Wrangell Narrow, S.E. Alaska, ca 1926
The 1926 postcard above shows the Wrangell Narrows in Southeastern Alaska with the photograph taken by John E. Thwaites. Thwaites was an amateur photographer and a federal government railway mail clerk who traveled on the wooden mail boat, S.S. Dora, between Valdez to Unalaksa delivering mail. He used a Kodak camera to take his pictures and at some point he realized the potential of the postcard business and sold thousands of his photographic images of Alaska for use on cards such as this one.
Although the card was sent to I.C. Lee from his friend, John, it is of the same area where my father, Bill Schroder, worked tending fish traps in the mid 1930s. Fish traps were first constructed in the late 1890s and were still in use into the 1950s although the numbers of traps were diminishing. There were at one time over 100 fish canneries headquartered in southeastern Alaska; however, the larger companies began buying out the smaller ones and today there are still fish canneries but only a few. After Alaska became a state in 1959 all the remaining traps were decommissioned. The fish traps were discovered to be the cause of severe damage to the salmon runs and general fishing in the area. Today fishing and logging continue to be the mainstays of the Wrangell economy.
When Dad worked there part of his job was to fend off poachers who would steal most or all of the fish in the traps before the canneries could harvest them. One story that was told about his time working for the Wrangell Fish Packing Company was when he was in his early twenties probably about 1936 or 1937. A man woke him in the middle of the night and held him at gunpoint. He was ordered to unlock the fish trap so the poachers could get at the fish. At about the same time a soap company executive was out on a boat in the strait that night and thought he saw some suspicious activity near the traps. He took his boat over to get a better look and had also apparently radioed ahead to the local law authorities. They rescued Dad from the poachers. The case went to trial even though the poachers threatened to come back and find Dad and kill him if he testified in court. Dad did testify along with the soap company man and the poachers were convicted.
The 22-mile (35 kilometer) channel is narrow, shallow, and winding with navigational hazards. About 60 lights and buoys mark the Narrows that run between the islands of Mitkof and Kupreanof in the Alexander Archipelago. There is also a town named Wrangell at the northwest corner of Wrangell Island.
The Tlingit people have lived on the island for thousands of years and there are numerous scattered petroglyphs just north of Wrangell. The oldest non-native settlements on the island were founded by Russian traders who came in 1811 to what is the present-day site of the town of Wrangell. The Hudson’s Bay Company of Britain started using the Tlingit trading routes under protest by the Tlingits in the mid 1800s. The native population was severely affected by two smallpox epidemics in 1836 and 1840. The Hudson’s Bay Company abandoned their fort in 1849 when the stocks of sea otter and beaver became depleted. The United States built a military post called Fort Wrangell in 1868.
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