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Radio Station Operations in Kodiak, Alaska in 1924-1925 Part II

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

(Continued from previous page)

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.

Woody Island, Alaska in 1941, looking inland towards the Navy Base from the Pier. Courtesy Kodiak Alaska Military History.
Harold Bartle Phelps Jr. in Kodiak, Alaska in 1926 watching the chickens.
[Click for larger image]
Woody Island Wireless Naval Station in 1915. From a post card owned by Trish Hampton, and courtesy Kodiak Alaska Military History. Larger image.
[Click for larger image]
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.

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

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.

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.


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.