By Clark Fair
Our perception of what is historically important is often determined by the names we assign to the events or objects that reflect that history. A name acts like a marker, reminding us of the past. Consequently, when a name disappears, the associated history tends to follow.
Mike Steik, who was born in Ninilchik in 1934, can remember an old marine navigation map that he once kept rolled up in his boat when he fished commercially in the early 1950s. On that map, just south of Corea Creek, lay a stretch of shoreline clearly labeled “Corea Bend.”
Since he stopped fishing after he was drafted into the military in 1956, Steik said he has lost track of that map, and he can’t remember seeing one since that featured the name “Corea Bend.”
Nick Leman, 92, who was born in Ninilchik in 1917 and honeymooned with his wife, Marian, in a small cabin near Corea Bend in August 1947, said that that stretch of shoreline has been called Corea Bend as far back as he can remember. His 90-year-old brother, Joe Leman, concurs.
These days, real estate maps of the area nearby — just west of the Sterling Highway, at about Milepost 126 — typically show a street called Corea Bend Road that curls along the southern edge of Corea Bend Subdivision. Some such maps may show and label tiny Corea Creek, but they will not show Corea Bend itself.
In his 1971 Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, Donald J. Orth offers a specific entry for Corea Creek — including its origin dating back to a 19th-century shipwreck in the area — but does not even mention Corea Bend.
And Alaska historian Robert N. DeArmond, who founded the Alaska Northwest Publishing Company, wrote in the 1970s that Corea Bend used to appear on local maps and charts but had been “unfortunately” omitted from more recent editions.
The reasons for this cartographical disappearance are unclear. Perhaps Corea Bend owes its vanishing act to its lack of geographical prominence, since it neither juts outward like Anchor Point nor sags inward like Chickaloon Bay. It is not even as clearly defined as the mile
-long Corea Creek near its northern head.
In fact — since the bulk of the shipwreck was likely pillaged early on by scavengers and then pulverized more than a century ago by the forces of ice and tide — the creek is the only named physical reminder of an incident that shook up the fledgling Cook Inlet cannery world 120 summers ago.
The three-masted wooden bark Corea was built in Boston in 1868, and she began making supply and passenger runs from San Francisco to Cook Inlet in the spring of 1885. On her fateful final voyage, she departed the California port on March 27, 1890, and nearly a month later she was cruising up the inlet when disaster struck.
In “thick weather” at about 3 a.m. on April 23, and running against a strong outgoing tide, according to the official Wreck Report filed for the ship’s owner, the Arctic Fishing Company, she ran hard aground of a sandbar approximately six miles south of Kalgin Island. There, below a landmark that on an 1802 map had been named Isla de Peligro (or “Island of Danger”), her voyage halted as the tide continued to ebb, and within a few hours she sat high and dry.
An 1890 photograph (from the H. M. Wetherbee Collection) taken of the Corea early the following morning shows her sails at half-mast, her hull almost entirely on dry land, men on her deck, the seas calm, and a stack of her coal and some other materials in two separa
te piles alongside her keel.
This photo also clearly illustrates the impressive size of the vessel: 133.4 feet from bow to stern, 31.5 feet from port to starboard, and 18 feet deep. She weighed nearly 565 tons and had been carrying a cargo weighing about 500 tons — mostly coal, cannery tin and other cannery supplies — in addition to a 19-man crew and 97 passengers, 77 of whom were Chinese laborers bound for work at the Kasilof cannery, according to “Canneries of Kasilof and Kenai, 1889-1896,” a Wetherbee photographic display at Kenai Peninsula College.
After striking the sandbar, according to a May 1890 article in the Daily Alta California, “the crew and Chinese passengers were put to work at the pumps.” The ship’s master, Captain H.H. Wheeler, then waited for the tide to rise again and assessed the damage.
The Wreck Report states: “Got her off the reef and found the vessel was filling” — 12 feet of water in the hold, according to a notation on the Wetherbee photograph — “so ran her 25 miles in sinking condition to East shore of Cook’s Inlet and beached her.”
Wetherbee photos of the second beaching site clearly show that the vessel rammed ashore at the mouth of what would
become known as Corea Creek, about 15 miles south of the canneries on the Kasilof River. One of those photos also shows shipwrecked passengers and crew from the Corea encamped along the shoreline near the creek mouth.
At this camp, according to oral history collected by Bobbie Oskolkoff, of Kenai, was Oskolkoff’s great-grandfather, Robert James Kelly, who at some point walked north with a group of the Chinese laborers to the Arctic Fishing Company cannery at the Kasilof River mouth.
Although these men were likely seeking employment, it is unknown what they found. Because of the wreck, AFC did no canning in the summer of 1890. A second Kasilof cannery was built that same year by George W. Hume. According to the KPC display, the Hume cannery became the primary operation in Cook Inlet that year because of the shipwreck of the Corea.
Articles in both the Daily Alta and the San Francisco Call from the summer of 1890 state that, after the beaching, nearly every movable item on the
ship was brought ashore and saved, and parts of the ship were dismantled.
“A survey was held on the bark and resulted in her being condemned. She was afterwards sold as she lay for $355,” said the Daily Alta. The Call referred to the sale as an “auction” and said that both “the cargo and hull” were sold together.
According to two separate articles in the Daily Alta, most of the crew and passengers, all of whom survived, were eventually rescued by another member of the AFC fleet, the steamer Francis Cutting, which hauled the men to Kodiak.
At some point in May, the steamer Bertha carried Captain Wheeler, Chief Mate Oliver, the second mate and two seamen from the Corea back to San Francisco. Some of the rest of the “crew and fishermen” from the Corea were returned to San Francisco later that summer aboard the schooner Glen.
Ultimately, as stated in the Wreck Report and attested to by AFC owner/manager F.P Kendall, insurance covered most of the losses — except those incurred by the cannery. The vessel had been valued at $15,000 and insured for $12,500, and its cargo had been valued at $45,000 and insured for $41,600.
Today, only one remnant of the Corea is still known to exist. Although it has been shoved south along the shoreline far from its original resting place, and can be seen only when the tides along Corea Bend are quite low, the approximately 80 feet of waterlogged beams serve as a reminder of both the power of nature and the importance of this local historical event.
Someday, however, the wearing actions of tide and time may erode the last bits of the old wooden bark, the name of the tiny stream at the wreck site may fade from all maps and charts, as did the stretch of beach, and the wreck of the Corea will become little more than an interesting factoid glimpsed by researchers studying the history of Cook Inlet fisheries.