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Emilie Springer: Beluga Slough Chronicle

Pratt Museum


    This week commentator Emilie Springer shares with us a story of adventures on Beluga Slough from the 1930s, originally told by Tom Shelford to a Homer Middle School student in 1981. The piece is archived in the Pratt Museum.

     This piece started with review of an interview transcript with Homer local Tom Shelford on July 22, 1981, conducted by a middle school student. It was part of a project sponsored by the Homer Society of Natural History connecting young residents with homesteaders to gather Homer life histories.  There are very few questions from     the student, it’s mostly a personal commentary. But, the interviewer’s pulse needs recognition.  The young person’s presence is what brought out the recording even though Shelford’s words are the story and manuscript.  

     To share it I left some parts of the transcript as direct quotes because they maintain the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.  

     The message I interpret from it is Beluga Slough chronicle. Often, the Slough is a space and place that provides a rest for everyone who knows it: I walked there recently for a delayed catch up with a friend, the trails are helpful for dog-lovers, a covered pavilion offers wind shelter for those who need it, here’s a story where it plays into Homer history on a minor chord.

First, a representation I found in monologue that is not my own.  This is Tom Shelford, 1981, from the Pratt Museum archives.

“I came to Homer to stay in Homer.   I lived for two years in Seldovia and came to Homer in 1930.

When I first moved to Alaska, I didn’t know Seldovia was on the map. I spent a year and a half down in Washington to get enough money to pay my fare. I was planning to go to Fairbanks, but so was everybody else. A fellow on the boat says, “you better come to Seldovia with me.” I said, “where in the heck is Seldovia?”  And he pointed it out to me on the map.

Come up on that old steamer, the Northwestern.  We landed in Seward.  Then took the train to Anchorage. We had to lay in Anchorage for two weeks before we could catch the mail boat down the Inlet to Seldovia.

I looked at that town and thought, Boy, this is the end of the world. Anyway, I only had $20 left in my pocket. I thought, I better get some money from someplace and go back.

I was walking down the street, and Old man Young who owns the grocery store was sitting out there on the railing, feeding the pigeons. I got talking to him and asked him if there was any work around here.

And he said, “Here comes a fellow down the street right now. I think he's looking for some men. It was Andy Holmes. He had a herring saltery.  Young stopped him and introduced me. I asked him if he needed any help. “Come right on down, $6 a day,” he said.

After several more details Shelton closes, “And I've been here ever since. I homesteaded here, down here on Beluga Slough. I owned half of that slough at one time. Bought it for $50.  I could talk and talk all day. It used to be quite a deal here when we didn't have any boat Harbor only just this Beluga Slough.”

    The transcript gets convoluted here. Originally, I skimmed over it and recognized the earlier pride of personal story.  But the story isn’t over, it’s actually where the pace picks up and the nature of the slough takes over.  Here is the weight of it.

     In the final two pages of transcript, with the theme of the Slough as a difficult harbor, Shelford begins an account of Seldovia residents who wanted to be shuttled to Homer. Travel date logistics may be inaccurate, but it sounds like spring. It’s more a “slough” of words in a different way than the rest of the piece.  It’s a marsh of storm terms “blowing southwest to beat heck, 12-13 foot rolling seas, it was boiling in there,” character names, relationships, interpretations, remembered dialogue, “I wonder if the mail will be in today” one woman said and someone responded, “well, they can’t use the slough, they’ll have to go around the spit and come in Mud Bay.”  Shelford recalls a group of residents watching the attempted harbor.

     A final tragic wave fails the engine of the boat that did pursue the slough and was pulled back out into the surf and collapsed. Shelford provides more dramatic and extremely detailed information about who was in the boat, what the folks on the beach did to try and save or find survivors and what they sought the next day.  

     When he gets a chance, the interviewer ends the story abruptly with, “thank you very much I will have to come back and talk to you some other time.” Silence.  Blank page.

     I enjoy hearing casual Homer history of herring and mail boats and fox farms, but rearticulating community loss and detailed shipwrecks hold core value, too.  This is an insightful mix of weather, geography of the slough, impact of tides and human decisions.  A local memory and lesson.



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