchange events, such as potlatches. In June 1741, an Imperial Russian expedition entered the Sheet’ká Kwáan territory. The Spanish followed in 1775, beginning with Bruno de Hezeta and Bodega y Quadra, and then the British Captain James Cook came in 1778. American traders followed shortly after in 1785, and the French headed by La Perouse passed through a year later. By 1790, a competitive international maritime fur trade had begun to develop and the Sheet’ká Kwáan were introduced to firearms, blankets, and other commodities in exchange for furs. Eager to monopolize the fur trade, the Russians formed the Russian-American Company in 1799, and in 1804 they established the company headquarters in Sitka. In 1867, the Alaska Purchase transferred the territory from Russia to the United States. In 1905, a rich gold-bearing vein was discovered on Chichagof Island, and the mining town of Chichagof was founded soon after. A salmon cannery was built at Port Althorp and another at Pelican. At some point during this time, a fox farm was operated on George Island. In 1926, the island was photographed from the air by the U.S. Navy Department.

In 1930, the only significant military presence in Alaska consisted of a garrison of Army troops at Fort Seward near Haines. As Japan gained ambition to become an imperial power, American military planners recognized the urgency to activate the plans for a potential war in the Pacific. In 1937, Sitka’s coaling station became home to a U.S. Navy seaplane base. In December 1938, the Naval planning board endorsed the construction of three full Naval Air Stations in Alaska at Sitka, Kodiak, and Dutch Harbor and six dispersed air bases for each station. The dispersed bases for Naval Air Station Sitka included Annette Island, Port Armstrong, Port Althorp, Yakutat, Cordova, and Ketchikan. The dispersed bases had as few as 50 men at Port Armstrong and as many as 110 men at Port Althorp. Most of the bases appropriated pre-existing civilian structures, such as P.E. Harris & Company salmon cannery at Port Althorp, as part of the emergency establishment of defenses in Alaska. The U.S. Navy found George Island to be the preferred site for a defensive gun that would protect the northern entrance to the Inside Passage, the U.S. Army airfield at Gustavus, and the logistical base at Excursion Inlet. In April 1942, construction began on George Island but transportation and equipment failures became an increasingly frustrating problem, but by September, a fifty-caliber 6-inch steel gun, weighing 18 tons, was operational. The gun was fired only four times for target practice between 1942 and 1944. The gun battery on George Island was one of many military facilities built along the Alaska coast from Ketchikan to the Aleutian Islands and many of these facilities were simply abandoned after the war. The gun on George Island remained until 2010 when the U.S. Forest Service recognized the historic significance of the old military facility and reconstructed the graveled roadway leading from a beach landing in Granite Cove to the gun emplacement and a metal storage Quonset hut. Small cruise ships now bring visitors to the island to hike the trail. A weather station operated by the Marine Exchange of Alaska is located in the George Islands and can be accessed here. Read more here and here. Explore more of George Island and Cross Sound here:

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About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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