Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 4:07 PM on Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Harbor anchors Homer's history

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer

(Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of stories about the importance of Homer's harbor and the marine trades to the economy of Homer.)


Courtesy of Janet Klein

This photo, used by author Janet Klein in her book "Kachemak Bay Communities — Their HIstory, Their Mysteries," indicates this view of Homer would have greeted anyone in 1901. The boardwalk, train rails, activity activity and sacks which are probably full of coal suggest a permanent community. However, Klein says, Homer was abandoned in 1902 and only a caretaker lived there in 1907.

Whether you come over the top of Baycrest Hill, fly in from another Alaska airport and get a bird's-eye view or float in on a rolling wave, there's no denying Homer's close connection with the sea.

Nowhere is that connection more evident than at the harbor, which serves activities involving fishing, science, education, tourism, recreation, transportation, shipping, law enforcement, homeland security and so much more.

"If you ask the question why do you build a harbor, you can answer it by reviewing the people that use it," said Homer Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins. "Building this harbor created this community."

Homer historian and author Janet Klein's history of the harbor begins around 1900.

"Boats dropped anchor off the eastern tip of the Spit. They called it an actual deep water anchorage," said Klein.

Thirty years earlier, a military transport, the Torrent, visited the area. Aboard were the first troops sent to Alaska after the U.S. purchased the territory from Russia. Their assignment was to establish a presence at "Fort Kenay," according to archaeologist Dave McMahan. Mistaking the Spit for Kenay, officers determined the site unsuitable. As the ship headed for more favorable settings at either Port Graham and Nanwalek, it struck Bird Reef and sank in July 1868.

In the late 1800s, coal mining companies arrived and began developing operations. At Klein pointed out, the water on the Spit's east side offered deep-water anchorage for arriving vessels. In August and September 1882, Albert Lasey conducted a survey of the Spit, illustrating the location of cabins, stores and coal storage bunkers.

Homer Pennock arrived in 1896 as a crew manager with the Alaska Gold Mining Company. Pennock moved on, searching for Klondike gold, but his name Homer stayed behind.

When the Edward Henry Harriman expedition sailed into Kachemak Bay in 1899, no dock existed, as is seen in a Smithsonian archives photo.

In "Homer Docks," Steve Ledger, May 1973, Ledger says the first boats arriving in Homer used Beluga Slough as a harbor.

"It was quite a bit deeper then," he wrote. "A 40- to 50-foot boat could come into Beluga without going around when the tide went out."

Near the turn of the century, a dock was constructed on the end of the spit.

"It was built because of the coal that was being mined along the beaches. They had a small railroad that ran out to the end of the dock on the Spit for loading coal," Ledger wrote.

Indeed, a dock is evident in a 1901 photo from Klein's collection. Within the photo's frame are what Klein suggests may be sacks of coal. The dock is crisscrossed by rail tracks for coal-carrying trains. In the background are buildings constructed since the Harriman photo.

The Cook Inlet Coal Fields Company abandoned Homer in 1902, with only caretaker Stephen Penberthy on site. An account of a 1905 visit to Homer written by Ella Higginson and included in Klein's book, "Kachemak Bay Communities -- Their Histories, Their Mysteries," noted landing at a "good wharf."

Although Ledger says a 1925 fire destroyed the dock and several buildings, when archaeologist Frederica de Laguna came to the area in 1931, the abandoned dock and buildings can be seen in a photograph dated Sept. 21 of that year.


Photo used courtesy of Janet Kle

This view of Homer greeted archaeologist Frederica de Laguna when she visited Homer in Sept. 21, 1931.

The coal company may have closed its activities on the Spit, but the area had more to offer than coal, and people continued settling on the Kenai Peninsula. In "A Small History of the Western Kenai," the late Arlene Kranich recalls arriving in "the Shangri La of Alaska," as Homer was described in a Seward newspaper. Writing in 1976 and looking back over her years here, Kranich described how fishing became "the backbone of Homer economy," and the boat-building businesses that sprang up as a result.

In 1938, as head of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Kranich's husband, Bob, identified Homer's need for a dock.


Courtesy of the Pratt Museum Pho

Boat alongside dock from the Slavin Collection, c. 1925.

"The dock was a big project, as the CCC set up camps across the bay to cut the piling and to fasten them to booms to be brought to the end of the Spit," Kranich wrote.

The Homer Civic League helped pay for the project, each member contributing $25 to buy chains, spikes, decking and other supplies. Donations from the Homer Women's Club allowed for construction of a warehouse on the dock.

"By fall we had a completed dock and steamers began coming in," wrote Kranich. "That ended the era of small boats shuttling freight from Seldovia, and freight handling on the beach front."

Ledger describes the dock as being 180 feet long and 60 feet across its face.

When a fire destroyed the dock, Kranich says Tom Shelford used his fishing boat to bring mail and other supplies to Homer for Seldovia. The date of that fire is not noted.

Ledger reports another dock being built in 1944, but correspondence dated 1945 and 1946 in the Pratt Museum's Kranich collection describes how the Homer Civic League's effort to "excavate a small boat harbor on the end of the Homer Spit" and a dock was gathering momentum.

"In 1947, the territory granted Homer $30,000 and $12,000 from the Territorial Board of Road Commission to build a dock," according to Ledger.

The Public Utilities District was formed June 24, 1948, to oversee the project and "in five to six months the dock was finished," said Ledger. The Alaska Steamship Company's Denali was the first ship to use the 225-foot dock on June 18.

The 1964 earthquake, with its 9.2 magnitude, severely changed the Spit, destroying the dock and harbor. Roger Waller's "Effects of the Earthquake of March 27, 1964, In the Homer Area, Alaska," a Geological Survey professional paper, notes that within a span of about three minutes, the Spit dropped from two to six feet. First hand accounts of that event can be read in ""Where Were You? Alaska 64 Earthquake."

"The pilings in the harbor were like wet spaghetti... When things stopped shaking it was real quiet and the water was still running out of the harbor like gang busters," recalled Jack Estill. "Avery Sewell came zooming up in his little red military Jeep and I said, 'Come on Avery, boats are getting way." 'And he said '#X@ those boats, let's get the hell off this Spit before the tidal wave hits.'"

To help Homer's recovery efforts, the Office of Emergency Planning authorized projects totaling $1.5 million, with the replacement of the dock receiving $195,000 and construction of a $964,200 small boat harbor that more than doubled the pre-earthquake harbor.

Harbormaster Hawkins points to 1964 -- the year Homer became a first class municipality and received federal funding to rebuild after the earthquake -- as the start of the harbor as it is today.

Improvements in the 1980s included construction of the fish dock and ice plant, addition of public restrooms and expansion of the harbormaster's office. The harbor also was expanded, a five-lane load-and-launch ramp was constructed and more ramps and floats were added, as well as a system to help handle large vessels and the installation of high-mast lights.

Construction in the 1990s brought the Deep Water Dock and the wood chip pad and conveyor belt to help harvest the peninsula's spruce bark beetle-killed trees. The Pioneer Dock was added in 2003.

As 2011 came to a close, after more than a century of development, Homer Harbor received the state's first Alaska Clean Harbor award through voluntary participation in a pollution prevention program.

"My, my, how we have come along," said Hawkins.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.