The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Robert Reisner
For The LOG 

Baranov builds first ship at Resurrection Bay

Part 1 of 2


Aleksandr Baranov built the Feniks (Phoenix) on the shore of Voskresenskaia Gavan’ (Resurrection Harbor) in 1794.

One could make the case that Seward’s Russian history begins in 1790 when Grigorri Ivanovich Shelikhov, the founder of several fur exporting companies operating within Alaska (Al iaska) under Imperial Russian decree, founded the North American Company, his newest enterprise. The man Shelikhov had in mind to manage this new venture on Kodiak (Kad’iak) Island was a kind and considerate merchant from Kargopol, Russia by the name of Aleksandr Andreevich Baranov.

The day after concluding the agreement, Baranov set sail in the Tri Sviatitelia under the command of navigator Bocharov. The voyage began badly. As soon as they left Okhotsk, sickness began to break out, owning to lack of water, which had been stored in leaky barrels. The ship had to land at Unalaska (Unalashka) Island. Immediately thereafter, a violent storm destroyed the ship and all their possessions. Yet an eight-month sojourn on the barren island amid constant privations did not break Baranov’s spirit.

He attempted by all means to bolster his comrades’ flagging spirits with the hope of early rescue, although his first plans were immediately thwarted. The hunters (promyshennik) who he sent for help to Kodiak Island were attacked by the Aliksintsy (natives of the Alaska Peninsula). He and a handful of Aleuts accompanying him barely escaped with their lives by fleeing to Unga Island where they remained waiting for Baronov.

With the arrival of spring 1791, Baranov set about building three large baidaras. Two of them under Bocharov’s command were sent to explore the north shore of the Alaska Peninsula. Baranov himself sailed in the third baidara directly to Kodiak Island, where he arrived on July 27, 1791.

According to Shelikhov’s wishes, Baranov set about building the first ship in the colonies. In the autumn of 1791, Shelikhov had sent the Severnyi Orel to Kodiak Island loaded with shipbuilding material and under the command of Second Lieutenant Thomas Shields, an American ship builder employed by Shelikhov under the czarina’s permission. “Herewith,” wrote Shelikhov, “we send you iron, rigging and sails for one ship, which you will build with Shields’ help. Using him to advantage, you should also begin two or three other ships of various sizes, bringing them to the point where you can finish them yourselves, without a shipbuilder’s aid. Everything you need for this will be sent later. Teach the natives to be sail-makers, riggers and blacksmiths.”

For his shipyard Baranov chose one of the harbors of Chugiak Bay, calling the place Resurrection Harbor (Voskresenskaia Gavan’), now known as Seward. Arriving aboard the Severnyi Orel with Shields 23 male employees, four female employees and supplies on Sept. 19, 1791, Baranov’s crew built the necessary works and dwellings, completing them on Sept. 30, 1791.

The wood for the vessel’s hull was obtained from nearby Greek Island. The work proceeded rapidly under Baranov’s personal direction and in 1794 the ship was completed and christened the Phoenix (Feniks). A threemaster with two decks, she was 73 feet long, 23 feet wide, and 13.5 feet deep, and had a capacity of 180 tons. In place of pitch and tar, Baranov caulked her with a durable compound of his own invention consisting of fir pitch, sulphur, ocher and whale oil.

After launching the Phoenix, Baranov started the hulls of two more ships, and by 1795 these ships were finished and christened the Dolphin (Del’fin) and the Olga (Ol’ga). Both were 40 feet long, 17.5 feet wide and 9.5 feet deep. They were single masted and a single deck each, with a capacity of 110 tons.

Soon Baranov sent the Phoenix to Kodiak Island. From there, on Shelikhov’s instructions, she sailed for Okhotsk with a three-year catch of furs. It was this shipment that greatly strengthened the share values of Shelikhov’s new North American Company. Over the next four years the Phoenix made six voyages from Kodiak Island to Okhotsk, shipping much of Baranov’s furs and fish.

On Dec. 1, 1799 the Phoenix left its port in Okhotsk bound for Kodiak Island with much needed supplies for Baranov’s Kodiak and Yakatat settlements. Also aboard was the man who would be Alaska’s first archbishop.

Weeks passed beyond the expected arrival date. On Dec. 29, 1799 some pieces of her washed ashore on the eastern shore of Kodiak Island.

(Read Part 2 in next week’s LOG.)

Bob Reisner learned his love of history at the knee of his grandmother who was born in 1896 and who helped raise him. From uncovering the Reisner family’s history in Alaska, arriving from Wisconsin in 1898 to conduct unsuccessful forays into the Klondike, to his cold war era correspondence with sources in the former U.S.S.R., Reisner has been gathering the hidden tales and truths of Alaska’s unknown past.


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