Dillingham, Nushagak River

Dillingham, Nushagak River

by | May 3, 2022

Dillingham is a community on the south side of Snag Point at the confluence of the Wood and Nushagak Rivers, at the head of Nushagak Bay on the north coast of Bristol Bay, about 248 miles (400 km) west-southwest of Homer and 166 miles (270 km) southeast of Bethel, Alaska. The village of Dillingham was originally located 4 miles (6 km) downstream and southwest of Snag Point at a site occupied by a Yup’ik village known as Kanakanak. A courthouse was built in Kanakanak in 1903 and named after U.S. Senator William Paul Dillingham of Vermont, whose Senate subcommittee investigated conditions in Alaska following the 1898 gold rush. The post office and community later adopted the name of Dillingham. In 1944, the name ‘Dillingham’ was transferred to the current site at Snag Point and the old village was renamed ‘Nelsonville’, but today has reverted to ‘Kanakanak’. This area of southwestern Alaska is characterized by heavily vegetated rolling hills which show evidence of extensive glacial advances from the Alaska Range to the east and the Ahklun Mountains to the west from Pleistocene and Holocene glaciations. Glacial deposits extend south to the Nushagak River and underlie Dillingham at Snag Point. These sedimentary deposits include end, lateral, and ground moraine from the Okstukuk glaciation of the Last Glacial Maximum. During the late Wisconsin period, the Aleknagik and Okstukuk glaciers advanced eastward from the Ahklun Mountains which are also known as the Wood River Mountains. These glaciers carved deep, fjord-like glacial lakes and left extensive morainal and outwash deposits. In part, these glacial deposits rim and form the dams that contain the spectacular finger lakes of the Togiak-Tikchik and Wood River in present-day Wood-Tikchik State Park. The name of the park refers to two different lake systems. The southern Wood River lake system consists of an interconnected series of lakes forming a water trail of over 85 miles (137 km) that eventually connects to the Wood River, which flows generally south to Snag Point. The more northern Tikchik Lake system is also an interconnected series of lakes drained by the Nuyakuk River, a tributary of the Nushagak River. The lakes of these two systems are large and deep, ranging from 15 to 45 miles (24-72 km) long and maximum depths of 342 to 940 feet (104-287 m).

The Nushagak River region historically was occupied by Yup’ik speakers of the Western Eskimo dialect spoken in all the villages along the Alaskan coast from Nome to the north and Bristol Bay to the south. The Yup’ik settlement of the Nushagak River system took place at some unknown time during the prehistoric period when the people presumably moved inland from the Bering Sea coast and already possessed a well-developed salmon fishing technology and were able to exploit the Nushagak River and its tributaries where these fish are abundant. The Nushagak River Yup’ik have the ethnic name of Kiatagmiut. This sub-group numbered about 1900 people and occupied the entire Nushagak River, the lower Mulchatna River, and the area to the west possibly as far as and including the Wood River Lakes and Tikchik Lakes. It is probable that no more than 500 people lived around the shores of Nushagak Bay. Ethnohistoric sources indicate that the 19th-century Kiatagmiut spent the winter months in permanent villages along the Nushagak River and in the spring moved to temporary camps along streams or lakes in the mountainous country of the interior. There they engaged in hunting and trapping, returning to the river in early summer to fish for salmon. In the latter part of the summer when the fish runs were nearly over the men alone moved to the interior leaving the women to watch over the full fish caches. Interior hunting and trapping continued until the first snowfall in October at which time the men would return once more to the winter villages. In 1778, Captain James Cook was the first to chart the Bristol Bay region but he did not venture into Nushagak Bay. In 1818, a party of Russian-American Company employees was sent from Kodiak Island to explore the territory north of Bristol Bay. During these explorations, a trading post called Aleksandrovski Redoubt was established at the mouth of the Nushagak River. The explorations of Bristol Bay and the Nushagak River by Mikhail Vasilyev and other company employees, together with the founding of Aleksandrovski Redoubt, later to be called Nushagak by Euro-Americans, were responsible for opening the interior regions of southwestern Alaska to the fur trade. In 1841, the first Russian Orthodox church north of the Alaska Peninsula was established at Aleksandrovski Redoubt and missionaries began to penetrate the Nushagak River country. In 1867, the Alaska Purchase transferred the territory from Russia to the United States. The assets of the Russian-American Company were purchased by Hutchinson, Kohl & Company of San Francisco. This firm was soon reorganized to form the Alaska Commercial Company which continued to maintain the post at Nushagak and dominated trade in southwestern Alaska well into the 20th century.

The earliest fishing in Nushagak Bay by Euro-Americans was for salting purposes, but it was the invention of the mechanized salmon canning process combined with fish traps that provided a means by which remote salmon runs could be more fully utilized and be made profitable. In 1883, the Arctic Packing Company built the first cannery in Bristol Bay, and by 1903, a total of ten canneries had been built along Nushagak Bay. In the beginning, most of the fishing was done by Euro-Americans while a cannery workforce was provided by imported Chinese laborers. Large numbers of Yup’ik were attracted to Nushagak Bay during the fishing seasons, however, and gradually some were able to obtain employment in the canneries in spite of considerable prejudice against them. Most of these canneries were closed for a variety of reasons, including coastal erosion, siltation, industry consolidation, and production shifting to frozen salmon. In 1901, the Alaska-Portland Packers Association built a cannery near Snag Point. This cannery burned down in 1910 and was rebuilt the following year. It was acquired by Pacific American Fisheries in 1929. The prohibition of fish traps in Alaskan waters in 1956 signified an end to Pacific American Fisheries when the company was unable to absorb the increased cost associated with a purse seine and gillnet fishery. In 1965, the company was sold to Peter Pan Seafoods, a company started in 1917 by P.E. Harris and sold to Nick Bez in 1950. In 1962, P.E. Harris & Co. was changed to Peter Pan Seafoods, Inc. by the marketing department, using the Peter Pan name owned by P.E. Harris and historically used for a popular brand of canned salmon. In 1975, Bristol Bay Native Corporation purchased Peter Pan Seafoods, and in 1979 the company was sold to Nichiro Gyogyo Kaisha, Ltd. which merged with Maruha Corporation in 2007 creating the largest seafood company in the world. In 2021, Maruha Nichiro announced the sale of Peter Pan Seafoods to American buyers which continues to operate the Dillingham facility. Present-day industries in and around Dillingham are commercial salmon and herring fishing, seafood processing, sport fishing, government-related jobs, and tourism. Read more here and here. Explore more of Dillingham and Nushagak River 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. 

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

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