On this date in 1867, the then territory of Alaska was transferred to the United States from the Russian Empire.
The Alaska Territorial Legislature made it a state holiday in 1917.
The official celebration in the state takes place in Sitka, which was the capital of the territory during Russian occupation. Sitka was the location of the official transfer, and Fort Sitka was the site of the flag lowering and raising ceremony.
There is an 11 hour time difference between Sitka, Alaska and St Petersburg, Russia.
Residents of Sitka awoke that morning to beautiful, clear skies. It was a perfect day, until someone looked across Sitka Sound to Kruzof Island and its dominate feature: The long dormant volcano, Mount Edgecumbe. Black smoke could clearly be seen rising from the volcano’s crater.
Word spread quickly. Residents poured out to the beach to stare across the Sound. The authorities began taking call after call from concerned citizens. A U.S. Coast Guard commander radioed the admiral in Juneau. A helicopter was sent out to investigate.
As the Coast Guard pilot approached the crater, the smoke plume grew in size. He eased over the crater edge and peered down into the abyss, only to see a pile of burning car tires. Spray painted into the snow, in 50 foot tall letters was : APRIL FOOL.
“Porky” Bickar first thought of the idea of the fake eruption in 1971. He hoarded old tires for the next three years, and when April 1, 1974 neared, with its perfect weather forecast, Porky knew the time had come. His wife had one request: “Don’t make an ass of yourself”.
There ended up being one catch. The first two pilots contacted to fly the tires into the crater refused to go along with the prank. But the third one proved to be the charm, and Earl Walker of Petersburg was enlisted.
The tires were loaded up into two slings and hauled out to the crater along with several gallons of kerosene, and a few smoke bombs for good measure. When the pilot went back to Sitka for the second sling, Porky worked on writing the message in the snow.
The pranksters were not totally irresponsible. They had contacted both the FAA and local police, and clued them in on the joke. They did forget all about the Coast Guard, however.
The reaction in Sitka was overwhelmingly positive after residents realized that the volcano was not going to blow. The Admiral who sent the helicopter out to investigate, met Porky at a 4th of July party years later. He admitted to Porky that the prank was a “classic”. Alaska Airlines even used the stunt in a 1975 advertising campaign that highlighted the “irreverent spirit of Alaskans”.
Oliver “Porky” Bickar, was 50 years old at the time of the prank. A WWII vet, having taken part in the D-Day invasion, Porky came to Sitka with his wife in 1960. He was known for ending the All-Alaska Logging Championships, by felling a tree on a target. The target was usually a hard hat. Porky was also a talented artist working in metal.
Most importantly, Porky may be Alaska’s top prankster. On a personal note, I enjoyed reading how he would place pink, plastic flamingoes in trees along the shore for the tourist boats. A man truly worthy of his legend status.
Last April, a series of earthquakes around and under Mount Edgecumbe brought greater attention to what was considered a dormant volcano. Measurements show that magma is moving deep underneath Edgecumbe. Other signs have also brought new scrutiny: Hikers have discovered vents with bubbling gas near the volcano, and satellite images show a bulging of the ground around Edgecumbe.
None of this means that Edgecumbe will blow anytime soon, but the State of Alaska has reclassified Mount Edgecumbe as a “high risk volcano”. With 73,000 people living in the region, the reclassification was probably wise. Currently, the east side of Edgecumbe is bulging faster than any volcano in Alaska.
The Alaska Volcano Observatory has plans to install seismic sensors and other instruments on Mount Edgecumbe over the coming months. Core samples show that the volcano erupted between 4000 -4300 years ago, and Tlingit oral history tells of an eruption approximately 800 years ago.
Currently, Alaska has one volcano at Code Orange, and four others at Code Yellow.
A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the swarm of earthquakes underneath Mount Edgecumbe. The numbers are in, and radar satellite data reveals a ground deformation around the volcano. Data was analyzed for the past 7.5 years, and since 2018, an uplift around Mt Edgecumbe has been constant. The peak activity, around the crater, has shown an average uplift of 3.4″ per year since 2018, and a total uplift of 10.6″.
With the data of the ground deformation, AVO has come to the conclusion that the swarm of earthquakes is due to the movement of magma below Mount Edgecumbe, and not due to tectonic activity.
Mount Edgecumbe, a 3200 foot high stratovolcano, lies 15 miles to the west of the community of Sitka. There is no volcanic monitoring system on Edgecumbe, but there is at Sitka. AVO plans to install instruments closer to the volcano in the near future.
The rising of magma under a volcano does not necessarily mean that an eruption is imminent. The deformation and earthquakes could cease at any time. If an eruption were to occur, warning signs such as increased rate of deformation, and an increase in the earthquake swarms, would give advance warning of an eruption.
Mount Edgecumbe is a 3200′ stratovolcano located on Kruzof Island. The volcano is approximately 15 miles from the town of Sitka, which was Alaska’s capital prior to its purchase from Russia by the United States.
Mount Edgecumbe has been dormant for at least 800 years. Recently, however, there has been a swarm of over 100 earthquakes from near the volcano. The swarm does not mean that an eruption is near, but the number is somewhat unusual. The previous two years saw only twenty quakes each year. Volcanologists are studying the data to see if these recent earthquakes are volcanic or tectonic in nature.
Tlingit oral history has the volcano having small eruptions roughly 800 years ago. The last eruption in the geological record happened 4500 years ago. Mount Edgecumbe had a massive eruption 13,000 – 15,000 years ago. That eruption dropped dropped 3 feet of volcanic ash on what is now Sitka, and 98 feet of ash fell on Kruzof Island.
Alaska has had 90 volcanos that have erupted in the past 10,000 years. Currently, we have three that are at Level Orange and one that is at Level Yellow.
On this date, 150 years ago, the formal transfer of the deed to the Alaska Territory took place at Fort Sitka. In March of 1867, the United States had purchased Alaska for $7.2 million, but it took until October of that same year to get commissioners from both countries to Sitka.
October 18 was officially designated a state holiday by the Territorial Legislature in 1917.