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King Island: Alaska’s Ghost Village

King Island in the Bering Sea. Photo by Loren Holmes/Alaska Dispatch.

We’re flat-out addicted to the allure of abandoned places. So we’ve sent Liz on a mission to hop alphabetically from state-to-state exploring bygone structures steeped in history and mystery. It was a long, cold swim, but she finally made it to Alaska!
Once uncharted territory and reserved for only those residents whose generations before them had braved the harsh winters, America’s forty-ninth state, Alaska, has become a pop-culture phenomenon. Television programs such as Deadliest Catch, Selling Alaska and Gold Rush now make stars out of anyone who can catch a king crab, run a backhoe to dig for gold, or purchase a log home in the wilderness. Of course, for centuries before this, native Alaskans called these snow-covered mountains and valleys home. To them, Alaska was their bread-and-butter; a place where they educated their children, fished and hunted to put food on their families’ tables, and constructed buildings to withstand the freezing temperatures, harsh wind, and rocky terrain unknown within the continental United States. King Island, a remote and tiny island in the Bering Sea, is a place in which locals did just that.
I chose to focus this week not on a typical abandoned dwelling or building seen throughout America, but on a particular place and its structures that truly reflect the individuals who constructed, lived, and worked in them. King Island is like nowhere else in America.


King Island in the Bering Sea. Photo by Loren Holmes/Alaska Dispatch.

LibraryofCongressAlaska3King Island was inhabited for thousands of years (up until the mid-to-late twentieth century) by an group of Eskimos known as Ugiuvangmiut (shown right, courtesy of the Library of Congress). They lived in Ukivok, a small village on the several miles wide island. Ukivok was built directly on a steep cliff, where the residents survived by hunting seals and walruses and foraging for wild plants for food. Villagers, through many years of living there, adapted a unique way of constructing their homes, businesses, and community centers; all structures were constructed on tall, thin, wood stilts or poles. Early, original stilt structures on King Island were constructed of found wood. Walrus skin, stretched and dried, was used as a roof covering. The dwellings featured shed roofs, and were simple, four-sided square structures. As the centuries progressed, the roofs were protected by wood; a more durable material than walrus skin when living in such unpredictable weather conditions.

King Island, 1913. Courtesy Library of Congress.

In the early-to-mid twentieth century, the former Bureau of Indian Affairs constructed a large school for the communities’ use. The school, perched precariously on several stilts, is a three-story, pitched roof, wooden structure. It features an expanse of windows on the second floor and a wrap-around porch also constructed of wood. The school appears to have been the pride of the village, as it features shutters on several of the windows. The trim at one point was painted a deep green. In some photographs, a belfry, most likely constructed to contain the school’s bell, can be identified. This expansive school (expansive in comparison to neighboring buildings) was accessed by small wooden walkways, which continued throughout the entire village. These walkways provided a stable means for pedestrian travel up and down the steep cliff the village was built on.

King Island, 1913. Courtesy Library of Congress.


King Island, 1929. Courtesy Library of Congress.


King Island today. Photo by Loren Holmes/Alaska Dispatch.

A church, built on the highest point of the cliff, was built slightly larger than the school and painted white. The church held the village’s small Roman Catholic congregation. While the church is no longer standing, having been torn down after being deemed structurally unsound, a bronze statue of Jesus still remains, the only object left to proclaim the village’s religious beliefs.

Bronze statue of Jesus. Photo by Loren Holmes/Alaska Dispatch.

King Island was once a bustling village of approximately two hundred people. While the buildings they constructed are not deemed architecturally important in the traditional sense, they are the only surviving relicts of a unique village that time has forgotten. As residents of King Island left for the nearby mainland towns, the village became even more desolate than it had appeared to outsiders. By the 1970s King Island and the village of Ukivok were abandoned. In the present day, half a century or even more after the precariously placed stilt homes, church, and school were constructed, they remain, allowing us to learn about a distinctive culture and way of life that disappeared with modern times.

King Island. Photo courtesy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Liz was raised in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the home of New Hope, Doylestown, and several other idyllic, flawlessly-restored and preserved towns. Upon returning to the Philadelphia area post-grad school, Liz purchased a circa 1940’s, Normandy-style row home which features the original wood floors, vintage glass door knobs and slate roof from when it was constructed. She is on the board of a historic Swedish cabin and working in the real estate development field while making a go of a career in preservation.


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