This introduction to the history of Prince William Sound is courtesy of PWSK members, Jim and Nancy Lethcoe, authors of History of Prince William Sound, published by Prince William Sound Books, Valdez, Alaska.
At first glance, Prince William Sound presents an aspect of pristine and untrammeled wilderness, and this is one of its major delights. Anchored in a secluded cove or ascending a trackless ridge, it is easy to imagine oneself as the first explorer. Yet, a closer examination of the shoreline quickly reveals subtle signs of former habitation. Decayed sawed off stumps line the shores-witness to former hand-logging operations. The logs were used for cabins, firewood, fish traps, cannery pilings, mining timbers, railroad ties, fox farm pens, and even ship building. If one rummages among the moss, alder and devils club, virtually every bay reveals the rotted foundations of some old cabin or fox pen. Abandoned, frail human structures do not last long in this damp climate and under such heavy winger snow-loads. And perhaps this is as it should be.
In some areas the trimlines of second growth forest reach up adjacent hillsides. And it is not uncommon while hiking the remote ridges to stumble onto some old mine shaft surrounded by piles of rusting debris. In place remains of old sawmills, canneries, salteries, fox farms and even whole mining towns and a fur trading post can be discerned-some still standing, others shambles of rickety timbers, and still others mere traces of former foundations in the invading moss.
It is hard to imagine all of this human presence in an area whose surface appearance seems to convey remoteness itself. And yet, they came here, thousands upon thousands of them-Eskimos back in the misty reaches of prehistory seeking better hunting grounds; English and Spanish square ri ggers looking for a Northwest passage; Russian adventurers hunting for sea otter pelts; fox farmers and gold prospectors, and miners and Filipino cannery workers, and geologists and glaciologists.
And they left their names on the landscape itself. On modern charts of Prince William Sound ancient Eskimo place names mingle with the names of 18th century Spanish and English noblemen and explorers. Names left by Russian fur traders appear beside those of modern American prospectors, fur farmers, and scientists. And yet, the majority of the points, coves and smaller islands still remain unnamed. Prince William Sound in the modern world is a unique place-it has survived history.
Subsistence, the customary, noncommercial use of wild plants, fish and game is the oldest human practice in Prince William Sound. It is essential to the Native culture and economy, and a means of passing along traditional ecological knowledge and cultural values from one generation to another. Gathering subsistence resources is also an essential practice among non-Native residents in the Sound. Traditional foods include berries, fish, shellfish, seals, goats and waterfowl; and, in more recent history, deer and moose. Many factors can impact subsistence resources and lifestyles such as demographic changes in populations, disease and predators. Contemporary impacts on subsistence include the 1964 earthquake, the 1989 ExxonValdez oil spill, increased tourism, increased sport hunting and fishing, loss of traditional knowledge due to demographic changes in villages, restricted or diminished resources and climate change. Management of subsistence resources involves a complex array of tribal and local governments, state and federal agencies, land ownership, legislation, and international protections.
The Native Villages of Tatitlek (population 107) and Chenega Bay (population 86), have limited opportunities for employment and very small cash economies comprised of commercial fishing, fish processing and small oyster
farming operations. The average per capita income is $13,014 with 24.2% and 15.6% respectively of residents living below the poverty level. Residents rely on traditional subsistence activities for the majority of food items. The small port town of Whittier (population 182, per capita income $25,700), on the western side of Prince William Sound, serves as one of two primary gateways to the Sound, serving % of the state’s population. City government, local services and summer tourism support employment for the majority of residents. The fishing village of Cordova (population 2454, per capita income $25,256), on the eastern side of Prince William Sound, supports a large commercial fishing fleet, several fish processing plants and a small tourism industry. 341 residents hold commercial fishing permits and nearly half of all households have someone working in commercial harvesting or processing. Valdez has the largest population in the sound (4036 residents, per capita income $27,341) and one of the highest municipal tax bases in Alaska as the southern terminus and off-loading point of oil extracted from Prudoe Bay on the North Slope. Valdez is a major seaport, with a $48 million cargo and container facility.
The economy of the Prince William Sound region is tied to three primary factors: commercial fishing, tourism and the Valdez terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. The region experiences the national and global impacts of economic fluctuations that affect fish and oil prices and tourism travel. Fishery earnings for the Sound have declined dramatically, from about $30 million in 1980 to about $10 million in 2002, and area small businesses have recently reported business losses of 30%-60% following the 2008 U.S. financial crisis. Decreases in salmon prices, the loss of the herring fishery following the 1989 ExxonValdez oil spill and the ever increasing cost of doing business, associated primarily with energy and fuel costs, create a continuing challenge for the Sound’s economy. Additionally, the region has been heavily impacted by catastrophic events such as the 1964 earthquake and the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
The Big Three PWS Events of the 20th Century1964
An earthquake destroyed the village of Chenega, town of Valdez and parts of Cordova. On the western side of Prince William Sound the sea floor was uplifted by as much as six feet, destroying Cordova’s world-class razor clam beds, once known as the razor clam capital of the world.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill dumped 11 million gallons of oil, resulting in an oil slick across 600 linear miles, roughly the distance from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Cape Lookout, North Carolina, and covering 10,000 square miles of the surrounding ecosystem. Wildlife species experienced acute mortality rates as high as 40%, and are considered still recovering or are listed as unrecovered. Herring, a keystone species, crashed following the spill and has never recovered. Lingering oil persists on some shorelines in the Sound. To learn more click here: Hear Our Voices Hear Our Stories.
A controversial tunnel opened connecting the Port of Whittier with the state highway system. Visitation jumped 250% immediately. State officials predict that it will balloon fifteen-fold reaching 1,406,000 visitor trips in 2015.