The California gold rush, which started in 1849, flooded the state with people and increased the general wealth. Along with a higher standard of living came a greater demand for ice, which was a difficult product to obtain and deliver.
By the mid-1800s, the economy in Russian America had hit bottom. The sea otter population had diminished, and the fur trade on Kodiak collapsed. Thankfully, a new source of income presented itself. In 1852, the lake on Woody Island, an island near the city of Kodiak, became one of Alaska’s most valuable assets. In the winter, the ice on the lake was sawed into blocks and shipped to San Francisco. When the first load sold for $75 a ton, the Russian American Company realized that ice was a very profitable commodity. They soon had competition, however, when the first ice machines were invented. Twenty years later, machines had taken over the business entirely.
The Kad’yak was one of The Russian American Company’s smallest ships. She was a three-masted bark, 120 feet long and 30 feet wide. Her hull was covered in copper to prevent the growth of barnacles and other marine organisms.
On March 30, 1860, the Kad’yak left Woody Island bound for San Francisco, loaded with 356 tons of ice. Perhaps he was running late, or perhaps Captain Illarion Arkhimandritov was not superstitious. For whatever reason, he failed to observe the usual custom of paying his respects at Father Herman’s grave to receive a blessing for the voyage. Locals would later blame Kad’yak’s fate on this omission.
Shortly after setting sail, the ship hit a rock, tearing a large hole in the hull and quickly filling with water. The crew abandoned ship and went ashore in the lifeboats. But the ship didn’t sink. Her cargo of ice kept her afloat, drifting between the islands. Four days later, she sank in Icon Bay, off of Spruce Island. Ironically, the top of the ship’s mast and yardarm, still visible above the water, formed a cross marking her watery grave, directly in front of Father Herman’s chapel.
Since the 1970s, people had been searching in vain for the sunken Kad’yak, using the location parameters recorded in the ship’s log. Bradley Stevens suspected that those parameters had been misinterpreted and,143 years after she sank, believed he had new clues about Kad’yak’s position.
On July 21, 2003, we left the Kodiak harbor on board the Melmar. Our captain was Joshua Lewis, a teacher and fisherman from Kodiak. With great expectations, we arrived in Icon Bay, lowered the magnetometer into the water and fastened it behind the boat. A magnetometer, a device that resembles a miniature submarine, is an ultra-powerful metal detector that can detect metal buried or submerged far below the surface. Towing the magnetometer back and forth, we mapped the floor of the bay. When we reached the position Bradley had marked on his map, the magnetometer indicated the presence of large metal objects. Could it be the Kad’yak?
We began diving that afternoon, and by evening, we had found several pieces of copper. Cautiously optimistic, we returned to Kodiak.
Early the next morning, we were back in Icon Bay, and on our first dive, we found what appeared to be part of the ballast. We also found two cannons, an anchor, and a chain that matched the time period of the Kad’yak. Convinced that we had made a substantial discovery, we reported our findings. The news spread across the nation, and all diving was stopped in Icon Bay. Because of the historical significance of our find, all exploration rights for the shipwreck had automatically transferred to the State of Alaska.
The following summer, the East Carolina University organized a marine archeological excavation of the lagoon, and we who had found the shipwreck were invited, somewhat reluctantly, to join the expedition. With support from NOAA and the National Science Foundation, the university had the resources and the competency to complete the task. Though many artifacts were uncovered during the excavation, the most significant find was the copper hub of the ship’s wheel with the name “Kad’yak” inscribed in Russian letters, which positively identified the shipwreck.
When the excavation was completed, the remains of the Kad’yak were again buried in sand. A large portion of the hull and other artifacts from the ship lay in wait for someone with the authority and the resources to uncover her secrets. Barring that, Captain Arkhimandritov’s old ship will rest in peace at the bottom of the lagoon for centuries to come.
(Excerpt from “Kodiak, Alaska – The Island of the Great Bear”. The book can be purchased from Camera Q )
Don’t miss our first ”Kodiak Scandinavian Film and Culture and Festival” on Kodiak, Alaska, November 6-12, 2017. See Camera Q for more information.