The History of Homer

  • Homer isn't all that old compared to, say, Boston. But although our history is short, it's loaded with "last frontier" color. We can only abbreviate it here, but our library has a section of Alaska history that includes Janet Klein's A History of Kachemak Bay and Historic Homer: A Building Survey and Inventory, to mention a few of the rich sources. For personal stories of some of the pioneers who settled this area, peruse Hazel Heath's compilation of first-person accounts, In Those Days. Great fun for a rainy afternoon.

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  • Long before the Caucasians came, first the Pacific Eskimos then the Dena'ina Indians lived here, primarily on the southern shores of Kachemak Bay, gathering their necessities from the waters, shores and hills, leaving testimony of their lifestyle throughout the area.
  • Coal, mined from seams lacing the north shore of Kachemak Bay, was Homer's first economic reason for existing. Russians reported the abundance of coal in the mid 1800s and by 1889 American companies were mining and shipping coal via Alaska's first railroad that ran 7.38 miles from shafts and tunnels near Coal Creek above old town (now the site of Bunnell Street Gallery) to a large wharf built near the end of the 4.5 mile Spit. There it was loaded onto waiting ships.
  • Supported by this industry, the first town was established at the end of the Homer Spit, a grassy finger of land "spit up" by the ocean. (Another theory is that it is a moraine left behind by glaciers retreating into the Kenai Mountains on the far side of Kachemak Bay). In those days, before the 1964 earthquake, the spit was higher and wider and even supported a stand of spruce in an area still called "Green Timbers."
  • When Homer Pennock and his 50-man/one-woman crew dropped anchor at the end of the Spit in April of 1896, the Alaska Gold Mining Company took a minor role in shaping history by giving the town its name. Described variously as a promoter and "the most talented confidence man who ever operated on this continent," the town's namesake only stayed about a year, moving on to the Klondike when gold was discovered there.
  • The first post office opened in 1886 but by 1902 the coal market faded and the vulnerable spit-end company town was abandoned. A handful of remaining residents resettled on the benchland, turning to farming and fishing.
  • Shaping the direction of growth in the area, a salmon cannery was built in Seldovia, 13 miles southwest of Homer across the Bay. A school was established here by 1919 and a few churches also strengthened the social fabric. Telephones and a road secured the town's stability in the 1920s, and short-lived but intense herring and fur enterprises provided brief economic boosts around Kachemak Bay. As those industries waned, salmon fishing and processing continued to strengthen.
  • Much of the Spit town was torn down and recycled into new structures for homesteaders and fishermen and then during the early 1930s most of the remaining structures burned in a slow-spreading fire fed by coal that had washed ashore. The cabin, that is now part of the Salty Dawg Saloon, was one of the few structures that survived.
  • During the 1940s, the town grew physically, but shrank in numbers from 325 in 1940 to 307 in 1950. In addition to salmon, other seafood such as crab, shrimp and halibut were added to the harvest from bountiful Kachemak Bay, further strengthening the area economy. Seldovia was the focus of this growth until the 1964 earthquake destroyed that town's waterfront and canneries, shifting the action to Homer.
  • The earth was virtually still quivering from the Good Friday, March 13, quake when the town incorporated as a first-class city four days later.
  • During the early part of the century, hundreds of homesteaders sprawled east along the bench above the Bay, raising a variety of crops and livestock while establishing a living-with-the-land lifestyle that flavors the character of the area today. But although the soil is rich, the cool damp weather and distance from markets deters extensive farming. Logging spruce has been a major support industry this century, with the current boom fueled by spruce bark beetle damage and logging restrictions elsewhere.
  • Strong-willed and highly-individualistic characters have laced the entire area throughout its history. The incomparably beautiful land and sea also shaped the artistic nature of the people who increasingly turn their talents to producing arts and crafts for the growing number of visitors. Conversely, that industry is fueled by the Kachemak area's growing reputation in the arts as well as its sports fishing and nature-oriented activities.
  • And, although it is no longer a thriving industry, coal still fuels local fires. Residents collect chunks of the black shiny stuff from the beaches, mainly north of Bishop's beach, where it is abundantly strewn after big tides and storms break it from the seams.

This guide brought to you by The Homer Tribune. Publisher: Jane M. Pascall. Voice (907)235-3714, Fax (907)235-3716 E-mail: info@homertribune.com, 601 E. Pioneer Ave., Suite 109, Homer, AK 99603.


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