The Katalla and Controller Bay Alaska Project

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The Life of a Boom Town

The Town of Katalla as seen from the Bay
Courtesy of the State of Alaska Archives

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The town of Katalla (also spelled Catalla) was founded shortly after the oil strike in 1902, and the discovery of nearby coalfields and copper deposits. The boom was on! The population of the town shot to 10,000 within a few months of the announcement that a couple of railroads would establish their terminus near the town.

There were hotels, banks, stores and even a newspaper, the Katalla Herald. The newspaper's banner proudly proclaimed, "Where Rails meet Sails". The town became an important stop for steamships serving Alaska. The steamship companies started landing ships in the bay as often as five times a month. The nearby Bering River Coal Mine was being built with the Copper River & Northwest Railroad, the Alaska Steamship companies and the Kennecott mines providing a ready market.

The town was about as rough as any boom town could hope to be. It had its share of murders and hustlers. One of the most notorious criminals was Robert Stroud who would become the infamous "Birdman Of Alcatraz" (though during this time he was merely a railroad laborer). The real estate market went from non-existent to flourishing in a matter of weeks. Land that in 1900 was valueless was being sold for building homes on. The bars in the town became the scenes of nightly brawls. Stocks for companies based on fake oil claims were being floated to anybody with some money to buy them. It was a pretty wild place.

The winter of 1907-08 was tough on the town. A series of violent storms destroyed the harbor jetty, other railroad properties and convinced the railroad to look elsewhere for ocean access. The sinking of the "Gold Ship" SS Portland during a storm in 1910 justified the concerns of the railroads. This part of the Gulf of Alaska became known as the "place where storms are born". The population of the town dropped dramatically as the railroad companies relocated their workers to Cordova and Seattle. By spring of 1908 the population had dropped to about 770 fulltime residents.

The hopes of the town where pinned on the plans of J.P. Morgan and the mining moguls the Guggenhiem's. They owned a company called the Alaska Syndicate. This mining company had plans to build a spur to the Bering River coalfields. This route would go through the town of Katalla. It would also include the building of a copper smelter on the nearby Copper River Delta to process the ore from the Kennecott mines. The hope was that the coal from the mines and the oil from Katalla would make the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad profitable. This hope was soon dashed by some pretty nasty politics in Washington (see coal page). The town's population dropped again to 87 souls by 1920.

Katalla as a town limped along for several more years as new hopes for oil and coal riches would come and go. By the census of 1930 the population of the town had dropped to only 50 people. The fire that damaged the town's only industry, the oil refinery, doomed it. The decision was made not to rebuild, the town was eventually abandoned and faded into obscurity.

Katalla Town Dock 1907
Courtesy of the State of Alaska Archive