Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part story on the history of clamming on the Kenai Peninsula. This week’s story examines the historic record of clamming, back as far as the days of Western exploration. Next week examines the booms and busts of clam populations.
By Brent Johnson
For the Redoubt Reporter
Clammers heading to Cook Inlet beaches this summer in hopes of muscling mollusks from the sand are in good, historic company.
“The Pacific razor clam was first described in scientific literature in 1788 from specimens collected from a town once located near what is now Homer, Alaska,” according to a Alaska Department of Fish and Game Southcentral Region publication.
The razor clam’s scientific name is Siliqua patula (Dixon). So who was Dixon and what was he doing digging clams “near Homer” 225 years ago?
George Dixon was Capt. Cook’s armorer during the 1778 discovery of Cook Inlet. He returned eight years later as captain of the Queen Charlotte on a trading expedition led by Capt. Portlock. On July 19, 1786, the two-ship trading party reached Cook Inlet, and the following day they anchored in the vicinity of present-day Port Graham, which they named “Graham’s Harbor.” The ships remained there until July 26, while the men went ashore to cut and gather wood and, as Dixon’s journal puts it, to “recreate themselves on shore.”
Marine life proved to be a source of much recreation.
“At the mouth of Cook’s River are many species of shellfish,” Dixon penned in his journal.
Sketches of a lovely crab and handsome razor clam are proof of these words. The journal also offers this description of how the edgy mollusks were found: “Among the bi-valves we noticed some of a large species, of the cardium or cockle genus; half a dozen of which would have afforded a good supper for one person. But for a repast of that kind our men preferred a large species of the Solen genus (razor clams), which they got in quantity, and were easily discovered by their spouting up the water as the men walked over the sands where they inhabited. As I suppose it to be a new kind, I have given a figure (sketch) of it.”
To verify the possibility that the first razor clams could have been found near Port Graham, I checked a 1786 calendar to find the moon phase. Sure enough! July 25, 1786, was a new moon. While these men were recreating ashore a set of minus tides mooned the beach.
There is nothing in the journal to suggest the traders went any nearer to the site of what would become Homer. The traders also sailed to Trading Bay and thus passed Anchor Point and the clam beaches to the north, but the journal makes no mention of anyone going ashore.
“During the 26th and 27th (of July), we kept standing up the River (Inlet) with variable winds, and moderate weather. No inhabitants came near us, nor any particular occurrence happened,” the journal states.
Applying Occam’s razor to the facts, I think a beach near Port Graham is the best candidate for Dixon’s historic clam. The problem is, there are no razor clams near Port Graham today. Why?
Before we answer that, let’s look at razors closer to home.
Demand for clams
Alaska canneries began packing razor clams in 1916 at Cordova. The first major commercial clamming cannery in Cook Inlet happened through a partnership of two famous men, George Palmer and Elmer Hemrich.
Palmer was a Pennsylvanian who came to Alaska before 1893. That year he found gold at Resurrection Creek, near what is now the town of Hope.
In about 1900, he built a trading post at Knik and became postmaster there in 1904. Knik had grown from a population of 46 in 1880 to 160 in 1890 and 250 in 1900. Palmer prospered in a growing town.
He bought a gas schooner and with it, and subsequent schooners, traveled as far as San Francisco freighting goods. He also operated a saloon and fell into some of the ugly things common to those who overindulge in alcohol — mistreatment of his wife and neglect of his business.
The Alaska Railroad created Anchorage in 1914, adding Palmer and Wasilla in 1916. Palmer was named after George. Wasilla was strategically located near certain Willow Creek gold mines.
In a single year the railroad and Wasilla emptied Knik. In spite of its post office, Russian Orthodox Church and public school, Knik became a ghost town by 1917. Which might have impoverished Palmer, had not a sudden disaster worked to his favor. In 1918, his trading post burned down, leaving him a $40,000 insurance settlement.
Elmer Hemrich was in the brewery business in Washington, his family having adopted the Rainier Beer brand in 1883. In 1915, his family branched into clam canning and built Surf Packing Company.
The state of Washington went dry in 1916, sort of testing the waters for Prohibition. The ban on booze thrust a new importance on Hemrich’s clam endeavor. He came to Cook Inlet, learned of Polly Creek razor clams and in 1918 convinced Palmer to invest in building a cannery at Snug Harbor on Chisik Island.
Palmer obtained a bank loan and the cannery was built in 1919. He had been a close friend of Cook Inlet Natives and his influence could be seen by the cannery’s employment of Natives from Tyonek and throughout Cook Inlet.
In the 1920 U.S. census of Ninilchik, Palmer appears as widowed and apparently residing as a merchant.
The next year he and a Kenai man, Bill Dawson, formed a partnership to operate a general store in Kenai. Except Dawson died in 1922 and the store fell into legal tangles. The clam cannery had poor timing, too. A World War I price boom mushroomed Alaska fisheries, and the number of Alaska canneries expanded to 135 in 1919.
The next year prices came back to earth and 59 of those canneries closed. Salmon was an important part of the Snug Harbor cannery and the price problem affected the clam market, too. In 1922 Palmer decided to cut his losses and get out, that left Hemrich in the lurch and the bank foreclosed. Hemrich started a new company and relocated to razor clam beds in Shelikof Strait. This cannery struggled for a dozen years, during which time Elmer returned to Washington and to brewing “near beer.” Prohibition ended in 1933, but the Shelikof Straits cannery burned in 1936 and Elmer died in 1937, at the age of 46.
Eventually, Palmer found a new Kenai store partner in Truman Parish, whose father was the Kenai public-school teacher. Palmer appears as a 75-year-old merchant in the March 24, 1930, census of Kenai. He was living with his fourth wife, 47-year-old, Kenai-born Anastatia. Palmer was in pain, suffering from heart trouble. A month later he shot himself and died in Kenai.
The Cook Inlet commercial razor clam harvest began in 1919, coinciding with building of the Snug Harbor cannery. By 1922, the harvest had risen to 500,000 pounds, only to taper off sharply after 1923. Numerous small clam canneries have since operated in Cook Inlet. The next clam harvest burp produced 300,000 pounds in 1950 and 112,000 in 1951. Commercial clamming then fell idle through 1959.
Next week: Clamming on the Kenai
Brent Johnson, of Clam Gulch, is a former president of the Kenai Peninsula Historical Association.