Tale of a cursed ship

Marine biologist to talk about his 12-year search for Russian-era Alaska shipwreck

Posted: Thursday, September 15, 2005

In 1991, Kodiak marine biologist Brad Stevens was approached by an Anchorage archaeologist, Mike Yarborough, who had spent more than a decade researching the 1860 wreck of the 132-foot Russian American Co. ship Kad'yak.

The three-masted freighter was carrying 350 tons of ice from Kodiak to San Francisco when it struck a rock and sank on the south side of Spruce Island. Tales of the wreck soon became epic. The villagers of nearby Ouzinkie, primarily Russian Orthodox, believed the ship was cursed by Saint Herman, a famous missionary. According to the story, Capt. Illarion Archimandritof had promised the governor of Russian America that he would visit Herman's chapel on Spruce Island. Archimandritof never did, and the boat sank in front of the chapel.

Yarborough had discovered a set of logs kept by Archimandritof when he scouted Spruce Island in July 1860, and he asked Stevens if he would like to help search for the Kad'yak.

Stevens had no archaeological training but had used submersibles and underwater equipment as part of his work looking at crabs and sea life for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Intrigued, he began a 12-year search for the ship that ended when his team of volunteer divers found the wreck in 80 feet of water in July 2003. A year later, Stevens and a team of underwater archaeologists from East Carolina University found a brass hub on the site that positively identified the ruins as the Kad'yak.

Stevens will present a free lecture about the Kad'yak at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 16, at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, the first presentation in the center's new lecture season.

The Kad'yak is the oldest known shipwreck site in Alaska and the lone Russian-era Alaska shipwreck ever found. It has been added to the National Register of Historic Places. The ship was built in Lubeck, Germany, and came to Alaska, via Cape Horn, in 1851. It traveled between Russia, Alaska, California and Hawaii. At the time of its demise, it was part of the lucrative ice trade.

The Kad'yak's crew of 23 escaped harm. When the Kad'yak hit the rock, the boat was a mile and a half off shore. The crew of 23 jumped in rowboats and escaped harm. The boat took on water, but was filled with ice, so it didn't sink. The crew tried to salvage it, but there was little they could do. The Kad'yak drifted for six miles over the course of three days.

The ship ran aground near Spruce Island and finally sank when the ice melted.

"My guess is it hit one of the reefs and settled in it, and then as the storms came through in the winter, it rolled off the reef and broke up into several pieces," Stevens said. "We've found the anchor and the rudder separated by about 400 feet, and the ship was only 130 feet long. It must have broken up into pieces."

Stevens and the team from eastern Carolina last visited the site in the summer of 2004. They spent two weeks surveying the site with the help of a NOAA ship's high resolution, multibeam sonar and mapping out everything they could see on the surface. The maps point out the location of the anchor, the ballast and other pieces of the ship.

"It's really like going around in the dark for years, and then suddenly, you turn on the lights and you do, 'That's where that stuff is.'"

"The next step is to explore that a little better and maybe start to penetrate the surface a little bit," he said. "That takes time and money. That's really a job for the state of Alaska. The Department of Natural Resources would have to take care of that, and they don't have the money or the mandate to do it."

Technically, the site is now off-limits. The Department of Natural Resources has issued a research permit to East Carolina University, giving them exclusive research access to the site.

"From a practical standpoint, there's no way you can keep people off of it," Stevens said. "It's remote and there's no one watching over it. Ultimately, we don't want to make it totally off-limits. It could and should be a place where divers can go and look at what's down there, provided that important things are not going to be removed."

The goal is to move some of the salvaged items into museums, Stevens said.

"A pile of ballast rocks isn't worth picking up, but one or two are worth it," he said. "A big pile of chain isn't worth picking up, but it's worthwhile picking up a couple pieces of it. There are intact cannons that are worth picking up. We think some of the captain's navigational instruments might be there. There are many personal effects that went down with the ship, including coins and medallions that were given to the skipper or coins that were seaman's effects."

Some of the machinery on the bottom is likely the special equipment that ice merchants used for raising and lowering ice into the hold. There have been some books published recently on the East Coast about the ice trade, but there's little information about the machinery.

The ice trade started around 1850, right after the Gold Rush in California. San Francisco was the primary market. Ice was packed in sawdust and shipped down from Kodiak. The only alternative was shipping ice from Maine. The trade lasted until the 1870s, when the merchants were put out of business by artificial ice manufacturing and the development of the railroad, which allowed ice to be brought down from the Sierra Nevadas.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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