Mother Nature Rocks Alaska’s Past, Shapes Its Future

An earthquake in Southeast Alaska in 1958 caused a tidal wave of mammoth proportions in Lituya Bay, pictured here in 1948.
An earthquake in Southeast Alaska in 1958 caused a tidal wave of mammoth proportions in Lituya Bay, pictured here in 1948.
On April 2, 1836, the whole coast of Southeast Alaska shook when an earthquake triggered a series of waves that threatened to wipe out the entire town of Sitka. It happened near the Feast of the Annunciation. Bishop Veniaminoff, in charge of the Russian Church at the time, ordained, that in order to give thanks for the town’s salvation, a procession should march through all of Sitka’s streets – not only on that year, but each year thereafter on this church holiday. The custom was discontinued sometime after 1900.

Southeast was hit again when Yakutat Bay suffered a shaker on Sept. 3, 1899, and again on Sept. 10. Since there were no villages in the vicinity, the 30-foot wave that hit land did little damage and only a few Natives and prospectors were eyewitnesses. Another quake shook up Lituya Bay, 80 miles away, in 1936 that triggered an enormous wave that spread debris over the ocean for 50 miles. But that was just a curtain raiser to the main event.

In 1958, all hell broke lose at Yakutat and Lituya Bay on a fine June evening. An eyewitness explained what he saw around Lituya Bay:
“The mountains were shaking something awful, with slides of rocks and snow. But what I noticed mostly was the glacier, the north one they call Lituya Glacier.

“I know you can’t ordinarily see that glacier from where I was anchored, and 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 are in the 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 seemed 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 … suddenly the glacier dropped back out of sight and there was a big wall of water going over the point.”
A geologist who studied the area doesn’t shake his head in disbelief at the story.

“It’s perfectly plausible. The glacier lies right on the fault line and almost anything could have happened,” he said.
Earthquake evidence attests to Mother Nature’s awesome power throughout Alaska’s past and seems to mock man’s puny efforts to tame her. So far, however, she hasn’t succeeded in shaking us off the land … yet!

From Aunt Phil’s Trunk, Volume 1

By Laurel Bill

Alaska history