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Radio Station Operations in Kodiak, Alaska in 1924-1925

Personal Recollections of Harold B. Phelps, Lt. USN (ret)

USN Radioman "Skinny" Phelps in 1926
USN Lt. Harold B. "Bart" Phelps (Ret.) in 1973

My grandfather Harold Bartle Phelps served in both World Wars as a telegrapher and radioman. He spent WWI in Honolulu and WWII at various posts across the Pacific, including Hawaii, Alaska, San Francisco, the Phillipines, and Bremerton, Washington.

Lt. Bart Phelps and his wife Betty were first sent to Ketchikan, Alaska, but the Army took over that radio station. He was then transferred to Woody Island in Chiniak Bay near Kodiak, where they arrived in Oct 17, 1924.

The U.S. Navy built a wireless station on Woody Island in 1911. When my grandparents arrived in 1924, the population of Woody Island was 104.

Bart spent a year as a Radioman on the station. Their son, my father Harold B. Phelps, Jr., was born there just before they left. On February 28, 1931, the wireless station was decommissioned. Here is Bart's story about his year on Woody Island.


THE URGE to see something of Alaska came over me at an early age after reading dozen of stories by Jack London, Rex Beach, Robert W. Service and many others. I wasn't quite dry behind the ears so I put that idea in the "Awaiting Action" file for a few years.

In 1910 [at age 17] I learned to telegraph and in 1913 I was telegraphing for the Santa Fe R.R. in Winslow, Arizona. After spending the summer of '14 working nights and trying to sleep days I wasn't about to try another summer in Arizona. I took leave of absence and beat to Los Angeles and inquired around about telegraph jobs in Alaska, It didn't take me long to find that the Army and Navy had such business almost sewed up.

That left me right in the middle of a quandary. What to do? Would it be the Army at $21.00 and a horse blanket or the Navy at $17.60 and a hammock? I was making $90 a month [$2,312 in 2020] with the Santa Fe and that was good money. I sure felt foolish taking that much of a cut in pay. I said to myself: "Now or never." I scouted around for more information on Alaska telegraph jobs and finally found an old signal corps man who had spent some time up there and he gave me a good line-up on the whole deal, same good jobs, some not so good and many of the jobs way out in the boondocks where the man were responsible for maintaining the line on either side of their station half the distance to the next station. Also that in the summer when making repairs they had to wade through swamps and hordes of mosquitos and in winter they waded through snow hip high on a tall Indian and he said Alaskan winters could be real rugged at times.

I could feel my Pioneering blood begin to curdle and that Navy hassock looked better all the time. He also told me that even if I could talk the [Army] signal corps into sending me to Alaska I would still be a big recruit and would certainly end up out in the boondocks at first. That decided me and I went to the the Navy recruiting station to see if I could pass the physical before resigning from the Santa Fe. I passed and found out later that if a fellow could walk into an Army or Navy recruiting station and possessed the necessary appurtenances such as one head with built-in ears, two arms and legs and was slightly warm, he was in the service right now, any name and any age the kid gave was taken as gospel just walk in and be breathing.

Ketchikan, Alaska in 1915.
Radio equipment from the 1920s.

On November 4, 1914, I signed on the dotted line as a "Landsman for Electrician (Radio)" which meant that I would go right to a radio school and didn't have to go through boot camp. All boot camps were quite rugged up until WWI. It took me almost ten years to get anywhere near Alaska. Almost made it to Seward in 1919 but ended up in Honolulu instead. My girl friend came out from San Francisco and we were married April 6, 1920.

Another five years went by quickly and I managed to wrangle a job at Ketchikan where we arrived on June 30, 1924 on the Alaska Steamship Co. SS Yukon. When we steamed in sight of Ketchikan that beautiful morning, I said to Betty: "Eureka. This is the place I have been looking for these many years." It looked like a good sized town and the houses peeping out from the trees on the hill back of town made it a beautiful sight. I could see the radio towers not too far north of town, an old Marconi station taken over by the Navy in WWI and just a nice walk to town. This would be all mine for the next two years and we decided it would be an ideal place to start our family. My crystal ball must have been a trifle murky as I couldn't foresee how soon my bubble would burst.

The salmon were running heavy that summer and the independent fish boats came in with full loads but the cannery traps were also overflowing and the canneries told the independents that they had more fish then they could handle but as they always tried to treat the boys right they would give them $10 a thousand for their fish. I believe $20 a thousand was the going price at the cannery docks. The fishermen blew their tops and said they would dump the fish before they sold at that price. And that's what they did! Thousands of salmon went over the side and the tide deposited them in a neat three to four feet swath of fish which lined the beach north of town for quite same distance. A few warm days and the fish were ripening nicely. A smelly job getting to town along the road. Fortunately a higher tide came along and almost cleared the beach of all fish. In retaliation the independents hit the traps hard and fast. Piracy was in the saddle, a few trap watchmen were shot, same killed outright and others trussed up and left to be found when the cannery tenders came to bail out the trap. And the canneries got their $10 fish.

The latter part of July we had almost finished cleaning up the whole station and we were all set to stay indoors during the winter rains which, I had heard, could be quite heavy. We received a message from the Navy yard Bremerton, Washington: "Take a complete inventory of all government property an the station and prepare to turn the station over to the Army." A large crack developed in my bubble but the Navy had tried to unload some of their stations before and nothing and case of it so we bided our time and hoped for the best.

USS Swallow
USS Swallow, a U.S. Navy Lapwing-class minesweeper.
SS Northwestern
SS Northwestern in Wrangel Narrows, Alaska Steamship Co
SS Northwestern
SS Starr, Alaska Steamship Co

Our luck ran out the middle a September when an Army Captain came through Ketchikan and stayed over long enough to take over the station for WAMCAT. Some of the crew were ordered back to the states, others to Cordova, and I was headed for Kodiak, but I had to wait for the return of the USS Swallow from the westward to pick up the equipment that the Army didn't want. The Swallow arrived on September 30th and, luckily, the SS Northwestern, headed north, came in that evening and we boarded her about midnight for Seward. She was a venerable old lady and crossing the gulf in heavy weather the creaks and groans that came from her carcass were terrific. Not much sleep that night.

On arrival at Seward we went immediately to the SS Redondo on which we had passage to Kodiak. The Redondo was one half of a Great Lakes freighter. The SS Nabeena was the other half and neither of them had been built for comfort as both of them were used only as feeders in the Seward area for the Alaska SS Co.

I asked the Purser when the Redondo would depart for Kodiak and when it was expected to arrive there. The Purser said, "I don't know." I said, "Come, come, my good man, surely you have an idea anyway." He denied having any knowledge of the ship's movements. Just then the Chief Engineer came it. I asked him. The Chief laughed and said, "That's right, he doesn't know. I don't know and I doubt if the Good Lord above knows." The Purser man looking out the fort and said, "Come here, young fellow. Take a look at that little white tub over there. That is the Starr. She isn't very large but it's a good seaworthy boat and has been running to the eastward for quite a few years. You will also hear that Capt. Johannsen is crazy as a loon but don't you believe it. Capt. Johannsen is a very capable skipper and an able sailorman in these waters, so why don't you take my last bit of advice and go over to the Starr end engage passage to Kodiak, pay your own way and tear up this ticket. For your wife's sake you are interested in getting to Kodiak as quickly as possible and, come hell or high water, Johannsen will get you there in eighteen hours. You will also hear that Johannsen is a trifle reckless, don't you believe that either, he is a good man at sea anywhere," The Chief said, "No truer words were ever spoken."

It's Taps For U.S. Telegraph

July 13, 1999

It's finally taps for U.S. ship-to-shore telegraph, drowned out by the high-speed chattering of satellite communications, high frequency radios and e-mail. (more)

Bart Phelps enroute to Cordova
Bart Phelps aboard ship enroute to Cordova, Alaska in 1924. He was a telegraph operator for the U.S. Navy at Woody Island near Kodiak, Alaska.

They were nice fellows even if they didn't know anything about the ship, so I told them they had me over a barrel sunnyside up and I would have to believe them but that I would leave it up to the wife. The Purser said, "I know you don't care what kind of a tub you ride on but this is a hell of a ship for any woman to have to go anywhere on. You had better take the Starr." I went topside and told Betty about it and she looked at the Starr and said, "I don't know but the Starr looks awfully small from here and I think we better stay on here." I went back and told the Purser that we would stay on the Redondo. He said, "OK and I hope you don't regret it but, remember you may never get to Kodiak on this ship." I then asked him if he could give us a sailing time and he said, "Right at this moment we are due to sail at 9 AM tomorrow, but you had better check back later tonight in case it changes."

We went out to the radio station where we had friends and that evening someone said, "You better check on that Redondo. They have a habit of leaving without any passengers aboard." I told them I had been forewarned by the Purser. We got a room at the hotel so Betty could get a decent night's sleep and about 10pm I went to the Redondo and the Purser said, "It's a good thing you checked back as we are leaving at 2 AM. Later I got Betty out of the hotel and we boarded the ship. When did we sail? At 9am of course.

When we get up in the morning Betty turned on the water in the wash bowl and felt something splashing at her feet. I looked underneath and there was no piping from the bowl to the drain lines. From then on I wouldn't nave been surprised at anything that happened on the Redondo.

All went smoothly and we stopped at a Seldovia saltery than up to Halibut Cove, back to Homer and headed for Anchorage. When we tied up at the dock the gangway was at about a 45 degree angle from the ship down to the dock. We went uptown and looked the place over and went to a movie to pass the time. We returned to the dock early, fearing that if they had completed their business early they would probably have left right then. Going down to the dock, we couldn't see a sign of the ship and I just knew they had left without us. Over alongside the shore was the SS Watson tied up to a couple of tree stumps or piles of wood and not a drop of water within a hundred feet of her keel. A cheap dry-docking for clearing strainers and inspection of the bottom. A little further down the dock we could see the Redondo's crow's nest sticking up over the end of the dock and the gangway was now at a 45 degree angle from the dock down to the ship. Then I learned that they had a 39 foot tide there.

1941 Woody Island
Woody Island, Alaska in 1941, looking inland towards the Navy Base from the Pier. Courtesy Kodiak Alaska Military History.
1926 Kodiak Alaska
Harold Bartle Phelps Jr. in Kodiak, Alaska in 1926 watching the chickens.
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Woody Island Wireless Naval Station in 1915. From a post card owned by Trish Hampton, and courtesy Kodiak Alaska Military History. Larger image.
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Wilbur Julian Erskine was first an employee of the Alaska Commercial Company and later owner of a business that supplied and outfitted ships, settlers, and communities throughout Alaska. His home in Kodiak is now a National Historic Landmark. It is the oldest building in Alaska and dates back to the Russian presence.

The Redondo departed late that afternoon and before we reached the lower end of Cook's Inlet, it started to blow and a real williva developed and the Skipper found he was making no headway so he ducked into some lee around Cape Elizabeth and waited for the weather to abate. The next morning found us underway, and I looked out the port and told Betty we should be in Kodiak Bay pretty soon, I see rocks out there. A beautiful day, glassy sea and I was enjoying the scenery. If I had thought about it, those rocks were on the port side and we couldn't be heading west. But just then the waiter stuck his head in the port and said, "We will be in Seward at 11 AM." I said, "Hey, you mean Kodiak, don't you?" He Just pointed off the port bow and there was Seward. Five days gone and back where we started!

We went out to the radio station again and found the Lieut. in Charge of the Naval Communications Service, Alaska, headquartered at Cordova, who was going to Kodiak for a bear hunt with O. D. Mitchell, Chief in Charge of the radio station. The LT. was greatly surprised and disappointed that I wasn't in Kodiak becoming oriented on the station before the hunt. I told him that he couldn't be more disappointed than I was as it wasn't pleasant floating around for five days on that old tub.

On the second go round we picked up a Scotsman who owned a few salteries around that area. One morning at breakfast this Scotsman picked up his napkin. When he smoothed it out on lap his hand came in contact with a mess of a couple of soft boiled eggs on the napkin. He cursed loud and clear. He called the waiter and cursed him loudly and clearly. "What in blazes do you mean giving me such a napkin?" The waiter didn't bat an eye said, "Well sir, they only give us one table cloth and one set of napkins for each trip." The waiter couldn't have helped seeing the mess when he folded the napkins. I dare say he had been given a bad time by that Scotsman on some previous trip and gave him the napkin deliberately.

We finally reached Kukak Bay. It began to look like we would see Kodiak this trip, which we did on October 17, 1924. It had taken as over ten days to make 185 miles from Seward. It was all over now and we could laugh about it but it was something we wouldn't forget.

Kodiak was quite a peaceful little fishing village and we liked the looks of it. We were anxious to see what we had drawn for the balance of my two year tour of duty in Alaska, and was I surprised when Mitchell met us and took us down to the Navy motor launch and we went to Woody Island about two miles from town. We had to crawl up a 10 to 12 foot ladder at low tide. I could see this might present some difficulties for the women to get from boat to dock in rough weather. The motor launch had been housed over as it had to lay about a hundred feet from the dock. It was a sturdy 24 fact boat and survived all the weather quite well.

Woody Island didn't look too bad after we found we had comfortable quarters, hot and cold running water, even indoor plumbing, not a Chic Sale [outhouse] in sight. But when I looked in the power house I was somewhat bewildered. What in the devil would I do with all the engines, batteries and power tools, which I had never seen before. My only previous experience with gas engines had been to crank an auto several times. I had doubts about coping with the situation especially after Mitchell told me that the engines were all rather ancient and the batteries had been defective when installed; the fire system was useless and a lot of the plumbing would need renewing shortly. I expected Mitchell to leave within a few days but luckily for me he stayed until the next spring. I sure had a lot of homework to do on engines, batteries, plumbing and other things I would encounter there. Under Mitchell's guidance I learned it all good enough to keep the station operating. Mitchell told me, "Quit worrying about it. Most of the people who come up here are in the same predicament and they make out after a fashion." I began to see that I was just a stranger in strange surroundings. Here I was, a man who had never done much of anything but telegraph and shoot pool, dumped right in the middle of so many strange looking contraptions.

Chief Ephraim and family, Woody Island, circa 1898-99. Courtesy of Kodiak Historical Society, Slifer Collection

Woody Island (Tangirnaq)

Located east of Kodiak, Woody Island was home for centuries to Alutiiq people who called themselves Tangirnarmiut, "the people of Tangirnaq." Like other Alutiit, the Tangirnarmiut were hunters and fishermen.

See Looking Both Ways, Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People of Southern Alaska

As an example of how ignorant and/or stupid I was, I had been cutting galvanized pipe with a hacksaw and trying to run a thread on it, which worked at times but generally not so good. One day I was looking through a Starratt tool catalog and I saw a picture of a pipe cutter, which I readily recognized as something that had been kicking around on a shelf in the power house and I hadn't the slightest idea what it was. It was a lot simpler from then on as we always plenty of piping to renew. Our fresh water came from the upper lake, from which the old sailing ships had taken ice back to San Francisco for many years around 1850 and for several decades thereafter. It was good water but it rusted the inside of pipe very quickly. The radio station was in the open, close to the beach for which we were very thankful as back among the trees the mosquitos were thick and always hungry.

The population of Woody Island was rather skimpy. The Baptist Orphanage with about 75 children with a Mr. Rickman in charge; Mrs. Rickman and four or five women assistants; Bill Robinson was foremen and general factotum. Bill's father, who had been foreman before Bill, was still living with Bill. A real old timer was Nicholas Pavlof who had a wife and three boys. Two or three of the Pavlof girls had married radiomen. Another had married Bob Morrison but she died some years before. Morrison had a homestead on Forget-Me-Not Island. He had a few milk cows and he sold milk whenever he could. There was a priest and a few natives. The only one I remember was a fellow named Fadaoff who carved a model ship and presented it to us on the birth of our son. The radio station had from 6 to 9 people all told, so Woody Island wasn't overpopulated. Mr. Pavlof told us later that many years before there were more people on Woody Island than in the town.

There was a telephone line to town, a magneto ringing type phone and anyone who wanted to subscribe to the service simply purchased a telephone and some wire and cut a pole or two if he was any distance from the line. At that time there were only six subscribers in town plus the radio station. Eight rings was the general call for any news that might be of interest to all. It was a real party line as no matter whose ring was heard, everybody came to the party. It was amusing to ring someone and take the receiver off quickly to hear the clicks going down the line. I don't know when the phone was originally installed but it had gone out in '23 or '24 and about this time AMCAT laid a new cable from Seattle to Valdez. The Navy dickered with the Army for a piece of the old cable for the Kodiak phone line.

There were two stores in town: Wilber J. Erskine's right at the dock and Otto Kraft's on the mud flats at the south end of town. A Mr. Griffin or Griffith ran Erskine's store and a Mr. Knobel ran the office. Otto Kraft and his son ran their store. Both stores carried just about everything. If they didn't have it they would order anything anyone wanted.

A U. S. Experimental Station was up an the hill in back of town where they were trying to breed cattle that would prosper on native hay and give good milk, as alfalfa was $60 to $70 a ton. That was rather steep for the native cow owners. There was a U. S. Commissioner and a U. S. Marshal; one school with two lady school teachers; one small hotel owned by Jack Hunt and his wife; one barber; a restaurant and a bakery. A lawyer had come to town in anticipation of a rumored boom but he quickly found that the people of Kodiak were too honest and didn't need the services of a lawyer, at least he found he could never make a living there so be departed in the fall of '24.

The Standard Oil Company had already built a fueling station to get in before the rush of the boom. A Mr. Grube was in charge of this. Standard was also drilling over around Kanata. There were no motor vehicles in Kodiak but there were plenty of motor boats. Karl Armstrong had a fox farm on Long Inland. Karl was a real old timer. His wife was said to have been the inspiration for the characterization of Cherry Malotte in Rax Beach's The Silver Horde. Mrs. Armstrong died in 1925 or 1926.

A fellow named Abbert had a homestead south of town a few miles. I think he had a few cattle on his place. Jack McCord was running some cattle on an island down south.

The Admiral Line ships Admiral Watson and Admiral Evans alternated on their stops at Kodiak. The Starr and the Redondo also stopped in there.

The only crops around Kodiak were salmon, halibut, herring, blue foxes and moonshine. Some clams but not in commercial amounts. Crab or shrimp hadn't even been heard of, at least I never heard them mentioned. Not too much moonshine as the incoming boats from the States generally picked up good liquor at some Canadian ports. One skipper was caught and he decided it would be easier to exit this vale of tears via a .38 caliber. The revenuers would come to Kodiak once in a while but as soon as it was known they were on the ship, a small motor boat would leave the harbor on its errand of mercy to tip off the moonshiners. This boat was about the only one around to take the revenuers on their search so they had to wait for its return before they could leave. There had been some blue fox farms in the area but the bottom had dropped out of the fox market so many of the fox farmers had to resort to turning out white mash to keep the home fires burning, always hoping for a return of the market for the fox fur.

1941 Woody Island
Woody Island, Alaska in 1941, looking from the vicinity of the Orthodox Chruch towards the Woody Island dock, office, and school. (Photo by Elmer Aemmer. Courtesy Kodiak Alaska Military History.)

Before we arrived in Kodiak the town was in the throes of a big boom due to well-founded rumors that a cold storage plant would be built there in the near future. Everyone was highly elated as this could very easily make Kodiak into a second Ketchikan. It would save the halibut fishermen a long haul to Ketchikan.

After looking the situation over we were quite dismayed to find that the only medical man in town was a young USPES "first aid man" whose primary duty was to give first aid to sick or injured seafarers. He also took care of all the sick, lame and lazy in town. He was a very fine fellow and was always trying but all he could do when an ailing person called him was to ask the patient what seemed to be wrong. Then be would thumb through his little black book and try to find something that would dovetail with the patient's description of his ailment. If a patient was seriously ill we would contact any passing ship and appeal to them to come in and take the patient to Seward. It was a very healthy climate so this didn't happen often.

A few days after we arrived on Woody Island, the Lieutenant and Mitchell went on their hunt using a Bureau of Fisheries boat. When they returned a week or so later, the Lieut. was in a bad mood over something that had happened on the hunt. He insisted on going to a hotel in town. Mitchell tried to tell him the hotel wasn't much of a place but he insisted, so we took him over to town. We had no sooner returned to the station when he called and told us to bring him back. The Lieut. thought Mrs. Mitchell's bread was the best ever so she gave him a pint jar of her yeast starter which he put in his suitcase. His ship was due to sail at 9pm. It was dark when we started for town. The Lieut. had an enormous duffel bag which we put on top of the launch cabin. Out in midstream a tide rip caught us and the bag went over the side. I swung the tiller hard around. Luckily the bag was tightly packed. When it came to the surface we were right alongside it. We helped the Lieut. into his stateroom with the luggage. I inadvertently placed the suitcase right alongside the radiator. I didn't know the yeast starter was in the suitcase. It 'a not hard to imagine what happened when that pint jar, sealed tight, became a trifle too warm. Nothing like giving the visiting brass a good send-off!

One day in town I was talking with Erskine's office man, Mr. Knobel. I said: "Mr. Knobel, you were here when the radio station was first built. Why in the name of common sense did they put it on Woody Island when there is so much open land right here adjacent to town?" He laughed and said: "I wasn't here but I know the story. It all happened over about $2 worth of cheap hard candy. Mr. Erskine will confirm this story. It was about 1910 or 1911. A Navy supply ship came in here and unloaded many tons of material and equipment to build the radio station, then the ship went westward with material for more stations. The Navy Yard workmen kept their tools and work clothes in the warehouse. One day while they changing clothes, one of the men saw this 20 pound bucket of candy and broke it open.

Later the warehouseman discovered the open bucket and reported it to Erskine's partner, who was a very hot-headed fellow. He declared himself to the men and demanded they pay for the candy. The workman laughed at him and told him to go jump off the dock. When the Navy supply ship returned the partner demanded of the skipper that the men be made to pay for the candy. The skipper saw how ridiculous the whole affair was. He sided with the men. He told the workmen if that was the way the partner felt about it, they could look around and put the radio station anywhere they pleased just so it was in a good spot. The workman, to spite the partner, chose Woody Island. And that is how the radio station was located on Woody Island." The next time I saw Erskine I asked him about it. He confirmed the story and said: "If I had been here it certainly wouldn't have happened but unfortunately I was away in the States and my partner was a hard man to get along with."

I had heard the story of how the two radio stations at Cordova had been located. It sounded like it was a figment of someone's overactive imagination. After hearing the story of Woody Island, I thought the Cordova story might not be too far-fetched. About 1915 or thereabouts the Navy decided to establish headquarters for the Alaskan Division of the Naval Communication Service at Cordova. Two stations were to be built, a transmitter station and a receiver station. The Navy Yard at Mare Island sent a crew of construction men and radio engineers to Cordova to locate the most suitable sites. The Whiteshed location at that time was unsuitable because it was accessible only by boat. The crew had been instructed to concentrate on locating the stations along the Copper River railroad. They rented a speeder from the railroad and cruised up and down the track for quite a few days. They couldn't agree on the best locations.

One evening at dinner the boom man said: "I just received a message from the Navy. They told us to quit stalling and locate these stations so construction could begin before winter sets in. Tomorrow morning I'm going to bring two bring two quarts of whiskey to the speeder. When we leave town we will start working on the first quart. Where we finish that quart will be the location of the first station. Where we finish the second quart will be the location of the second station." The first station was located at Mile 7 (Eyak) where the receiver and control station was constructed. The transmitter station was located at Mile 14 (Hanscom), named after George E. Hanscom, Senior Radio Engineer at Mare Island, who supervised the construction of all of the early Navy radio stations on the Pacific Coast and in Alaska.

The Baptist Orphanage

While the population of Woody Island was, as Bart noted, "skimpy," the orphanage was home to about 75 children.

Woody Island and other islands in the Kodiak archipelago had historically been home to thousands of native Tangirnarmiut. When Russian fur traders arrived in the 18th and 19th century, they brought with them white man's diseases. An estimated two-thirds of the native population was wiped out. Woody Island was designated by the Russians as a gathering place for the survivors.

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A young boy recovering from an illness at the Baptist Mission, circa 1908. His belongings are in the sack that hangs above his head. From the Kodiak Historical Society, Learn Collection, P.386.28

Ernest and Ida Roscoe founded a Baptist orphanage and church on Woody Island in 1893. This provided a home for some children who needed one. But it also led to many conflicts with Native families over the custody of their children. The Baptist missionaries sometimes brought children to the orphanage, even against their parents' will. They also discouraged the practice of Russian Orthodoxy, which was the faith of most Woody Islanders at that time.

In 1910, the orphanage was part of a mission located on 640 acres. It included a large garden, dormitories, a main building with kitchen and dining rooms, a hospital and dispensary, lighting plant, barn, cannery, silo, carpenter's shop, and superintendent's office and living quarters.

The orphanage was destroyed by a fire in 1925, rebuilt, and burned again in 1937 when it was relocated to Kodiak.

World War II brought more changes to Tangirnaq. A communications station was built in 1941, along with houses for the many families who joined the men employed there. Beginning in 1942, a great number of the islandís trees were cut down by the Army to support the war effort in the Aleutians. Finally, in the 1960ís, the public school was closed and children began to attend school at Kodiak. For a while, people remained on Tangirnaq, preferring to travel to and from Kodiak for school and work. However, when ferry service was discontinued in the 1960ís, most residents moved to Kodiak permanently. While no one lives there now, a number of people still hunt and fish the lands and water of Tangirnaq. They, along with others, will always consider Woody Island to be their home.

From Looking Both Ways, Heritage and Identity of the Alutiiq People of Southern Alaska

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Bart "Skinny" Phelps, grandpa Thadeus Phelps, Hal, and Betty Phelps in Bremerton Washington, August 1926, shortly after leaving Woody Island, Alaska. Larger image.
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Russian Orthodox Church, Woody Island, circa 1941. Photo by Elmer Aemmer. Courtesy of Kodiak Military History.

The station at Seward was way out on the mud flats where almost every high tide the men had to go out in a boat and rescue the oil drums that had floated away. Harry Martin, an old time radioman, had opened up the Seward station in 1918. He sent me a picture showing all the buildings surrounded by water, which he labeled, "after a light rain." I found out later it was during a flood tide. Now I was ready to believe anything about the locating of Navy Radio stations in Alaska.

I had decided that the Navy wouldn't try to get rid of the Kodiak station. It was doubtful that the Army would want it and there was not enough revenue from the few messages we handled to make it pay for a private owner but I knew that I wasn't going to paint this place up like I had at Ketchikan. So help me, in the spring of '25 we received a message: "Take a complete inventory of the government property on the station and prepare the station for sale." We went along as usual and nothing came of it.

In the winter of 1924-25, the temperature dropped rapidly. It was down to about 11 degrees when Mitchell said: "We had better get the furnace started right now." We started for the boiler house when Mitchell said, "My God, we'll have to put in a new damper. I ordered one and hung it in the boiler room but forgot to put it in." The old damper was so badly rusted we had to chisel out the bolts, which took some time. I was waiting in the boiler room for Mitchell to bring some tools when something zinged across the room and hit the other side like a shot. It took me some time to find that a plug had popped out and the pipe was frozen solid. We had waited a trifle too long. We got the damper in and started the furnace, hoping there was no damage to the boiler. There wasn't, but when the water warmed up we found there was no heat in about half the radiators. That was about noon and at four the next morning we thawed out the last pipe. The pipes were all heavily lagged [insulated]. Crawling around under the houses in cramped quarters to remove the lagging and put a blow torch to the pipes was a job I hoped never to do again. I vowed that the next year would start the furnace on the Fourth of July. At least freezing weather would never sneak up on me again. I was still learning the hard way.

One night in the winter of 1924-25 we were browsing through the wish books for luck or other forms of entertainment when we heard someone yelling outside. I stuck my head out the back door and heard the dreaded cry of FIRE, from the direction of the mission. We got into warm clothes in short order, picked up all of the two gallon fire extinguishers and slipped and slid to the orphanage with the 40 gallon soda acid fire extinguisher cart. The fire was confined to an upper room at the time. We climbed on the porch roof, broke open a window and turned on the nozzle of the tank. Not one drop came out of the tank because someone had at sometime before tipped over the cart a trifle too far when cleaning under it, a little of the acid had spilled into the soda end started the mixture working. There wasn't the slightest leak in the tank lid or hose to warn us that it had become deactivated.

There was nothing at the mission to fight the fire so all we could do was stand by and watch it burn right to the ground. We rescued most of their supplies from the lower floor but it took a few good swats on the posterior region of the boys and girls to keep them on the job of getting the supplies out of the melting snow and into a shed. I put men on watch through the night to keep supplies from ending up elsewhere. The next day we repaired the shed and put a lock on it. Someone in town donated a large range. We hauled it over and set it up in the church.

People in town donated many things to help the situation and we finally got things in condition to feed everyone. They slept anywhere they could find room to put a cot, if they had a cot.

We had another experience with fire on the station in early 1925 when everyone on the station was in town except Mitchell, his wife and Betty [my wife]. Mitchell started for the boiler house to check it when he saw the roof burning. He ran and told the two women to bring buckets of water. He picked up a couple of small extinguishers and the fire was quickly dead. This could have been disastrous as our gasoline tanks were within six feet of the boiler rouse.

This reminded me of the story Harry Martin had told me. He was at Kodiak in 1912 when Katmai exploded and the whole area was covered with a pall of ash so thick it was almost impossible to see anything. Every person from the station was in town except the man on watch. When they decided to return to Woody Island they realized they were stymied. The ash was too thick so they made no effort to return. What they didn't know was that a jolt of lighting or a heavy charge of static electricity had hit the antenna causing a fire which destroyed most of the station, their living quarters included. None of the men had a bank account in the States. The dresser drawer was their bank. Nothing could be safer. Martin said he lost over $900 and that was pretty close to a year's pay. He got it back after many months of waiting for the Navy to confirm the loss. After Mt. Katmai blew up the only animals left were the bears. While I was there they had started restocking ptarmigan, rabbits, etc. It was in 1926 when they brought in the first deer.

I was talking to Mr. Pavlof one day. He said; "Do you see those rocks out there? They were brought here as ballast in the old sailing ships that used to carry ice from here to San Francisco for several decades after 1850." That was hard to believe until I realized that San Francisco was a long ox cart haul from the nearest ice in California. Mr. Pavlof was a very fine old gentleman, in his eighties in 1925. He had been educated in Moscow and St. Petersburg. His father or grandfather was the last Governor of Alaska under the Russians.

One time we started for town and around Forget-Me-Not Island the fog settled down fast. I slowed down and put a man in the bow with a boat book. He let out a yell right away and we found ourselves in a mess of rocks but we got out without scraping anything. Before we started back to Woody Island, I phoned the station to send a man down to the dock to start pounding on the crane to guide us in. I wasn't worried about missing Woody Island but I wanted to get somewhere near the dock. I watched the boat's wake, to keep on a somewhat straight course and ended up about 100 yards north of the dock. No compass on the boat — it was in the storeroom, of course where such things belonged! On the trip back to Woody I again thought of the crew not being able to get back to the station in 1912 and I was thankful the fog caught us as it made me realize what a predicament I would be in if such a thing happened just about the time the baby decided to enter than world and I had to get to town for the doctor or nurse. The next day was clear so I got the compass out of the storeroom and headed for town to lay out a compass course. I did the same thing on the return trip. This would be strictly by guess and by God in a fog as I couldn't take into consideration the wind and tide but it would give me a chance anyway.

On June 1, 1925, Betty was feeling full of pep so she turned out the wash. We know the time was getting short but she felt too good to take it easy. Around 11 PM Betty decided that I had better get the doctor. I called the doctor and Mr. Clarke, so when we arrived, they were sitting on the dock. It was a beautiful night but, on the return to Woody, I was getting nervous and cut it a little too short passing Goat Island. The boat slowed dawn and I knew I was in the kelp bed. I threw out the clutch and raced the engine then threw the clutch in reverse hoping to cut free of the kelp. I rocked the boat back and forth several tines, hoping that the old clutch would hold up. I finally broke free and clear. I sure cussed myself for making plans to cope with the fog and then to find myself enmeshed in kelp. About 4 AM the baby was born, a perfectly normal boy and that's all we wanted.

It had been very nice duty at Kodiak. We rather hated to leave when my tour of duty came to an end. We had been very fortunate in every way, very little trouble with the baby and what the doctor couldn't come up with as a cure for his ailments, Mrs. Clarke never failed us. When I received my order, I went to Erskine's and reserved a room with a bath on the SS Watts. Junior was a year old and it would be much easier with a private bath.

Several days before we were due to depart I asked Mr. Knobel in Erskines if he was positive I had the bath reserved. He assured me that we had it. I must have had a hunch on it as, when May 24, 1926 came and we went aboard ship, we found the door from our room to the bath was locked. I located the Purser and told him that the door to the bath was locked. He told me we didn't have a bath reserved. I told him that I had checked with Mr. Knobel in Erskines a few days before and Mr. Knobel bad assured me that we had the bath reserved. The Purser said, "I'm sorry, but it's too late now, there is nothing I can do about it."

I told him that I was going to get that bath one way or another and then he asked me if we would share it with the lady on the other side. I told him positively not as we had a year old baby and we needed the bath more than the lady did. The Purser still refused to do anything about it so I told him I would see the Skipper about it. He just shrugged. I thought about it a minute and then said; "Mister, you have my mad up. I'll be damned if I go to the Skipper. You took that bath away from us and I'm going to see that you give it back. Now I'm going to give you a much fairer deal than you gave me. I'm going back to my room. In exactly fifteen minutes, if that door isn't unlocked, there in a fire axe outside my room which will open it, even if I spend the trip to Seattle in the brig. Remember, fifteen minutes!" I returned to my room. In about ten minutes the bath was ours. Such things have always happened.

It was back to sea duty for me. Maybe I would get back to Alaska another time. I was quite sure that one tour up there wouldn't be enough for me.


On February 28, 1931, the wireless station was decommissioned and shortly thereafter the Territory of Alaska was given permission to use the associated buildings for the Longwood School.


 


Bart Phelps also wrote about his adventures and misadventures as a radioman on Wailupe, Hawaii. For a detailed history of Navy Communications in the Pacific, see Nick England's excellent site, Navy Radio.