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New book explores maritime history in Alaska's Aleutian Islands

J. Pennelope Goforth
Documentary Media

The Dora, the Starr, the Western Pioneer, the Snowbird, the Aleut Packer, the Pribilof, the Coastal Trader: these are all familiar ships to old Aleutian hands in the coastwise and fishing trade between Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. The lively saga of rugged maritime merchants like D.E. Skinner, the Soriano brothers and Peter Strong, with their stormy startups and leveraged mergers, are even more thrilling than the dot-com dramas of the 1990s.

With detailed facts gathered from historical records and interviews, James Mackovjak’s "Aleutian Freighter: A History of Shipping in the Aleutian Islands" fills a big gap in Alaska’s maritime history. It is an engaging and sometimes tragic history of the merchants and vessels that supplied the Aleutian communities with food, fuel and kitchen sinks for the past 150 years.

Well-researched and generously illustrated with full-color photographs, this large-format book is filled with the sagas of the ships and companies beginning with Russian traders and ending with the current freight line, Coastal Transportation.

The foreword by Alaska Congressional Representative Don Young -- who is also a former licensed captain of Yukon River tugboats and freighters -- sets the tone of the book.

“The menacing skies, perilous currents, and dangerous seas that they encounter would be enough to terrify anyone,” writes Young. “They work, day and night, in weather fair and foul, in wasters that are arguably among the most treacherous on the planet. These men and women deserve an enormous amount of our respect. The importance of their effort cannot be overstated.”

Mackovjak writes that the doughty fleet of commercial freighters that dared ply the stormy Aleutian sealanes began in the days before wireless radios, the lifesaving EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon), and U.S. Coast Guard-operated C-130s working rescue missions. Heck, radar hadn’t even been dreamt of in those days.

What they did have was lot of guts and gumption. Most of the early freighters, like the wood-hulled 112-foot Dora carried both freight -- hand-stowed in the cargo holds -- and passengers along with mail, cows, horses and government officials. Northbound, these ships brought the goods and supplies needed to build the economy of the young territory of Alaska. On their southbound voyages they returned with the valuable furs, canned salmon, salted codfish and frozen crab to the hungry markets beyond the wharves at Seattle and San Francisco.

Citing the early ships of the Alaska Commercial Company and then the Northern Commercial Company -- the Constantine, Alexander, Farallon and Bertha to name a few -- Mackovjak has done a yeoman effort of tracking down just about every vessel pulled into the coastwise service for Alaska. Not only company ships but also vessels chartered by the government to transport supplies and resources. He draws on accounts from U.S. Customs documents, commercial company records, newspapers, and trade journal coverage of the maritime transportation sector.

The book even has an early drawing of that unique Aleut workboat, the baidar. This sturdy wood-framed, skin-covered vessel lightered cargo from freighters that anchored in bays with no docks through the turbulent surf to the shores of coastal settlements.

As the saga of the freighters unfolds, Mackovjak writes of the great economic drivers of the times: the fur seal industry of the Pribilof Islands, the whaling station at Akutan, and the numerous cod fish salteries of the cod fishing enterprises in the Bering Sea and along the Gulf of Alaska shore of the Alaska Peninsula. This was the early era of the Alaska Steamship Company vessels like the SS Alaska, “combining elegance with functionality and carrying both passengers and freight”.

Following the chaos of two wars, he states that “At war’s end, Alaska was no longer a provincial backwater: WWII had delivered the territory into the 20th century.” 

And the postwar boom in Bering Sea fisheries that saw the majestic Aleutian Mail sailing along with Kimbrell and Lawrence’s hardy 183-foot wood-hulled Western Pioneer.

The times were characterized by two major changes in the transportation industry. First, the revolutionary development of bulk cargo containers. These more economical storage units were then fitted out with refrigeration capacity to maintain frozen product on the weeks-long voyages from Alaska plants to Puget Sound cold storage facilities.

Second was the phenomenal rise in small freighter lines, offering unscheduled but efficient service to far-flung Aleutian ports. This corresponded with one of the largest maritime business turnarounds in the Pacific Northwest, when in the late 1950s the venerable Alaska Steamship Company, complaining of the loss of business to upstarts like Kimbrell and Lawrence, and later, the Sorianos, discontinued service to Alaska.

Mackovjak even explains the seminal U.S. legislation that has affected shipping in Alaska including the Cargo Manifest Law (CML), the Magnuson Act, and the Aleutian Trade Act (ATA).

Without the ATA for example, many otherwise seaworthy ships would not have been able to sail as qualified cargo vessels. On the other hand, the unpopular CML, passed in 1902 by Congress, required extensive documentation on the quality and value of all goods carried. Finally, the Magnuson Act, sponsored by Washington senator Warren Magnuson with support from Alaska senator Ted Stevens, began the era of the Americanization of Alaska’s fisheries, by extending the territorial waters to the 200 mile limit.

Mackovjak weaves a very readable drama with competing companies like Aleut Alaska Shipping and Alaska Marine Charters, then Sea-Land Service, Sunmar Shipping and Coastal Transportation, forming and collapsing as the trade evolved. These were the frantic years when the vessels Bowfin, Dolphin and Marlin jockeyed with the highliner Marco crabbers for space at the cannery docks. Freighters were bought and sold, their names changed as often as deckhands signing on and off.

Mackovjak is already an accomplished author of early Southeast Alaska history. His writing includes "Early Settlers at Gustavus, Alaska," Tongass Timber," and "Navigating Troubled Waters: Hoonah’s ‘Million Dollar’ Fleet." Since coming to the maritime state in 1970 he has worked extensively in Alaska’s fisheries and currently lives and writes in the Southeast Alaska coastal community of Gustavus.

With practiced pen in “Aleutian Freighter”, he takes us back to the far history of Alaska’s maritime trade; smoothly sailing the narrative to encompass the near history of the boom times of the Bering Sea fisheries. Mackovjak expertly shows how the maritime transportation industry continues to shape the economy of the Aleutian communities that morphed into some of the top money ports of the entire country. 

Make room on your bookshelf for this exciting saga of Alaska maritime history.

J. Pennelope Goforth has over three decades of experience in and around the waters of Alaska, from the Aleutians to Southeast. She is owner of SeaCat Explorations, an Alaska maritime research and publication company.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints.