Woody Island's lucrative Alaska export: Ice

Aunt Phil's Trunk

A little "two-by-four" island, a couple of miles off the city of Kodiak, has several Alaska firsts. The first horses in Alaska were brought here, the first road constructed, the Territory's first iron rails put in, and the first field of oats was sown: all to support a sawmill.

The sawmill established on Woody Island was perhaps unique in commercial enterprises because its main product was sawdust. And the sawmill, the iron rails, Alaska's first road, and first horses were the result of what many call "Alaska's Wackiest Industry"-ice. It was something Alaska had plenty of and California wanted.

In 1851, Californians were enjoying a gold boom and could afford such luxuries as ice to chill their drinks and keep their food from spoiling. But ice sent from Boston via Cape Horn was very expensive and not enough could be supplied to meet the demand. Alaska was closer. The first shipment of ice was sent from Sitka in February 1852, and it sold for about $75 a ton in San Francisco (more than $2,700 in 2023 dollars).

Some authorities contend that the secret and principal object of the American Russian Commercial Company, or the "Ice Company" as it was generally called, was not to deal in ice. They say it was to supply Alaska with provisions during the Crimean War when it was feared Alaska might fall into British hands. But it's beside the point whether the "ice business" was just a blind. It proved profitable, after an uncertain start, and provided work and profits for many years.

Little Woody Island profited, too, for ice from Sitka proved unpredictable due to that city's mild climate. Once – in the winter of 1853-54 – a California ice ship had to chip ice from Baird Glacier because Sitka had no ice that winter.

The first mention of the ice establishment on Woody Island comes in 1855 in a letter from Lt. Doroshin to Gen. Helmerson, according to "Seal and Salmon Fisheries and General Resources of Alaska IV."

"On Wood Island, Kodiak Harbor, during a number of years past, horses have been kept to perform certain labor in connection with a mysterious ice company and for the use of these horses a field of 12 acres of oats is regularly sown."

The Russians built two large icehouses on Woody during 1852-53, when it was discovered that 40-acre Lake Tanignak could supply better ice than Sitka. To keep the ice from melting, a water-powered mill was erected to produce sawdust in which to pack the ice until it was shipped.

Between 1852 and 1859, more than 7,000 tons of ice was shipped as far south as Mexico and Central and South America.

A farce almost unequalled in history occurred during this time, as well, according to Yule Chaffin, author of "From Koniag to King Crab." An artificial ice machine was invented in the early 1850s, but the machines were expensive, and few people could afford them.

To stifle competition, the ice machine manufacturer offered to pay a set sum every year to the Alaska ice company not to ship the ice it chipped. The contract between them was renewed for several years, and to make sure the ice machine manufacturers wouldn't back out of the agreement, Woody Islanders continued to put up new ice each year, letting the old ice melt.

Construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad put an end to Woody Island's ice business, as it became more feasible to ship ice from the Sierras into San Francisco.

This column features tidbits found in Aunt Phil's Trunk, a five-book Alaska history series written by Laurel Downing Bill and her late aunt, Phyllis Downing Carlson. The books are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at http://www.auntphilstrunk.com.

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