Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
On July 25, 1917, the first documented earthquake in settler-era Anchorage struck. This was a new experience for many residents of the young town, to the point that some were not sure what had happened. As the local newspaper declared, “What is believed to have been an earthquake shock was reported by various employees of the (railroad) commission yesterday afternoon.” The article continued, “Recently similar shocks have been experienced, according to those working on the railroad reserve, but nothing has been heard of tremors being felt in the city proper.”
Hard as it might be to believe now, news of the 1917 quake was buried on the sixth page of a 10-page paper. Today, earthquakes dominate news cycles and discussions. Ask an Alaskan about earthquakes, and they will probably name one of three such events. Older or historically knowledgeable residents will recall the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, a defining and harrowing event for those who lived through it. The 2018 Anchorage earthquake was a less deadly but more recent touchstone. Then there is the latest earthquake, whichever one that is at the time, that sends Alaskans rushing to their computers, refreshing websites until there are details on magnitude and epicenter. More forgotten is the tragic 1958 Lituya Bay earthquake and its accompanying megatsunami.
Lituya Bay is a seven-mile long, two-mile wide fjord on the southeast coastline of Alaska, roughly a hundred miles southeast of Yakutat. The name derives from the Tlingit Ltu.aa, meaning “lake within the point.” The bay has been the site of several previous giant waves and tragedies. The most notable pre-1958 incidents involved the French scientific expedition dispatched by King Louis XVI and led by Jean François de Galaup, Comte de Lapérouse.
On July 13, 1786, three of his boats attempted to pass out through the narrow entrance to the bay. Lapérouse had ordered them to avoid the breakers and wait for a calmer passage, but their captains charged for the gap without hesitation. The waves and currents wrecked the boats; all 21 men aboard died. Lapérouse searched for their bodies but found none. In a letter dispatched back to France, he wrote, “the fury of the waves in that place left no hope of their return.” He added, “Nothing remained for us but to quit with speed a country that had proved so fatal.”
Though he survived Alaska, Lapérouse never returned to France. His expedition was mysteriously lost in 1788 while navigating the South Pacific. One of Louis XVI’s last questions before his 1793 execution during the French Revolution was reportedly, “Any news of Lapérouse?”
In his surviving papers, Lapérouse described shores in Lituya Bay stripped of vegetation, evidence of an earlier massive wave. Photographs of the area suggest two other giant waves likely occurred in the bay between 1853 and 1916. On Oct. 27, 1936, another colossal wave swept away the trees up to roughly 500 feet above sea level.
On July 9, 1958, around 10:15 p.m., a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck, centered near Lituya Bay. Three boats were anchored in the bay: the Badger with Bill and Vivian Swanson aboard, the Edrie with Howard Ulrich and seven-year-old Sonny (Howard Ulrich Jr.), and the Sunmore with Orville and Mickey Wagner.
The Badger was anchored near the entrance to the bay. Bill Swanson recalled, “With the first jolt, I tumbled out of the bunk and looked toward the head of the bay where all the noise was coming from. The mountains were shaking something awful, with slide of rock and snow.”
He continued, “what I noticed mostly was the glacier, the north glacier, the one they call Lituya Glacier. I know you can’t ordinarily see that glacier from where I was anchored. People shake their heads when I tell them I saw it that night. I can’t help it if they don’t believe me. I know the glacier is hidden by the point when you’re in Anchorage Cove, but I know what I saw that night, too. The glacier had risen in the air and moved forward so it was in sight. It must have risen several hundred feet. I don’t mean it was just hanging in the air. It seems to be solid, but it was jumping and shaking like crazy. Big chunks of ice were falling off the face of it and down into the water. That was six miles away, and they still looked like big chunks. They came off the glacier like a big load of rocks spilling out of a dump truck.”
Around one to three minutes after the earthquake began, the people on the boats could see the wave, a giant wave sweeping through the bay. Bill noted, “suddenly, the glacier dropped back out of sight, and there was a big wall of water going over the point. The wave started for us right after that, and I was too busy to tell what else was happening up there.”
When the earthquake hit, the Ulrichs were trying to sleep on the Edrie, which was anchored in five fathoms of water almost two miles from the entrance. The sudden pitching of the boat awakened them. Howard later said, “Together we watched the peaks which rise steeply from the water’s edge ... those great snow-capped giants shook and twisted and heaved. They seemed to be suffering unbearable internal tortures. Have you ever seen a 15,000-foot mountain twist and shake and dance?”
The sight froze them in place until they saw the massive wave heading toward them. Howard sprung into action, threw a life jacket onto Sonny, started the engine, and tried to pull the anchor. To his horror, the anchor stuck, so he released the rest of the chain and hoped the roughly 38-foot boat could ride the wave. He shouted into his radio microphone, “Christ, it looks like the end of the world in here. The noise is terrible, and it looks like there’s a fifty-foot tidal wave heading toward me. It’s a solid wall of water coming at me. I’m going to try to head into it and see if I can ride up over the top of it.”
The earthquake prompted a massive rockslide. An estimated 40 million cubic yards of mostly intact stone slid hundreds of feet before crashing into the water. The resultant wave was not just a tsunami but the largest tsunami ever recorded, a megatsunami. At an estimated 1,720 feet high at its highest, it would have dwarfed every building in Anchorage. The second largest recorded tsunami surprisingly happened inland, in Washington. The May 18, 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption also caused a landslide. Much of that debris fell into Spirit Lake, causing an 820- to 860-foot-high tsunami.
The wave that hit the three boats was a fraction of the tsunami’s peak height but barely less intimidating in person. When the wave hit the Edrie, the anchor chain snapped and whipped around the pilothouse. Howard later said, “As we were swept along by the wave, over what had recently been dry land and a timber-covered shore, I was sure that the of the world had come for Sonny and me and our boat. I wanted my wife, back in Pelican, to know where and how her husband and her first-born son had been lost, and I grabbed the handset of my radiophone and yelled into it: ’Mayday! Mayday! This is the Edrie in Lituya Bay. All hell has broken loose in here. I think we’ve had it. Goodbye.’”
Miraculously, they and the Edrie survived. Past the wave, they found themselves surrounded by new icebergs and shattered timbers. Howard cautiously maneuvered his boat free of the debris.
From first sight, it took the tsunami around four minutes to hit the Badger. The wave carried the ship out over the spruce trees on the La Chaussee Spit that blocks most of the entrance to the bay. Past the barrier, the wave broke, and the boat cracked against the seafloor. Bill described it as “like being in a tin can with someone shaking it.” The Swansons escaped in a skiff and were rescued a few hours later.
The Wagners reacted faster to the danger than the Ulrichs and Swansons. Just before the wave hit the Badger, Bill Swanson saw the Sunmore at full speed, racing toward the entrance, still pulling up its anchor as it went. That meant the wave hit the Sunmore’s stern, a tragic error. The Wagners died, their bodies never recovered, and only an oil slick as proof their ship had existed.
The human cost of the disaster was not limited to Lituya Bay. Robert Tibbles, his wife Eveline Tibbles, and cannery owner Jeanice Welsh Walton were on a berry-picking excursion to Khantaak Island, off Yakutat, when the earthquake struck. The land rose and fell into the sea, taking the three friends. Like the Wagners, their bodies were never found.
The loss of life, horrible as it was, could have easily been worse. Earlier on July 9, 10 Canadian mountain climbers, fresh off an ascent of nearby Mount Fairweather, wearily set up camp on the shores of the bay. Their pilot successfully pressed them to return to Juneau that night, a day early and just over an hour before the earthquake. Another group of 10 mountain climbers due that day was delayed. Otherwise, the megatsunami would have certainly also killed them. John Williams, the Yakutat postmaster, and his wife left Khantaak Island shortly before the earthquake and could see the wreckage of the island behind them.
Geologist Don Miller eagerly arrived at Lituya Bay the next morning with pilot Kenneth Loken. Miller had studied the evidence of previous tsunamis in the bay but was still shocked by the scene. He could easily see the long rockslide scar on the unnamed mountain that created the tsunami. Logs and icebergs choked the bay, making it impassable to ships searching for the Wagners. The debris field continued for a mile into open water. For hundreds of feet up and out, the vegetation had been destroyed. Miller estimated that the violent waves had scraped away a foot of soil. He wrote, “Large areas of bedrock were left as bare and clean as though washed down with a hose.”
After that horrific experience, Vivian Swanson’s hair reportedly turned gray, and she refused to go fishing. On May 26, 1962, Bill Swanson returned to Lituya Bay for the first time. Soon after he passed through the entrance, he had a heart attack and died.
Caldwell, Frances E. Land of the Ocean Mists: The Wild Ocean Coast West of Glacier Bay. Edmonds, WA: Alaska Northwest Pub. Co., 1986.
“Earthquake Felt in Anchorage Yesterday.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 26, 1917, 6.
Fradkin, Philip L. Wildest Alaska; Journeys of Great Peril in Lituya Bay. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001.
“Geologist Merges Science with Eyewitness Interviews of Mount St. Helens’ 1980 Eruption.” WSU Press, Washington State University, January 14, 2016.
Mader, Charles L., and Michael L. Gittings. “Modeling the 1958 Lituya Bay Mega-Tsunami, II.” International Journal of the Tsunami Society 20, no. 5 (2002): 241-250.
Miller, Don J. “The Alaska Earthquake of July 10, 1958: Giant Wave in Lituya Bay.” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 50, no. 2 (1960): 253-266.
“Search for 5 Quake Victims Proves Futile.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 12, 1958, 1.