Thursday, January 26, 2012

Now that the statute of limitation is up I can tell the story...

Now that the statute of limitations is up I can tell the story. Below is the old Seldovia Post Office.

Jack and Susan English operated the Post Office.

The beautiful little fishing village of Seldovia used to be the “center of the universe.” Many commercial fishermen based their fishing operation there and moored their boats in the harbor for the winter. A lot of money passed through the small town which boasted the highest standard of living of any place in Alaska. It had six operating fish canneries, six saloons and three churches. The 1950 Book, Guinness Book of World Records listed Seldovia as having the most alcoholics per capita of any city in America. One of the representatives of the Guinness Book upon arriving in Seldovia asked a local wag how many people consumed alcohol. He replied that 100 % of the people drank. 

(One of my first jobs was cooking and butchering king crab in the Wakefield plant below.) I had five steam cookers and four coolers. Juneau John and Kenny Wrestler were two of my butchers. 

The butcher station consisted of a 6-inch pipe sticking up 3 - feet with a steel blade sticking out about a foot on either side. You gab a ten-pound live crab by the back legs with both hands and smashed him down over the knife blade at waist level separating the crab into two halves ripping the top shell off all in one stroke. Tourists were appalled at seeing this. This took considerable arm strength and you had to wear special crab gloves because the crab are covered with 1/4-inch spines. 

I used an air winch to raise and lower the rectangular 500-pound baskets of crab legs into the boiling water. Sometimes tourists would come walking in to tour the plant. When they saw me drop a 500-pound basket of crab legs into boiling water the legs would contract as if they were still alive reaching over the edge as if they were trying to climb out of the basket. At the precise moment i'd  throw my voice making small screaming sound effects. Some ladies would run out of there in a hurry with a horrified look on their faces. 

We cooked the king crab 23-minutes. I had overhead timers with a red light bulb that would turn on when it was time to winch the baskets up and put them into the cooling tanks. We usually processed 8,000 to 10,000 crab a day. There were live holding tanks out on the dock. At the end of the day I had to scrub the blue crab blood out of the cookers with ta wire brush. This took four hours some days because it stuck like glue. I usually worked 12 to 14 hours and got paid $6.50 an hour. The cannery workers only got $5.50 an hour.

The boiler was huge. It came out of a Liberty ship. The boiler man was a drunk. He'd light the boiler and leave. Some days I didn't have enough steam to bring my cookers to a boil and some days I had so much steam that when I cracked a valve all the water would explode up out of the tank. I'd run to the boiler room to shut it down because if it ever blew up  it would have wiped most of the town off the map.    

I'd run across the street to find the boiler man inside the mess hall sneaking up on a cup of coffee. He drank more than anybody I knew. The cook would pour half a cup of black coffee and set it in front of him. While resting both hands a elbows on the table he'd inch forward and grab the cup and slowly raise it to his mouth. His hands shook so much that there would be a ring of spilled coffee all around his cup. He did this every morning. Its a wonder the boiler didn't blow up and if it did he didn't care.

Anderson Dock served as a freight depot for most of south Central Alaska including the city of Anchorage. Juneta Anderson owned it when I was a baby. Dutch Gruthoff was one of my father's friends bought it from the Anderson's. 

Years later when my father brought his Bell helicopter to Seldovia and landed on the airport the kids were out there using rock to scratch their initials in the bubble. Needless to say this made him extremely angry. He took off and landed it on Anderson Dock. Dutch came out and they snapped the wheels on underneath and rolled it inside the warehouse. 

One fisherman I know coined the phrase that Seldovia was the “Center of the Universe.” One spring morning he came out of his boat cabin looked around at the beautiful rolling hills sprinkled with patches of leftover snow drifts and said “This is the Center of the Universe.”

After the March 1964 earthquake the land sunk five feet. The tide water covered the floor of the canneries and the hotel and into the basement of the houses lining the slough. Portions of the board walk were floating up off their foundations and floats in the harbor floated up over the top of the piling and started floating out the bay.

They called on the federal government for disaster relief. Boy, was that a mistake. The contractors doing the job for the feds came to town and brought with them a model of the city with high-rise buildings. When they had the town meeting to decide what to do the locals were so impressed by the model of what the town would look like they didn't pay attention to what the contractors were saying. With an expression of amazement on his fact the Mayor asked, "Is that how it's going to look like?"

The contractor boss said, "Yes, if you if you want." That very moment the Town Council decided to vote for urban renewal.

Federal contractors came and tore down all the boardwalks and  buildings. They blasted down a 105-foot-high rock hill named Cap's Hill located in the middle of town and spread all the rock and gravel along the waterfront creating one long gravel landing strip.

All the canneries saw a way to get out of the business and sold out to the government. All the bars along the waterfront were torn down. The one remaining store moved into a large two-story steel building. Two of the bars moved into rooms on the ground floor and some of the people moved into the apartments above.

Only one processing plant honored their commitment to rebuild. Wakefield Fisheries built a bran new plant outside the city dock. From 1966 to 1979 I delivered close to a million pounds of king crab to this facility plus another million pounds of tanner crab.

We'd fish in Kachemak Bay for tanners all winter from November 5th to May first. In February each year the king crab would start to migrate into the bay heading for their spawning ground on 20-fathoms of water off from Bluff Point. As soon as the king crab showed up we'd start catching one or two per pot in the middle of the bay so we mover our big 650-pound pots from the middle of the bay to shallow water off Bluff Point. 

Fish and Game usually closed the season season February 15th. They would give us an extra day to get the doors on our gear opened up so they wouldn't catch crab. If you got caught with open up after that you would get a ticket. 

Another option was to put 1 by 4-inch boards across the tunnels of the pots secured with heavy rubber bans. The boards would keep the big king crab out of your pots and still allow the tanners to get in. 

Most everybody fished through the last day of of the season to catch an extra few hundred crab. The crab would school up (bunch up) when they hit 20 fathoms so you could get twenty to thirty crab per pot. 

The bigger boats moved their pots across Cook Inlet to fish off the active volcano, Augustine Island. I fished eight to sixteen miles off Burr Point along 22 to 25 fathoms and would catch 50 to 100 crab per pot. We usually loaded the live tank in the boat after two picks of the bear.

I spent a lot of time anchored up in Inniskin Bay waiting for weather. Some times the wind and swell would roll in there from the southeast. When the tide turned the boat would lay right in the trough for a couple hours rolling violently. My boat, the Mary M had close to a twenty-foot beam and drew over 8-feet of water but it rolled like a pig in the mud in a six-foot swell. 

During the first week in September Interior Alaska cools down below the freezing point and the winds begin to strengthen out of the west. Cold air is heavier than the warm air over the ocean so it has to flow in that direction. When you are fishing close inshore off Cape Douglas or Augustine volcano you can still get to your pots but there is a lot of chop. The crew gets spray in their face and their rain gear beats them. The further offshore the bigger the waves. 

As the Interior gets colder the winds steadily get stronger and shift to the northwest because the biggest land mass is in that direction. Now they have a run of open water over 100 miles long down Cook Inlet. It doesn't matter what size boat you have if you have pots out in the middle of the Inlet it might take a long time to get them back. You might have to wait a week or two and by that time the humongous fall tides and swell might carry them out into deeper water where you will never see them again. Pots used to cost over $500 apiece. You loose ten and you just lost $5,000. Now days they they can cost close to a thousand dollars each. 

When the northwest September abates it means there is a big storm coming out of the Gulf of Alaska pushing the cold air northward. The weather might be calm enough to get out there and get some of your gear back but you might get caught in something unusual. Its kind of like the movie Perfect Wave. Your anxious to retrieve all your valuable pots and the swell starts getting bigger and bigger and all of a sudden the wind hits. You immediately turn tail and head for Seldovia.  A half hour later you are surfing down huge swells with an eighty-foot boat and the waves are crash over the stern filling up the back deck. Your bait box gets washed over the side along with everything else that is loose. The crew hides in the galley as you fight to keep it on course.

After entering Seldovia Bay the snow-caped hills never looked better. As soon as the boat is secure and you are walking up town the color of the flowers and grass and trees are never more vivid. The board walk never felt better under your feet. You feel thankful and privileged to be alive.

I think back and remember two falls where the whole fleet never left the dock for a month.The weather really got down with 80 to 100 knot winds that never seemed to end. 

After the king crab season closed some of us fished tanners in Kachemak Bay.
After the March 1964 earthquake the big tides covered the boardwalk and flooded the basements of houses.

After Urban Renewal Seldovia looked like a small town in Communist Russia. The boardwalk was gone, the canneries were gone, most of the stores and services were gone. Only one processing plant rebuilt. The Commercial Fishermen were disgusted and mad about the city council’s decision to go with Urban Renewal. Most of them moved to Kodiak and Chignik. Even the towns people were disenchanted with the look. Instead of outnumbering the churches two to one the number of bars were the same as the churches. People were calling the new Seldovia bourbon renewal.  

Tony Martin was one of my father's friends. He lived directly across Seldovia Bay from the town. The Urban renewal contractors had left hundreds of cases of dynamite in a shed next to where he was living. My father and I went across the bay with his little Diesel Boat. It didn’t have a name except Diesel Boat. He let it go dry at half-tide below were the dynamite was stored and we proceeded to carry cases of dynamite down and load it in the boat.. 

Back in 1965. I weighed about 200 pounds with biceps like Mike Tyson. I grew up pulling nets and picking salmon all my life. I carried two or three cases 50-pound cases at a time down the beach. I tried to keep up with the old man. You can always lift a lot more when you are stealing something.

Tony was glad to get some of the dynamite out of his front yard and helped us carry the stuff. A week later the authorities burned up all the rest of the rest of the dynamite. It was good that we got our share first. As any homesteader can tell you dynamite is a very useful tool.
We had the boat loaded in a couple hours and had to wait for the tide to float it. We got underway about six in the afternoon. The Diesel Boat only had an 18 horse power three-cylinder Lister diesel for power. The only redeeming quality of that boat was you could run twelve hours at seven knots on ten gallons. You were lucky to make six knots if there was any kind of weather. 

The flat bottom boat was pretty low in the water so it didn’t pound as hard as usual. The Wood Freeman autopilot kept us heading in the approximate direction. After eleven hours of zigzagging and pounding we entered Tuxedni Bay. Pop beached the boat about a mile from Crescent River and we proceeded to pack all the explosive up into the woods. We stacked it on scrap lumber and covered it with the remains of a surplus army tent left over from WWII. Those old olive drab canvas tents were good camouflage.

Over the years we used the dynamite to remove stumps, build roads, and blast boulders into pieces so that we could remove them off the sand spit. Pop had a Piper Super Cub at that time and the most convenient landing place was on the sand spit in front of our homestead. The winter ice packs shoved several 8-foot high boulders up onto the spit and they were a hindrance to landing a plane. I inserted a primer with fuse into one of those big sticks of dynamite which were two-inches in diameter and 18-inches long and placed it on top of the boulder. I packed several shovels full of mud around it and lit the fuse. We watched from a distance of about four-hundred yards. It split the boulder into three neat pieces just small enough for me to push out of the way with the bulldozer.

Over 50 years we used the sand spit/tideland/landing field. One time we had six planes parked there.

One day I painted the top of the wings on my Citabria with an airless paint sprayer. The fabric was getting a little bare so I thought it might protect it. There was very little wind that day and thousands of July flies, blowflies and gnats stuck their feet in the fresh paint. The paint sprayer wasn't working right and was spitting out globs of paint making a very rough surface.The next day when I went out there the flies were still alive. You could put you finger up to them and they'd lean away from it. I climbed in started her up and took off. The flies and blobs of paint created so much air resistance that the plane just barely flew. The Citabria had a 150-HP engine with excellent performance. I put her down immediately and spent the rest of the day hand sanding flies and blobs of paint off the wings. That was a very long time ago. I am poor now so I fly a 1948 J-3.

After Pop passed away in 1968 a brown bear found our dynamite stash, uncovered it and ate a couple 50-pound cases. They will eat just about anything.

In 1966 I built a big house and shop building in Halibut Cove which is located up Kachemak Bay about 6-miles from the city of Homer. In those days I worked hard all the time fishing, trapping, building or mining coal. We used both wood and coal for heat. 

I cut down some of the big trees behind our house to clear a spot for a garden. When I split them for firewood I encountered three huge blocks 2-feet in diameter that wouldn't split. They had six to eight 3-inch knots sticking out in every direction. You could pound on them with the blade of splitting maul and it would bounce back up into the air. I even tried driving a wedge down into the middle of one block and it wouldn't even penetrate the wood. You couldn't even get a wedge to stick in the wood. I let them sit behind my shop building for a couple years and occasionally used them as lawn furniture. By that time I owned the 72-foot Mary M ans was fishing king crab.

Sometime after that I acquired a 1000-foot roll of 3/8-inch diameter primer cord. Primer cord is wonderful stuff. You can mold steel into different shapes or cut things in half. You can even fall a tree with it by wrapping six to eight turns around the trunk and tape a blasting cap to it. I used the primer cord to make nozzles out of one-inch pipe for wash-down hoses. You always need a good nozzle on the end of your deck hose to blast the fish slime loose. I’d wrap four turns of primer cord around the pipe and set it off and it would squeeze the middle of the pipe down into a nice ½ diameter taper. I’d cut the taper in half with a hack saw and i'd have two nice tapered nozzles. I gave several of them away to fishermen.

One day I got to looking at my lawn furniture blocks of wood and I thought to myself, ‘what if I bored a hole down in the middle and filled it with explosives…? I searched around for the large electric drill and chucked a 1-inch wood bit in it and proceeded to bore 6-inch deep holes down into the middle of the blocks. I taped a three-inch length of primer cord to an electric blasting cap and placed it into the hole and filled it with water. It was below zero temperatures at the time and I figured the water would help force the wood apart. I fed 30feet of wire inside the shop building, laid down on the floor and shoved the ends of the wire in a light socket. There was a loud blast and thump against the side of the building. I went outside and Eureka! The first block split into three neat pieces.

The second block also split neatly into three pieces. Everything was working out really well. Finally when I set off the blast in the third block of wood and went outside to inspect it was still sitting there with a little smoke curling out of the hole. It was one of those huge wood rounds with six giant knots sticking out in every direction. I thought to myself, ‘I guess I will have to double the charge’. I put two pieces of primer cord into the hole and filled it with water. I went inside and plugged it into a light socket and blam!

The explosion was much louder than I anticipated. A piece of wood came completely through the wall of my warehouse not far from where I was laying and knocked a shelf off the wall containing a dozen or so paint cans dumping the whole mess on the floor. It took the rest of the day to clean up the mess and patch the hole in the wall. I did get my firewood split though--the hard way!


  1. Nice to read your story -- I remember when Kodiak High School suddenly had a huge influx of Seldovians! What is the story with the bears licking you???

  2. Great read~where can I get the book??

    1. The book is a big pile of paper in my briefcase along with about 100 photos that all need to be sorted and edited. A couple hundred hours of work might turn it into a book. I can't write about my father because I get too emotionally involved. I need a professional writer to help.

  3. Quite a few photos by Jake and Harriet Booth here, regarding 1960's Seldovia. I see Grady and Judy Hamrick on the boardwalk, with Harriet, Liz, and Paul Booth walking away from the camera. Paul alone on boardwalk, Jake and young daughter Trish with Cap's Hill being leveled in the background. Tides flooding the boardwalk. I scanned all those from the film originals.