Dutch Harbor, Amaknak Island

Dutch Harbor, Amaknak Island

by | Apr 26, 2022

Dutch Harbor is an anchorage and fish processing facility on the east coast of Amaknak Island, bordered by Mount Ballyhoo to the west and a gravel spit to the east that forms the natural harbor, about 33 miles (53 km) southwest of Akutan and 3 miles (5 km) north-northeast of Unalaska, Alaska. Amaknak Island is located in Unalaska Bay on the north coast of Unalaska Island in the Fox Islands group of the Eastern Aleutian Islands. The anchorage was reputedly named Holland Harbor by early Russian explorers because they believed that a Dutch vessel was the first to discover the protected anchorage. Lieutenant Gavril Sarychev of the Imperial Russian Navy, who spent the winter of 1791-92 here, reported the Aleut name for the bay as ‘Udakhta’ which may be from the words ‘uddaq’ and ‘daxtakuqing’ which means ‘bay’ and ‘to rest’ respectively in the local Unangan language. Amaknak Island is situated near the eastern end of the Aleutian Island volcanic arc that separates the abyssal northern Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea. Mount Ballyhoo is the highest peak with a summit elevation of 1,634 feet (498 m). About 70 percent of the island is covered by Tertiary volcanic and sedimentary rocks named the Unalaska Formation. The formation is a thick sequence of coarse and fine sedimentary and pyroclastic rocks intruded by andesitic and basaltic dikes and sills. The sedimentary rocks are derived from eroded volcanics. The thickness of the Unalaska Formation has not been determined, but on the basis of topographic and geologic data, the formation thickness is estimated to be about 16,400 to 32,800 feet (5,000-10,000 m). The spit forming the harbor is comprised of pebbles and sand eroded from the exposed northern base of Mount Ballyhoo and deposited by waves and winds originating from the north in the Bering Sea. The spit sediments are partially stabilized by vegetation and human infrastructure.

The Aleut or Unangan people traditionally inhabited the length of the Aleutian ar­chipelago and have lived on Unalaska Island for thousands of years. Their name for Unalaska is ‘Ounalashka’, meaning ‘near the peninsula’. Genetic and archaeological evidence suggests that the Unangan are derived from a people that migrated across Beringia around 13,000 years ago. The Unangan appear to have differentiated from oth­er Beringian populations more than 6,000 years ago, with their closest relatives being the Siberian and Chukchi Eskimos. In 1759, the Russian fur trade reached Unalaska when Stepan Glotov and his crew arrived on the Julian. In 1762, Glotov left the islands with over a thousand fox pelts in addition to a large cargo of sea otter skins. Importantly, he had also established temporary friendships with two chiefs on Umnak Island and three on Unalaska Island who reputedly agreed to pay tribute to the Russians. Promyshlenniks soon arrived in the Fox Islands, creating notoriety that became the stereotype for all Russian fur hunters being brutal, bestial, selfish, with voracious appetites for women and furs. The original Unangan population thereafter experienced a number of disruptive events. Infectious diseases brought by early explorers and fur traders, as well as warfare with Russians, dec­imated this population. Between 1763 and 1764, approximately 166 promyshlenniks died at the hands of outraged Unangan. The best known of these encounters were those involving Petr Druzhinin and his men aboard the Zakharii i Elisaveta in present-day Captains Bay, a deep and protected harbor on the north coast of Unalaska Island about 6 miles (10 km) southwest of Dutch Harbor. Unangan attacks on the Russians resulted in two Unangan men being killed before all the Russians were annihilated near the small stream where they had hoped to camp for the winter. Unangan stormed the ship and poured flour and other provisions overboard while saving the emptied sacks, wooden boxes, knives, axes, and anything made from iron. Six baidarkas were used to tow the vessel into deeper water where it was destroyed. The fur traders eventually prevailed, and during the subsequent Russian control of the archipelago, some Unangan were relocated to the previously uninhabited Pribilof Is­lands, north of the Aleutians, and to the Commander Islands proximal to the Kamchatkan Peninsula. Later, during World War II, the inhabitants of Attu were taken to Japan, and the U.S. government further disrupted island communities by evacuating all Aleuts to Southeast Alaska. Today, the Unangan reside mainly in the eastern Aleutians, the Pribilofs, the Alaskan mainland, as well as Bering Island in the Commander Islands, Russia.

In 1912, the U.S. Navy installed a radio station at Dutch Harbor. In 1940, construction began on an army base, a naval air station, and a submarine base. The army mission was to defend the naval air station. Dutch Harbor has an excellent anchorage, but there is little level land on Amaknak Island. The naval air station, therefore, was initially designed for seaplanes and PBY Catalina flying boats. The navy also built a small landing strip equipped with a catapult and arresting gear similar to an aircraft carrier. Eventually, a short runway was blasted out of the rock at the foot of Mount Ballyhoo for fighter aircraft. The navy facility was called the Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base. The army base was formally named Fort Mears in honor of Colonel Frederick Mears, a member of the original Alaskan Engineering Commission that built the Alaska Railroad. On June 3, 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Dutch Harbor in the first aerial attack on the continental United States during the Pacific theater of World War II. 20 Japanese planes from two aircraft carriers of the Imperial Japanese Navy bombed Dutch Harbor targeting the radio station and the petroleum storage tanks. 43 Americans and at least 10 Japanese died during the attacks, which lasted for two days. The base remained an important part of coastal defenses for the remainder of World War II. Shortly after the end of World War II, the U.S. military abandoned its Dutch Harbor outposts. For decades, the buildings remained standing but generally abandoned. Beginning in the 1950s, Dutch Harbor became a center of the Alaskan king crab fishing industry and by 1978 it was the largest fishing port in the U.S.. Many of the military buildings were used as warehouses, bunkhouses, and family homes. In 1982, the king crab population crashed and the industry was decimated, but by the mid-1980s a transition to bottom fishing for pollock led to relative economic stability. In the late 1980s, the U.S. government funded the cleanup of the derelict fort and the area was turned over for commercial use. Read more here and here. Explore more of Dutch Harbor here:

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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. 

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