After World War II, Kodiak focused on the burgeoning fishing industry, but the forces of nature dealt a terrible blow. On March 27, 1964, the largest temblor on record in North America at 9.2 magnitude rocked Alaska. The earthquake did little damage to the islands, but triggered a series of tsunamis.
The fourth and largest wave crested at 35 feet above mean low tide. While most residents evacuated up Pillar Mountain, Kodiak’s waterfront and central business district were heavily damaged. For several hours after the quake, walls of water battered homes and fish processing plants along the shore. Most downtown landmarks, except for the Baranov magazin, were wiped out. Fishing vessels were tossed into the streets. People stood at higher elevations and watched airplanes, boats and cars disappearing.
Villages were equally hard hit, Kaguyak was destroyed, Old Harbor was decimated aside from the church, and Afognak village residents eventually relocated to a site at Port Lions.
Twenty people lost their lives during the tsunami including five men aboard the F/V Spruce Cape who were headed toward Ouzinkie. The city estimated the damage at 23 million dollars. Kodiak’s tenacious town folk went about the job of rebuilding their community. The Army Corps of Engineers redesigned downtown into what you see today. The WWII liberty ship The Star of Kodiak (née Albert Boe) was brought down to serve as a temporary fish processing plant and became a permanent fixture in Kodiak and is still in use today. It can be seen on Marine Way next to the visitor center.
1964 Personal Account of the Tidal Wave
Thank you for your lovely heart-warming letters. We shall keep them always as proof that we are loved.
I'm sure you probably know more about what happened than we do. For two weeks we knew almost nothing except of our own small section of town. I am going to tell you what we saw and did. We live about three blocks from the center of town and two blocks from the creek that runs near a main street, under others and into the bay. This creek area a hundred years ago was a fresh water lake and is near sea level. We live up just a little on a steep mountain.
Near six-thirty (D-Day) we sat down to one of our usual dull meals. After three bites all dullness ended for several days. The quake hit with a jolt and a rumbling noise like a heavy "cat" pulling hard in the distance. We each got under a door but it continued. I stood where I could see our canned goods falling wildly to the floor. We then went out (Jack without his shoes). It was a little difficult going down the stairs and the front yard was still waving. Our neighbors were all out. A chimney fell from the Taylor Apartments just in front of us. I thought, "I must tell the owner real soon because of fire danger." An hour later he had nothing to hold up any chimneys. It finally quit and we went back inside.
As far as I know, the only damage the quake did here was broken windows, chimneys, and breakage from fallen objects. We had some small glass balls on a high shelf in the bedroom. They had fallen and traveled out of the bedroom through the door and out into the living-room. I went to work cleaning up the debris on our back porch. You wouldn't believe how two jars of mayonnaise and three jars of pickles can spread. Jack kept answering the phone. People were calling up to see how we had fared. Our power then went off (I think they threw the switch because of fire danger), but a loud speaker began announcing the wave. We dressed in warm clothes; people were pouring up the hill so we opened our three gates and they stayed open until last week. I believe that five thousand trips were made through here.
We walked up on the road above our place and watched the bay. The water came up slowly the first time -- the boat harbor dock covered, then about twenty cars were covered and the next time I looked, the small house by the pier was covered. The water came across town and into the low area. The next wave was announced. I heard someone calling down below us and started down. Just then a marine heard it too and turned and went in that direction and I came back into the yard. There were several building off their foundations. Jack returned and then we heard someone calling down below us. The marine hadn't heard him, I guess. Jack went down, broke out a window, and with help brought an old man to our house. (Russian Frank is still the only name I know.) He had recently had two strokes, can't talk and just barely walks. His house was off the foundation. We go him into dry clothes to keep him warm. I said "Frank, would you like a drink?" He indicated yes so I brought him a drink of water. O, how he spluttered - so we got him fixed up with the right kind of drink and he stayed a week with us. We never left our yard again but we had lots of company. It was a beautiful, calm, moonlit night. It was about the third or fourth wave that really stirred things up. It hit the boat harbor and it was like a thousand guns going off as moorings and lines snapped like toothpicks. Everything moved toward town. The boats hit the stores and the stores hit each other and they all moved up the creek and away from the bay. Frank's house was in front of a bank just in front of our fence. The apartment building (chimney I had worried about) was in three pieces and also just in front of us with several other houses. Where the apartment had stood a metal hut had hit a large building (laundry and newspaper office) and they had all collapsed in one pile. Eric couldn't find even a piece of the hut for several days. All of Kraft's store buildings, except the store, moved up around Clark's garage. Tony's (the longest bar in Alaska) was in front of Clark's in the middle of the street -- one end up and one end down. Then the boats began coming in, riding high, fast, and beautiful. The much written of "Selief" had its own lights and looked like a fairy ship. It was in communication by radio. A big red pile driver sailed up past us. A few minutes later I said "where is the pile-driver?" You just could not watch everything. It had gone back out through the channel, and was found next day safe and sound a couple of miles away.
Several of the boats made several trips. At least ten are still high and dry. The last tide warning was for three and nothing happened. We came in and went to bed with our clothes on. Between each tide some of our neighbors came in to get warm by the fireplace and nibble on crackers and cheese or whatever we could think of to put out. Our rug was thick with dry grass from our yard. Jack's office gal and her mother, who had watched their house sail up toward city hall, stayed with us. We were all up at five huddling around the fireplace. Most of the People had no heat, light, water or phone or radio. So we were lucky to have a fireplace for heat and cooking.
It was a grim sight that sunny morning showed. Clark's garage and Eric's Oil stood, but we could not see them, there was so much in front. The bakery still stood, but is still not operating -- the telephone building still stood -- still not operating. A big barge sat beside the main street, partly on the sidewalk where Kia's liquor store should have been. The street in front of us was packed solid with debris and houses all in the wrong places. The lot in front of us was packed solid. The $100,000 barge "Selief" was on the hill twenty feet below the down town school. She had three thousand live crab that had to be hauled away and discarded. The military was in charge down town and we could not go down. In the afternoon, Jack and I walked a mile over the side of the mountain to the new school to offer help. They fed and slept over 800 people there. The whole ocean was very high and stayed up for several days. Buildings floated all over it. The next morning, Easter, Jack and a crew went to work on the dock. The dock had buckled in the middle about fifteen feet. The back of the old warehouse was ruined. The doors gone from the new one and the approaches washed out. The water had gone so high that it was pouring from the second story into the warehouse and office. How they ever got it ready for a ship I don't know, but they did. Jack still hopes for a calm day for a ship arrival.
We kept having tide warnings and Monday I moved Frank to higher ground for the first time. The sad salvage started. Easlene and here mother got quite a few things from her house. The people in front of us carried things threw our yard for several days, such a hopeless time for them. Many had to wait until a building was move off their belongings. Everything was soaked and smashed.
We have a narrow channel about five blocks from us. Stores, two big canneries, docks, airways and some big homes were swept from it out to sea. Since we stayed in our yard we did not see all this, but many just above us did. At one time the wave went out and left the whole channel completely dry. A boat was in it at the time and it sank on the next wave with a loss of life.
A mile from town there were two beautiful little lakes. Two of our doctors (Johnson's) had built homes on a bluff overlooking the ocean with Mission Lake just behind them. The waves went into the lake and out at a low place at the other end, leaving them on an island for a while. Now the lake is wide open to the sea and empties with the tide. At least twenty homes in that area have only salt water left in their wells. Houses at the end of the lake were seriously damaged by the ice. At the other lake, the waves came in, swept a night club (Beachcombers), a trailer court, several homes, and hundreds of driftwood logs back into the lake where they still are. At the opposite end, all the ice from the lake is piled high on dry land. This lake is now a lagoon also.
Then came the next step. Jack worked from seven to six. We fell into bed at eight. No lights, no heat, no radio. We at our house had water right away. I stayed at home tending fire, serving coffee and warmth to our cold neighbors, and listening to rumors. It was wonderful when the power came on - about seven days for us as we were so close to the disaster area.
We were real lucky on our clean - up and it was miraculous. We are now neat and lean and empty-looking. Dad's Barber Shop - off foundations.
Looking up Main Street, still standing is Kraft's Market and Sportland, both just shells.