Just a couple of days ago, I overheard heard my father-in-law, Mark, speaking to my father about wanting to visit a place called Lituya Bay. Dad mentioned that he had always wanted to visit the bay, too.
Mark was a commercial fisherman in Ketchikan, a southeast Alaska town not far from the Bay, and my family lived in Skagway, a little further north of it.
Why the interest in Lituya Bay? Because on the night of July 9th, 1958, Lituya Bay experienced the largest tidal wave in recorded history.
Lituya Bay lies on the edge of the Gulf of Alaska, about half way between Cape Spencer and Yakutat. It is the only secure anchorage along more than 100 miles of the southeast coast in that particular area.
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On that July day, 55 years ago this month, three boats entered the Bay’s narrow entrance to anchor for the night.
On board one boat, the Edrie, was Howard Ulrich and his eight-year old son, Sonny. Bill and Vivian Swanson were aboard the Badger, and Orville and Mickey Wagner were on the Sunmore.
At 10:16 pm, a massive earthquake struck the area. Estimates of the quake’s magnitude range from 7.7 to 8.3.
All three of the boats occupants were awakened by the quake, and immediately following it, a deafening roar was heard. At the end of the bay, a steep slope from a nearly 6,000-foot tall, unnamed peak broke loose. 40 million cubic yards of rock tumbled nearly vertically between 2,000-3,000 feet, into the 800 foot deep water at the Bay’s end.
The rock debris displaced a tremendous amount of water and sent an unbelievably huge way crashing into a nearby mountainside. The height of the wave was 1,720 feet! How do we know this? Because that is the level of that mountainside that was wiped clean of trees and vegetation. That’s the reason Mark and my father want to visit the site. Others who have visited the bay are in awe of the scar on that mountain. It clearly illustrates how big and powerful the wave was.
After that first blast, the remaining displaced water headed towards the bay’s narrow entrance in the form of an eighty-foot wall.
Orville and Mickey Wagner, aboard the Sunmore, reacted quickly. They pulled anchor and tried to race the wave out of the bay. They lost. The wave caught them, lifted them high into the air, and then tossed them out to sea. The only trace of them that was found was an oil sheen on the water where they sunk.
Bill and Vivian Swanson, aboard the Badger, were able to ride the wave out. It carried them eighty feet in the air, up and over La Chausse Spit, where Bill said he looked down on tall spruce trees and large boulders. The Badger landed stern-first in the ocean and started sinking. Bill and Vivian were able to climb into a small lifeboat (in their underwear) until they were rescued two-hours later.
Vivian claimed that her hair turned gray in that one night, and she never went fishing again. Bill visited Lituya Bay again four years after the incident, but suffered a heart-attack and died shortly after entering it.
Howard and Sonny Ulrich also managed to ride the wave out, although they never thought they’d make it. Moments before the wave hit them, Howard sent out a Mayday call in which he said, “Mayday! Mayday! This is the Edrie in Lituya Bay. All hell has broken loose here. I think we’ve had it. Good bye.”
Moments after reaching safety, he radioed that he had survived. Other boats in the area heard his call and rushed to the area to render any aid that might be needed.
Eighty miles north of Lituya Bay, near Yakutat, three berry pickers were killed when the island they were working on suddenly sank 24 feet. Meanwhile, a nearby mountain rose 50 feet during the event. The glacier at the end of Lituya Bay rose and buckled like an accordion. The ground along the earthquake’s fault line shifted sideways 21 feet, and vertically 3.5 feet.
Lituya Bay has a long history of tidal waves. Shoreline evidence points to huge waves striking the area over the past few hundred years, but never as big as the one in the 1958 event.
In 1786, French explorer Jean-Francois La Perouse lost twenty sailors when they were swept out the bay’s narrow entrance.
Tlingit Indian lore is filled with tales of huge waves and mass drownings in the bay.
Lituya Bay is another one of those unique Alaskan places on my bucket list… a beautiful location with a rich and tragic past.
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(Featured image source: laperouse-france.fr)
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