December 7, 2023 in Alaska

HOW HOMER WENT FROM RUGGED FISHING VILLAGE TO ARTISTIC HUB

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Early History

The area surrounding what is now Homer, Alaska was originally inhabited by the Dena’ina Athabascans, an Alaska Native people. The Dena’ina had occupied the region for over 1,000 years prior to Russian and American explorers arriving.

The Dena’ina lived in small villages along the shore and relied on fishing from streams and rivers as well as hunting land mammals like moose and caribou. The rugged terrain flanking Kachemak Bay provided the Dena’ina access to an abundance of natural resources.

Several Dena’ina seasonal camps were located near the present-day site of Homer, taking advantage of the fish and game in the area. The Dena’ina had an intimate knowledge of the local ecosystem and made full use of the nutritious resources.

While the Dena’ina lived in the region for centuries, there are few written records from the pre-contact era. However, archaeologists have found evidence of Dena’ina fish camps and settlements dating back hundreds of years along the shorelines near Homer. Oral histories passed down through generations also recount the Dena’ina’s long ancestry in the area.

Russian Settlement

Russian fur traders first established a settlement in the area as early as the 1790s. The abundant otter population drew Russian merchants to the southern coast of Alaska. These traders built the first cabins in Homer, using the natural harbor as a base for hunting and trading furs.

Control of the settlement switched between Russia and the UK after a territorial dispute. In 1821, Russia solidified claim over the region per the Anglo-Russian Convention treaty. The Russian American Company operated several hunting and trading posts near what is now Homer. They named the area Saint Herman Harbor.

While the Russians did not establish a permanent settlement, their presence marked the beginning of continuous habitation in Homer. They introduced both the Russian Orthodox faith and the beginnings of a mixed Alaska Native and Russian culture. Homer remained under Russian rule until the U.S. purchased Alaska in 1867.

U.S. Acquisition

In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in a deal known as the Alaska Purchase. Russia was eager to sell its Alaskan territory, which was remote and difficult to defend, to the United States. The U.S. agreed to buy Alaska for $7.2 million, which came to about 2 cents per acre. The treaty was ratified by the Senate in May 1867.

The Alaska Purchase brought the territory that would become the city of Homer under U.S. control. At the time, there were only about 2,000 Russians and Alaska Natives living in Alaska. The purchase was initially criticized and referred to as “Seward’s Folly” after Secretary of State William H. Seward, who negotiated the deal. However, the discovery of gold in Alaska just thirty years later quickly led Americans to reconsider the value of the purchase.

Homer officially became a part of the United States with the Alaska Purchase in 1867. This brought major changes to the area, including an influx of American settlers and traders. While initially remote and disconnected from the Lower 48 states, Homer’s inclusion in the U.S. paved the way for its later development.

Growth as a Fishing Town

The abundance of salmon in Kachemak Bay led to Homer’s growth as a fishing town in the early 1900s. Commercial fishing became a mainstay of the local economy. Halibut fishing also contributed, but salmon was the primary draw.

Several canneries were constructed to process the huge salmon harvests. Cold storage facilities were built to freeze salmon to preserve them before shipping. The most notable cannery was the Diamond NN Cannery, which opened in 1933 and operated for over 50 years until 1987. At its peak, the Diamond NN processed 700,000 cases of salmon annually and employed hundreds of workers each summer.

Fishing remains a major industry in Homer to this day. The Homer Spit houses a large fishing fleet and seafood processing facilities. Commercial fishing has been through its ups and downs over the decades, but continues to shape the culture and economy of Homer. Generations of local families have fished these rich waters, establishing Homer as the Halibut Fishing Capital of the World.

Transportation Developments

Homer developed rapidly due to improved transportation links. In 1915, the Alaska Railroad was built connecting Seward to Fairbanks. While the railroad did not run directly to Homer, it allowed easier access from other parts of Alaska.

In the 1950s, road access was greatly improved with the construction of the Sterling Highway connecting Homer to Anchorage. This allowed automobile traffic direct access to the city for the first time. Prior to this, most transportation was limited to boat, ferry, or bush plane. The highway opened up Homer to tourism and helped establish it as a destination.

Major improvements were also made to the Homer Spit road system in the 1960s, further enabling development and growth. The visitor industry expanded as people could more easily reach Homer for fishing, sightseeing, and outdoor recreation. Transportation played a pivotal role in transforming Homer from a remote fishing outpost into a thriving community and regional hub.

WW2 and Military Presence

The outbreak of World War 2 had a major impact on the development of Homer and brought an influx of military personnel to the area. In 1940, Fort Raymond was built overlooking Homer Spit to provide coastal defense against potential Japanese attack. At its peak during the war, Fort Raymond was home to over 5,000 soldiers tasked with maintaining and operating massive 16-inch guns positioned in concrete bunkers.

In addition to the army base, Homer became a hub for naval facilities during WW2. A shipyard was constructed on Homer Spit along with docks, barracks, and other infrastructure to service military vessels operating in the region. The most iconic structure dating from this era is the Homer Jetty, an almost mile-long dock made from rock that protected the harbor from storms and waves. Naval operations wound down after the war, but the jetty remains a prominent landmark in Homer to this day.

WW2 had a lasting impact on Homer that went beyond just the military presence. Many soldiers who were stationed there returned after the war to settle in the area, having grown fond of its natural beauty. The influx of veterans helped drive new construction and expanded the town’s population. Although most military facilities were decommissioned, Homer’s wartime role secured its status as an important port and regional hub.

1964 Earthquake

On March 27, 1964, the most powerful earthquake recorded in North American history struck Alaska. Centered near Prince William Sound, the magnitude 9.2 megathrust earthquake caused widespread damage across south-central Alaska. In Homer, located approximately 225 miles southwest of the epicenter, the shaking lasted over 5 minutes.

The earthquake and ensuing tsunamis wreaked havoc on Homer’s infrastructure. The city’s water and electrical systems completely failed. The tsunamis flooded downtown Homer, causing severe property damage. Sections of the Homer Spit were obliterated, with docks and canneries washed out to sea. Homes collapsed and roads cracked under the intense shaking.

In the earthquake’s aftermath, Homer faced a massive rebuilding effort. With support from state and federal disaster relief, the city worked to restore critical utilities and rebuild damaged structures to modern seismic codes. The city constructed a new spit road on higher ground. Canneries and docks were rebuilt further back from the shoreline. Resilient residents banded together to repair and improve Homer’s infrastructure.

Within a few years, Homer’s progress rebuilding after the devastating 1964 earthquake demonstrated the community’s perseverance and adaptability in the face of disaster. The city emerged stronger and better prepared for future seismic events. Homer’s revitalized infrastructure became both economically and environmentally sustainable.

Modern Homer

Homer has transformed in recent decades into a popular tourist destination, known for its arts community and scenic coastal location.

The city has focused on developing its tourism industry, with lodges, hotels, restaurants, shops, galleries, and museums catering to visitors. Homer hosts several festivals and events throughout the year, such as the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival and the Kenai Peninsula Arts and Crafts Fair.

The Homer Spit features shops, fishing charters, kayak rentals, and wildlife viewing. Visitors can also take boat tours to view glaciers, go bear viewing, or watch salmon runs. The Pratt Museum provides information on the region’s nature, history, and culture.

Homer is home to many local artists and crafters, with galleries showcasing Alaskan art. The community celebrates arts and culture with events like the Winter Arts Faire. Public art, including the iconic Salty Dawg Saloon totem pole, can be found throughout town.

The deep water port facilities in Homer provide a base for commercial fishing and marine transport in Kachemak Bay. The harbor serves fishing boats, freight deliveries, cruise ships, and recreational vessels. Homer remains an important commercial fishing port for the region.

With an economy once focused on fishing transitioning towards tourism, Homer has developed into a popular vacation destination and artistic community, showcasing Alaskan culture and outdoor attractions. The town’s scenic coastal landscape, arts scene, and port facilities draw visitors to the area.

Natural Disasters

Homer has experienced various natural disasters throughout its history, posing risks to the town and surrounding area. Some of the major natural disasters include:

Floods

Flooding has impacted Homer, especially along the Anchor River. Major floods occurred in the winters of 1993-1994 and 2006-2007, causing the river to overflow its banks and damage homes and infrastructure in low-lying areas. The frequent floods demonstrate the need for effective flood control projects and preparation.

Wildfires

Wildfires are a consistent threat during the summer months around Homer, fueled by the dry conditions. In 2015, the massive Card Street wildfire burned over 6,100 acres and destroyed 11 homes on the outskirts of town. Firefighting efforts prevented further destruction. Other major fires include the 1996 Miller’s Reach fire and the 2007 East End Road fire.

Volcanic Eruptions

While not common, volcanic eruptions from the nearby Mount Augustine volcano pose a danger. In 1986, an eruption spewed ash over Homer and surrounding communities, disrupting transportation and livelihoods. Minor eruptions also occurred in 2005-2006. Monitoring and early warning systems are critical to mitigate risks from potential future volcanic activity in the region.

Proper planning and vigilance are necessary for Homer to lessen the impacts of these natural disasters on residents, infrastructure, the economy, and the area’s stunning natural environment. Education and preparedness continue to be priorities for the town.

Notable Residents

Homer, Alaska has been home to several famous people over the years. Some of the most notable include:

  • Jewel – The famous singer-songwriter was born in Homer in 1974. Many of her hit songs like “Who Will Save Your Soul” and “You Were Meant For Me” were written about her experiences growing up in Alaska. She lived in Homer until age 15.
  • Lance Mackey – Known as the “winningest musher in history”, Lance Mackey is a famous dog sled racer who calls Homer home. He has won the famous Iditarod race 4 times and the Yukon Quest race 7 times.
  • Daryll Starbird – An influential hot rod builder and automotive designer, Daryll Starbird moved to Homer in the 1970s. His custom car designs defined the radical custom car culture and hot rod style of the 1960s.
  • Tom Bodett – Author and radio personality Tom Bodett spent part of his childhood in Homer. He hosted the popular radio show “End of the Road” during the 1990s, featuring tales of his life growing up in Alaska.
  • Jewell “Sparky”sparks – A pioneer in Alaskan broadcasting, Jewell “Sparky” Sparks founded several radio stations in the Homer area beginning in 1951. Her voice was a staple on local radio for over 50 years.



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