Giant Waves in Lituya Bay, Alaska; USGS PP 354-C

Waves In 1853 or 1854

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Waves In 1853 or 1854

Eyewitness Accounts

Williams (1938, p. 19) related the formation of the oldest trimline in Lituya Bay to an old Indian story about the catastrophic destruction of a village near the entrance. The source of this legend was not cited. Emmons (1911, p. 294-298) and de Laguna (1953, p. 55) were told the story of the meeting between La Perouse and the Tlingit in Lituya Bay in 1786 by natives living at Yakutat, near Juneau, and at Angoon. Emmons (1911, p. 295) also recorded the Tlingit legend about a monster who dwelt in Lituya Bay near the entrance and who, with his assistant, caused tidal waves by grasping the surface of the water and shaking it as if it were a sheet. De Laguna (written communication, Nov. 19, 1957) was told a story about a flood in Dry Bay that killed a great many people, possibly between 1850 and 1860, and also the story of a village near Dry Bay that was abandoned about 1850 because eight canoe loads of men from the village were lost in Lituya Bay when their canoes tipped over. W. A. Soboleff (oral communication, June 7, 1958) was unable to find any specific information about Lituya Bay among the people of Tlingit origin in the Juneau area, other than that the Indians had left the bay for an unknown reason and at an unknown date. These stories may indeed refer to the giant wave that formed a trimline in Lituya Bay in 1853 or 1854, but some of the stories might also refer to incidents related to the treacherous tidal current in the entrance or to an earlier or later wave. None of these stories are of any value for determining the nature and cause of the 1853-54 wave or for dating the wave more accurately.

Other Evidence

The only positive evidence now known for the occurrence of a giant wave in Lituya Bay in 1853-54-the destruction of vegetation along the shores-is clearly recorded on many photographs taken between 1894 and 1954. The evidence was also studied in the field in 1952-53. Only two segments of the 1853-54 trimline, totaling about a mile in length, remain on the north shore of the bay since the 1958 wave.


An approximate date of late 1853 or early 1854 for the occurrence of the oldest known giant wave in Lituya Bay was obtained from a tree ring count using the second method described on page 69. A section cut by Rossman and Plafker from a large spruce tree growing just above the oldest trimline at point L on figure 19 showed an injury on the side toward the bay (pl. 10). According to R. L. Godman of the Alaska Forest Research Center (R. F. Taylor, written communication, Oct. 26, 1953) the injury occurred after the end of the 1853 growing season and before the beginning of the 1854 growing season, or between mid-August and the early part of May. Rossman and Plafker estimated the age of the largest spruce tree seen in the forest below the trimline at this site in 1953 to be about 92 years.

Effects Of The Wave

The trimline formed by the 1853-54 wave, as shown on figure 19, was mapped from field observations in 1952 and 1953, and from the single-lens verticle photographs taken in 1948. The altitude of the trimline was measured on the ground at 12 points with an altimeter, and at other points with a Kelsh plotter. Destruction of the forest by the 1853-54 wave seems to have been complete up to a sharp trimline that is easily seen on the 1948 vertical photographs and on oblique photographs (pl. 8A) of the north shore west of Gilbert Inlet, around Cenotaph Island, and from Coal Creek west on the south shore. These trimlines seem to intersect the beach about 11/2 miles inside the entrance, on the north shore, and about 2 miles inside the entrance on the south shore. A trimline to a maximum height of 18 feet was identified by field examination in 1953 for a short distance along the steep slope north of The Paps. In 1953, along both shores in the outer part of the bay, and on La Chaussee Spit, spruce trees older than 100 years were found growing to the edge of the forest above the beach. Field examination in 1953 indicated that on the spur southwest of Gilbert Inlet the trimline sloped down, and also became gradually less well defined toward the east. This is confirmed by McArthur's photograph (no. 128), taken in 1894. No evidence of the trimline was found, either in the field or on the photographs, along the walls of Gilbert and Crillon Inlets or on the south shore between Crillon Inlet and Mudslide Creek. This could be due to the scarcity of large trees on these steep slopes, but probably the wave had little effect at the head of the bay or along the south shore at Mudslide Creek.

Destruction of the forest on the shores of Lituya Bay by the giant wave in 1853 or 1854 extended to a maximum height of 395 feet above mean sea level and to a maximum horizontal distance of 2,500 feet inland from the high-tide shoreline, a total area of at least 1 square mile. In the 1-mile long segment used as a reference for comparison with the other waves (p. 60, 69) the band of destruction on the north and south shores averages about 620 feet in width and about 80 feet in altitude. Scarps as much as 25 feet high were seen at a few places along the trimline of the 1853-54 wave. These scarps, plus the evidence of the effects on the forest, indicate that the erosive power of the giant wave in 1853 or 1854 was comparable to that of the 1958 wave, although it did not affect as large an area. Part of the trees remained standing at the sites of the native dwellings shown at the shore near the entrance of the bay on the map of La Perouse (1798, opposite p. 146). However, the water almost certainly inundated these sites and may have destroyed the village, as indicated by native legend and by the observations in 1874 by Dall (1883, p. 203).

Nature And Cause Of The Wave

At the present time (1959) the only basis for speculation on the nature and cause of the 1853-54 wave is a comparison of its effects on the vegetation with the effects of the two most recent giant waves in Lituya Bay. In extent and thoroughness of its destruction, the 1853-54 wave compares most closely with the 1958 wave. From the configuration of its trimline the 1853-54 wave probably was generated at or near the head of the bay, but either at a different point or by a different cause than the 1958 wave.

A rockslide from the steep wall on the south side of Lituya Bay at the present position of or just east of Mudslide Creek (fig. 19) seemingly would best account for the maximum known height of destruction almost directly opposite on the north shore of the bay. It would also account for the minimum destruction or total lack of destruction of vegetation on the south shore in the vicinity of Mudslide Creek, in Gilbert Inlet and in Crillon Inlet. The valley of Mudslide Creek, and particularly the east wall of the valley, is an area of active sliding at the present time, and sliding in the past probably played an important part in the formation of the valley. Photographs taken in 1894 by McArthur (nos. 105A and 128) show that the shape of the Mudslide Creek valley was similar to that shown on the 1948 vertical photographs, so any major sliding must have occurred before 1894. The sketch map of Lituya Bay made in 1874 and issued in 1875 as U.S. Coast Survey Chart 742 is almost identical to the La Perouse map in the part of the bay east of Cenotaph Island, indicating that little or no resurveying was done in the upper part of the bay. Hence a comparison of these maps gives no information on the possible occurrence of a large slide at Mudslide Creek between 1786 and 1874. The modern U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey chart of Lituya Bay (no. 8505) shows a more pronounced bulge in the shoreline at Mudslide Creek than does the La Perouse map. The difference is slight and, in view of the small scale and questionable accuracy of the La Perouse map, only suggests but does not prove that a large slide occurred there sometime after 1786.

No major earthquakes in the region adjoining Lituya Bay are known to have been reported between 1847 (Dall, 1870, p. 342) and 1862 or 1863 (Musketov and Orlov, 1893, p. 349, 386). The paucity of records for this period in Alaska, however, cannot be taken as proof that no earthquake occurred in conjunction with the 1853-54 wave in Lituya Bay.

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Created 3 August 2004, Last Update 01 July 2012

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