Emilie Springer -- Portlock lumbermill and fish traps
This week Emilie Springer takes us back to a 1981 interview archived at the Pratt Museum about a Halibut Cove man who owned a sawmill in Portlock before statehood.
Instead of interviewing a contemporary business, I went back into the Pratt archives this week. This piece is from the same collection as Tom Shelford and what is now Homer’s Beluga Slough and story I presented several months ago. The narrator here is Tom Larsen. A little bit more about the collection: it looks like an assignment for 1981 high school students to interview long term residents of the general vicinity of Homer and some communities across the bay. The composition is almost entirely in monologue format. The only structure that sets the piece is the date, August 14, 1981, and place, Halibut Cove, Alaska. Then the interviewer asks “when and why did you first move to Halibut Cove?” And Larsen takes off with a little bit about filing for property in Halibut Cove, but what caught my attention was how he got there, “I came from Portlock, I had a place, a small sawmill that cut fish traps for the Inlet. You didn’t have them; they were voted out with statehood.”
To set the stage a little more, I investigated the place name “Portlock” in Donald Orth’s 1971 reprint of Dictionary of Alaska Place Names and found this citation: “a locality, on the south coast of the Kenai Peninsula. South shore of Port Chatham, 16 miles south of Seldovia. This locality was primarily established as a cannery. A post office was established there in 1921; discontinued in 1950. It was probably named for Capt. Nathaniel Portlock, who explored the area in 1786-87.” Then, for slightly more background on Tom Larsen, I found his gravesite listed through Alaska Cemetery Archives in the Halibut Cove Tillion Cemetery: “Thomas Ween Larsen, born Stavanger, Norway, November 5, 1899, died Homer, Alaska 1994.”
His commentary rambles through quite a bit of the transitions in Alaska right around statehood but I want to focus on his comments on place and occupation.
He begins with his early time in southeast Alaska and doesn’t say where he lived prior to that: “when I came to Alaska in 1925, there were about 30,000 white people in Alaska. I lived in Juneau and hunted around. I never fished down there. I worked for the mine there for awhile in the early 30’s. And then I went out and trapped and lived off the country. I went sixty miles east. It’s kind of an old mining district. I was also prospecting, getting tangled up with some miners there.”
He was there until about 1940 then went to Juneau and got a job with the Territorial Employment Office and then was deployed to Yakutat and worked off the military base there for several years. He mentions several small military sites across the state as well as Anchorage and Fairbanks and once war activity tapered off, “I couldn’t see anything worth staying for in Anchorage so I quit the military and took the steamboat to Seldovia and then Portlock.”
“I bought the mill and set it up because there was a lot of timber around there. I cut planking for the canneries. They had the big traps, you know. We cut 3” by 8” planking, 32 feet long for the leads. They had this old piling and hung planks on it and then webbing for leading the salmon from the beach into the spinners. There were lots of traps up there. The biggest trap salvaged nine thousand board feet of lumber. Port Graham owned that trap.”
And then, he ends the trap commentary abruptly, “then they voted the traps out and that’s when some of the set netters on the beach made money.” If the dates the on the gravesite and the transcript are accurate, this interview would have taken place with an 82 year old man with a lot to say. The part that I’ve shared here is only about 1 page of 10 pages of commentary.
To follow up on the salmon trap process and what Larsen refers to regarding “planks” and “leads” and a more clear description of the need for logging I looked at a 1968 leaflet published by the US Department of the Interior and you can find that website.