- Historic Sites
Sixty-eight years before Mount St. Helens blew, Alaska’s Mount Katmai erupted—and nearly brought on a second ice age
October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
Closer to the site of the eruption but partially protected from its effect by a range of mountains were a small group of native fishermen at a summer camp 30 miles from Mount Katmai. On June 9 one of them wrote a despairing letter to his wife. “A mountain has burst near here, so that we are covered with ashes, in some places 10 feet and 6 feet deep. All this began on the 6th of June. Night and day we light lamps. We cannot see the daylight. In a word it is terrible, and we are expecting death at any moment, and we have no water. All the rivers are covered with ashes. Just ashes mixed with water. Here are darkness and hell, thunder and noise. I do not know whether it is day or night.… The earth is trembling; it lightens every minute. It is terrible. We are praying.”
Although the explosions were heard as far south as Ketchikan, 900 miles away, the outside world was slow to realize the magnitude of the eruption. It was not until the lives and property of the people in the city of Kodiak, 100 miles to the west of Mount Katmai, were threatened that authorities began to understand that a volcanic eruption without precedent in North America was in progress.
A range of mountains to the east obstructed the view of the mainland and blocked all signs of the explosions, and so the five hundred inhabitants of Kodiak had no warning of what to expect. The island had been rocked by severe earthquakes, but jolts of that kind were common in the area and no notice was taken of them. June 6 dawned fair and clear with a strong breeze from the northeast. About 5:00 P.M. a peculiar dark cloud appeared on the horizon and began to move toward the town, a cloud unlike any the townspeople had ever seen before, shapeless, grit textured, and expanding. A few moments later the first ashes fell, large gray flakes like dirty snow. At first the people treated them as a great curiosity, carefully collecting samples as souvenirs.
But the ash fall increased with frightening rapidity and by 6:00 P.M. it was so thick that people had trouble discerning the shapes of buildings more than a dozen yards away. By 6:30 the last vestiges of daylight disappeared and total darkness settled over the countryside—this at a season of nearly twenty-four-hour daylight. The air grew thick and almost impossible to breathe. Thunder and lightning rumbled and flashed.
The rain of ashes continued throughout the night, and by early morning 5 inches had accumulated. At 9:10 A.M. the ashes ceased falling, and the townspeople believed their ordeal was over. They had no idea what had happened. The wireless station had burned down after being struck by lightning, and the static in the air rendered useless the wireless on board the U.S. revenue cutter Manning, which had docked to take on coal at the time of the eruption.
At noon on June 7 the ashes began to fall once more, and by midafternoon the cloud of dust was so thick that it became impossible to see a lantern held at arm’s length. Sulfurous fumes filled the air, and the rumble of avalanches of ashes down distant mountain slopes could be heard. The confidence that had carried the townspeople through the first stage of their ordeal now broke. Many spoke of the destruction of Pompeii. Some panicked. Others, lost in the darkness, gave up and lay down in the ashes.
Hildred Erskine, one of the town’s schoolteachers, said: “The ash was falling so heavily that our greatest anxiety was whether we should be able to get another breath. The gases were nauseating and to add to our terror, earthquake shock became almost continuous. The terrible bombardment grew louder and louder; and the ash sifted through cracks around the windows and doors. … We were sure our time had come.”
The next morning the town’s doctor brought Hildred and her cousin to the Manning . “We tied dampened cheese-cloth over our faces, but the ash penetrated several thicknesses of the material. We followed fences and ditches and somehow reached our destination. The officers of the Manning turned on the searchlight, but the ash was so dense that even its powerful light gave no aid.”
Conditions worsened, and it was decided to evacuate the island. Many crowded on board the Manning ; others had to go aboard the barge St. James , which was towed by the tug Printer. In midmorning on the eighth of June the Manning , followed by the Printer , pulled away from the dock and headed out the narrow channel toward the open sea, leaving behind a broken settlement of crushed roofs, ash-flooded houses, and massive drifts of dust.
On board the Manning Hildred Erskine noticed that “the men who had shoveled ash from the decks were worn out and their eyes were in a pitiful condition; the ash had penetrated the bandages they wore over their eyes and had painfully cut their eyeballs. A little native woman, ill with tuberculosis … somehow found her way to the ship, but died very shortly. …”