W. Eickelberg, Hydrographic and Geodetic Engineer
U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey
(From the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey
FIELD ENGINEERS BULLETIN
no. 10, December 1936)
There is an area of uncompleted hydrography and topography lying
about 40 miles north of Cape Spencer in the Gulf of Alaska,
between Lituya Bay and Yakutat Bay. It is a region of great
natural beauty. Mount Fairweather and Mount Crillon, part of
the Fairweather Range and so useful to the navigator and hydrographer
dominate the picture. This range is one of the highest groups
of coastal mountain peaks on the face of the earth and has been
the scene of a number of unsuccessful as well as successful
attacks by climbing parties. Lituya Bay usually has been the
base for such operations. It is a "T" shaped bay,
eleven square miles in area, the bottom of the "T"
affording a narrow and treacherous connection to the Pacific
Ocean. The entrance channel is only 80 yards in width and about
18 feet deep through which the large volume of water created
by a tidal range of from 5 to 10 feet must pass four times daily.
The ebb and flood currents reach maximum velocities estimated
at 12 knots. The ebb current causes the most dangerous condition
at the entrance by breaking up the ocean swell into a bedlam
of smaller cross seas in which no small craft would long remain
afloat. The general depth of the bay is about 100 fathoms, although
there is a good anchorage in a bight just inside the entrance
and well out of the strong current. Glaciers come down to the
water's edge in both arms of the bay, discharging icebergs into
Lituya Bay. In: Pacific Coast Pilot Alaska Part I 1883.
P. 202. Library call number VK943 .N3 1883.
The first record of Lituya Bay (although Captain Cook(2) reported
the existence of the Fairweather Range in 1778) is by the French
explorer La Perouse(1) who navigated its treacherous entrance
with two frigates in 1786, a very nice piece of seamanship.
He made a survey and map of the bay on a scale of 1:50,000,
which map, when compared with more recent surveys, discloses
the fact that the glaciers at the head of the bay have advanced
so that the distance between them has changed from 8 nautical
miles to about three. That this is without doubt a real movement
is evidenced by the unusual accuracy of the other features on
the map when compared with the modern surveys. La Perouse also
made astronomical observations and recorded the plant and animal
life, Indian life and culture. While his fleet was anchored
in the bay six officers and fifteen men in two small boats approached
too close to the entrance while they were surveying the bay
and were swept out to sea in the strong ebb current. The boats
were swamped in the broken sea and all hands were lost.
In 1874, seven years after the purchase of Alaska, the Coast
and Geodetic Survey schooner YUKON, in charge of Acting Assistant
W. H. Dall, with Marcus Baker as astronomical observer, entered
Lituya bay for the determination of elevations of the Fairweather
Peaks and for astronomical observations. A brief account of
this project is quoted here from the Superintendent's report,
Coast Survey 1875.(3)(4)
the 3rd of May, 1874, Mr. Dall took up the coast reconnaissance
at Sitka, and from thence in passing up the coast recorded current
and temperature observations and plotted soundings. Vertical
angles were measured to determine the heights of mountains in
that region that serve as landmarks at sea. Observations for
time, azimuth, and latitude were made at Lituya Entrance, and
the position given on most charts found to be erroneous. The
chart of the inner bay, by La Perouse, was tested, and proved
to be generally accurate. Here the party on the YUKON had much
difficulty in preventing the persistent attempts of the natives
to board the vessel, but fortunately they were kept off without
bloodshed. It is added in the report that these natives distill
their own rum, and are well supplied with the best kinds of
firearms. Before leaving the place, observations were made for
correcting the positions heretofore assigned to Mount Fairweather
and Mount Crillon. It is recorded that except at slack water
the sea breaks quite across the entrance to Lituya Bay, even
in calm weather.
few days following the 20th of May were occupied in hydrographic
work at Dry Bay, in reaching which the YUKON passed the seaward
face of the Grand Plateau Glacier of La Perouse. Mr. Dall procured
data for a corrected sketch of the Bay, and for a general chart
of the coast southward as far as Lituya Entrance. Of the region
inland, he says: 'The scenery is grand; the mountains, reaching
16,000 feet above the sea, are bedded in forest lowlands, and
are scored by enormous glaciers.'"
As a matter of passing interest it is noted that "on the
29th of September, the YUKON sailed from Unalaska (in the Aleutian
Archipelago) for San Francisco and arrived there 13 days later
after a stormy passage." The YUKON was a two masted schooner
of 100.7 tons, 83.1 feet by 23.5 feet by 8-2/3 feet draft. She
was built in Kennebunk, Maine in 1873.
Although nothing is reported of the earlier Russian visits to
this region, it is known that they discovered gold deposits
in the sands along the beach north and south of Lituya Bay and
placer-mined them for some time. In 1894 Americans began to
work these placers and continued to do so for a number of years.
In 1926 there was still some evidence of the gold mining of
previous years along the beach. Some of the old machinery and
workings were identified and one of the gold-rush pioneers,
Mr. Jim Huscroft, then engaged in fox farming, was living on
Cenotaph Island. Also in 1894 a topographic map of Lituya Bay
was made by the International Boundary Commission, published
by the Alaskan Boundary Tribunal, and included in The Atlas
of Award. This collection contains 25 sectional maps of the
Alaskan boundary and was printed in 1904. In 1906 a U. S. Geological
Survey party, headed by F. E. and C. W. Wright, spent three
days in Lituya Bay. In 1917 J. B. Mertie, Jr., U. S. Geological
Survey, spent three days in Lituya Bay making geological observations
and collecting fossils. This work is described in Bulletin 836-B(5)
entitled "Notes on the Geography and Geology of Lituya
Bay, Alaska." It is prefaced by a very interesting history
of the region and lists many references.
In 1926 the Coast and Geodetic Survey Ship SURVEYOR, after several
seasons of work in the Gulf of Alaska, reached the region of
Icy Point about 30 miles below Lituya Bay. Triangulation was
extended 7 miles north of this point to a position just south
of La Perouse Glacier. On account of the difficult terrain,
high peaks, and glaciers, and the fact that much of the beach
north of this point was suitable for traverse, it was decided
to carry the control by this method rather than by triangulation.
This work is well described in a season's report by the Commanding
Officer, A. M. Sobieralski,(6) and a special traverse report
by the writer included therein giving recommendations for future
Many interesting features were connected with this work. Due
to uncertain landing conditions the topography and traverse
were done mostly from camp. Most of the walking in sand and
gravel, particularly at high tide, was very tedious inasmuch
as rubber boots has to be worn for crossing glacier streams.
One of the men, without rubber boots, attempting to cross the
stream coming out of La Perouse Glacier, failed in three attempts;
and returning to shore after the third attempt, dropped to the
ground because his limbs collapsed under him probably due to
lack of circulation. A tape thermometer immersed in the stream
gave a temperature of +0.50 centigrade.
Some of these streams were deep enough so that they could not
be waded. In such cases the party went upstream a short distance
and felled trees to serve as bridges. The streams were usually
narrow enough so that they could be spanned by a fifty meter
tape. In only one case was triangulation necessary to carry
control across a stream.
This difficult traverse had its compensation however. For a
distance of 12 miles the sandy beach was bordered by one continuous
bed of strawberries indulged in both by members of the party
and by native brown bears (not simultaneously).
Several hunting parties started from camp but none of them ever
was successful in getting a bear. On one occasion one of the
seamen returned out of breath, and upon asking him where the
other man in the party was, he explained that their service
rifle had jammed in shooting at a large bear and that he had
made for camp in obvious and prudent haste while his companion
had climbed a tree.
The salmon and trout fishing were, of course, excellent in this
isolated area. In Lituya Bay salmon fishing was particularly
interesting and was indulged in frequently by members of the
SURVEYOR's complement who were cautioned to keep away from the
entrance during ebb tide. In the excitement of landing a salmon,
two of the men in a skiff were swept out to sea and their boat
was swamped. They had left the ship after supper and were not
missed until after dark when search parties were organized which
proceeded along the beach in both directions from the bay. These
parties returned to the ship without having found any trace
of the missing men. At daybreak search parties were again sent
out and soon located the men asleep under some brush for a cover.
The noise of the approaching party had not awakened them because
of their sound sleep resulting from sheer exhaustion in their
efforts to reach shore. After they were swamped they clung to
the skiff long enough to remove their clothing and managed to
In this same year Allen Carpé and Dr. William S. Ladd
of New York City and Andrew S. Taylor of McCarthy, Alaska made
an unsuccessful attempt to scale Mount Fairweather from Sea
Otter Bight 25 miles north of Lituya Bay.
In 1930 H. Bradford Washburn, Jr. made a similar unsuccessful
attempt. In June of 1931 Carpé, Ladd and Taylor and Terris
Moore of Haddonfield, New Jersey, operating from Lituya Bay,
were successful in reaching the summit of Mount Fairweather.(7)
The Harvard-Dartmouth Alaska Expeditions of 1933 and 1934 have
been described by H. Bradford Washburn, Jr. and Richard P. Goldthwait
in various journals. The purpose of these expeditions was to
make scientific observations in connection with glacier movement,
thickness of the ice, and other phenomena, and also for the
purpose of scaling Mount Crillon. All of the aims of the expedition
were achieved, Mr. Washburn's party succeeded in reaching the
top in July, 1934.(8)(9)
An interesting feature of this work was the use of a seaplane
in transferring equipment from Lituya Bay to Crillon Lake where
a base camp was established. The seaplane was again used in
transferring 900 pounds of canned food and tents separated into
31 wire-bound packages and dropped from the air into the snow
at an elevation of 5600 feet for the establishment of another
camp. No parachutes were placed on the packages and although
they fell nearly 1000 feet there was very little breakage; only
a few tins of vegetables were broken. In this way they accomplished
in a single day the work of six men for two weeks which would
have been required had the material been packed to this location.
The work on the glaciers involved the application of seismic
methods in the measurement of their thicknesses.(10) Artificial
earthquakes caused by blasts of from 1 to 5 pounds of dynamite
generated the necessary waves. The apparatus consisted of 2
geophones, (vertical seismometers) recording through galvanometers
on moving photographic tape. A tuning fork furnished time control,
and phase interpretations were made with an accuracy of .001
of a second. The thickness of the ice was determined by reflections
from the underlying rock. The shape of the bottom profile was
very similar to the shape of the bottom of Crillon Lake which
was determined by measuring the depth of water. This lake has
a bowl-shaped bottom. It is 640 feet deep and its surface is
315 feet above sea level. The bottom is therefore considerably
below sea level. Observations were made for determining the
speed of movement of the glaciers. It was found that this varies
throughout the day. In the early morning, at noon and again
at sunset the ice moves nearly twice as fast as at other times
during the day. The ice movement also depends largely upon the
weather, and an average is 40 cm. in 12 hours during clear weather.
This drops to as low as 19 cm. for 12 hours during the night
in rainy weather. The observing was done with theodolites on
targets and lights. An excellent reconnaissance map was compiled
from existing data and the U. S. Forest Service air photographs,
using as control the Coast and Geodetic Survey traverse and
triangulation stations supplemented by the expedition's own
triangulation. This map is on a scale of 1:40,000 and was compiled
at the Institute of Geographical Exploration, Harvard University.
A copy of this map reproduced on a scale of 1:100,000 may be
found with the articles in references 9 and 10.
The difficulties of mountain climbing in this region are well
described by Washburn. He says: "One must wade to climb;"
in other words land through surf and start to climb in wet clothing.
He says rightly: "There are no huts, no porters and no
guides but the beauty of the country casts a spell which is
well-nigh impossible to shake off."
(1) 1786 La Perouse, "A Voyage Around the World,"
Vol. 1, London, 1799, pp. 364 - 416.
1894 Notes on the glaciers of southeastern Alaska and adjoining
territory: Geog. Jour. Vol. 14, pp. 524 - 526, 1899.
1778 "Cook's Last Voyage," Vol. 2, 1784, pp. 345 -
Report of the Superintendent, U. S. Coast Survey, 1875, Appendix
No. 10 and also Section 12, page 64.
(4) Alaska Tertiary Deposits; American Journal of Science, Vol.
24, pp. 67, 68, 1882, W. H. Dall.
Notes on the Geography and Geology of Lituya Bay, Alaska; Bulletin
836 B, Dept. of the Interior, Geological Survey.
Seasons Report for 1927, No. 102, Coast and Geodetic Survey
Ship SURVEYOR, season March 22 to November 7, 1926.
The Conquest of Mount Fairweather by Allen Carpé; Alpine
Journal, Vol. 43, 1931; pp. 221 - 230.
The Conquest of Mount Crillon, by H. Bradford Washburn, The
National Geographic Magazine, March 1935, Vol. LXVII.
The Harvard - Dartmouth Alaska Expeditions 1933-34 by H. Bradford
Washburn, Jr., & Richard P. Goldthwait, Geographical Journal,
London, Vol. LXXXVII, June 1936, pp. 481 - 495.
Seismic Sounding on South Crillon & Klooch Glaciers by Richard
P. Goldthwait; Geog. Jour., London, Vol. LXXXVII, June 1936,
pp. 496 - 517.
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