A semblance of pristine

When you’re out on Prince William Sound in a boat, the water and land appear to be as pristine as they were on May 12, 1778, when Capt. James Cook sailed the HMS Resolution into the sound and “discovered” it. On the other hand, when you take off your rose-colored glasses, you find that the sound isn’t quite as pristine as it seems.


Eight tribes, now called Alutiiq, at one time occupied various settlements around the sound. The Eyak tribe had a village in what is now Cordova. Though it could be argued that these early people changed the nature of the sound to some degree past pristine, their impacts were nothing compared to what was to come. A lack of immunity to diseases brought by the Europeans decimated the sound’s indigenous people. Today, the only distinctly Native villages on the sound are Chenega Bay on Evans Island and Tititlek, near Valdez.

Russian fur traders early-on impacted the sound by establishing a post on Hinchinbrook Island to trade for sea otter pelts. In 1867, after the Russians had wiped out sea otter populations from Alaska to northern California, Russia sold Alaska to the United States. In the early 1880s, Americans built Prince William Sound’s first salmon canneries, at the Native village of Odiak, now part of the City of Cordova. With a higher demand for salmon caused by World War I, 14 canneries were built in the sound. Not only salmon, but Dungeness crab and razor clams were canned. Rusting machinery, collapsed buildings and decaying pilings are all that remain of the sound’s many canneries.

Fox farming began on the islands of Prince William Sound in the 1890s. By 1925, 34 islands had fox farms. At the time, blue fox pelts were selling for $150 to $150, and silver fox pelts for $250 to $500. Farmers fed their foxes salmon and seals in summer and grain in winter. The foxes were let loose to roam free on the islands, and then trapped for their pelts. By 1928, fur farming was the third largest industry in Alaska, after fishing and mining, but the stock-market crash of 1929 and the advent of World War II brought sharp declines in fur prices. By the 1990s, no fox farms remained. Today only traces of the industry can be found, and foxes no longer inhabit any of the sound’s islands. We’ll never know what impact those foxes had on indigenous species on these islands, but “farmed” foxes on islands in the Aleutians decimated populations of nesting birds.

In the early 1900s, almost 25,000 ounces of gold were taken from Granite Mine, not far from Whittier. There were two small copper mines operating at Port Audrey on Knight Island before World War I. The most productive copper mines were on LaTouche Island. In the peak mining period of 1917-1918, there were 24 mines in the region. More than 4,000 people were on LaTouche Island, most of them in the town of LaTouche. The mine tailings and moldering remnants of the communities are all that exist today.

Many of the old-growth trees on the islands and mainland around the sound were logged off and used for corduroy roads, railroad ties and support timbers for mines. The remnants of the sawmills still litter the landscape.

From the time internal combustion engines were first used to power vehicles and marine vessels, petroleum products have been shipped through the sound and stored along its shoreline. These became a serious issue in 1964, when the worst recorded earthquake to ever be recorded in North America hit. The resulting tsunami tore fuel tanks loose from their mountings in Valdez and Whittier, polluting the shoreline and starting fires. The waves carried wreckage well above the shoreline, where some of it remains to this day.

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez struck a reef and spilled 14 million barrels of crude oil into the sound. Some species and shorelines have yet to recover from the oil and the harsh clean-up methods employed to clean it up. It sickened me when it happened, and it still does, when I think about it. In my lifetime and probably my grand-children’s lifetimes, the sound will never be as healthy as it was before that oil spill.

I try to convince myself that the worst has already happened, that nothing as bad as a tanker going aground can ever happen again, but I know it can.

Don’t get me wrong. I still enjoy Prince William Sound. I just enjoy it more when I wear rose-colored glasses.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.