ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth

The world's tallest tsunami - Lituya Bay, Alaska, 1958

Arctic & Northern History

Dateline: February 7, 2020.

    On the night of July 9, 1958, an earthquake along the Fairweather Fault in Alaska loosened about 40 million cubic yards of rock about 3,000 feet above the northeastern shore of Lituya Bay. This landslide created a local tsunami that washed away pretty much everything - soil and vegetation including trees - from elevations as high as 1720 feet above sea level. This is still the highest wave ever recorded.

    This page begins with two original newspaper articles, then links to more information follow.

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - Thursday, July 10, 1958

3 Die, 2 Lost in Alaska Earthquake, 1958

Giant Alaska Trembler Sinks Island, Troller, 1958

    JUNEAU, Alaska, July 10, (AP) - A mighty earthquake, felt throughout all of Southeast Alaska last night, left three known dead and two missing today.

    The dead were three picknickers sucked into the sea when the quake sheared off the tip of an island in Yakutat Bay, about 200 miles northwest of here.

    Missing were a man and his wife whose 44-foot fishing was swept by giant waves toward the rocky side of Lituya Bay, on the coast 125 miles west of this Alaska capital.

    The dead included Mrs. Jeanne Welsh Walton, head of a Bellingham, Wash., family which owns the Icy Straits Canning Co. cannery at Yakutat and has been identified prominently with the Alaska fishing industry for years.

Island Disappears

    The other two victims were Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tibbles, employes of the Civil Aeronautics Administration station at Yakutat.

    Witnesses to the tragedy, Yakutat postmaster John Williams and his wife, Dora, said about 500 yards of the south end of Khantaak Island heaved 20 feet into the air and then fell into the bay. The island is about a mile off shore. Nothing but picnic plates were found floating in the water after the suction and severe turbulence subsided.

    Missing are Mr. and Mrs. Orville Wagner, a young, childless couple who lived at Idaho Inlet, near Juneau. Their troller, the Sunmore, was anchored in Lituya Bay alongside one operated by Mr. and Mrs. Bill Swanson of Auburn, Wash.

    The Swansons said after they were flown here and hospitalized today that they were asleep when the quake hit and went to the pilot house to look around.

Glaciers Shake Loose

    As they glanced toward three glaciers at the head of the bay, they could see ice and debris being sheared off the faces "like a gravel truck dumping a full load."

    "Then a huge wall of water about 50 feet high came racing toward us," they said, "caught our boat and swept it up to a crest where we saw the Sunmore. The last we saw of the Wagners' boat it was headed toward a rocky cliff."

    The Swansons rode their boat along the rushing tidal wave as it built up in the shallow mouth of the bay, and then were hurled over a 200-foot-wide spit guarding the entrance.

Boat Goes Down

    "We cleared off into the ocean and were dumped as the wave curled, then went down stern first and stuck with the pilot house just above water," they said. "Then the boat was hit by trees, brush, and timber sweeping along the wake of the wave. "It was like being in a tin can with someone shaking it.”

    The Swansons managed to put out into a skiff and were picked up by another troller which had been anchored outside the bay.

    The quake caused the worst cable break in Alaska Communications System history, snapping it in four places in the Skagway-Haines area. Communications between southeastern Alaska and Seattle were seriously disrupted.

(Continued on Page 3)

Southeastern Alaska Still Trembling from Earth Shocks, 1958

Glacier Ice, Landslides Block Area With Debris, 1958

(Continued from Page 1)

Shakes Seismographs

    So severe was the tremor when it hit about 10:17. p.m. (PST) that it knocked the needle off the seismograph at the University of Washington in Seattle. It was recorded at the University of California with an intensity of eight on the Richter scale which figured the 1906 San Francisco earthquake at 8.25.

    All cities in southeastern Alaska felt the rolling quake, as did Whitehorse, Y.T., in the interior above British Columbia. Aftershocks continued for many hours.

    Minor damage was reported throughout the area, but it apparently was most severe along the 100-mile stretch of the Gulf of Alaska coastline between Lituya Bay and the fishing village of Yakutat.

    The Coast Guard reported at mid-day today the entrance to Lituya Bay was so choked with debris the cutter Sorrell and a 95-foot rescue boat from Juneau were unable to enter.

Oil Slick Seen

    An oil slick was sighted in early afternoon inside the bay near where the Wagner's troller last was seen.

    Fishing boats along the coast clustered together during the day, apparently waiting to be sure the tremors were over. Those in inland waters resumed trolling.

    A major fault runs through mountain ridges below the sea in the Lituya Bay area and is believed responsible for the big quake.

    Some damage to oil lines, water tanks and docks was done in Yakutat, but apparently the loss was minor elsewhere.

    The Swansons were flown here from the coast by a Juneau bush pilot, Dean Goodwin, who reported nearly all bays and harbors in the area were dotted with ice from quake-shattered glaciers.

    Fishing boats in Cross Sound and the Icy Strait area were operating normally today but those in outside waters were clustered together apparently waiting to see if the tremors had subsided entirely.

    Whether any other boats were damaged or missing was not known immediately because of poor communications with outlying coastal points.

    Dr. Don Tocher, seismologist at the University of California at Berkeley, said the quake was a major one and had its center in the Gulf of Alaska. Dr. Charles Richeter of the California Institute of Technology seismological laboratory at Pasadena said that had the quake occurred in a populated area it would have caused a disaster.

    The first severe jolt was recorded at Sitka, 100 miles southwest of here, at 10:17.18 p.m. Two sharp aftershocks followed minutes later.

    A tidal wave alert was issued late last night throughout the Hawaiian Islands, apparently the result of the Alaska quake, but was cancelled early today by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. The alert generated high excitement and caused some traffic jams as residents of beachfront areas fled to higher ground.

    Tibbles worked part time as the power plant operator for the cannery owned by Mrs. Walton.

    A Fish and Wildlife Service Management agent at Yakutat and FWS pilot there reported the whole coast line from Dangerous, River, southeast of Yakutat, almost as far as Cape Fairweather, was dotted by waterspouts that were erupting four or five feet in the air from holes opened by the quake. The FWS has evacuated four stream guards in the area and flown them into Yakutat.

    The deputy commander of the Alaska Communication System at Elmendorf Air Force Base said multiple breaks in the submarine cable between Skagway and Juneau disrupted the major portion of the long distance telephone circuits between Alaska and Seattle. Telegraph service was not seriously impaired.

    A cable repair ship is being prepared for dispatch from Seattle as soon as possible to repair the damaged cable. In the meantime the public is requested to limit their calls outside of Alaska and to southeastern Alaska to emergency calls until full service is restored.

Couple Unhurt

    Another couple on Khantaak Island at the time of the quake were Landon and Anne Gilbert, who live on the opposite end of the island. They were unhurt. He is a retired Coast Guardsman who was once stationed at Yakutat. The island is about one mile offshore in Yakutat Bay, about five miles long and very narrow.

    Brady Glacier, off Cross Sound near outside waters, showed much new ice this morning when Goodwin flew by. Goodwin was accompanied in his rescue flight by. Dr. Joseph Rude of Juneau.

    A Coast Guard amphibian Albatross from Annette Island was enroute today to Lituya Bay to try to locate wreckage of the Sunmore. It was the troller Luman, which had been outside the bay, that picked up the Swansons and took them to Dixon Harbor for the plane pickup.

Area Of Upsets

    L. J. Mitchell, superintendent of Glacier Bay National Monument of which Lituya Bay is a part, says records show a 400 foot tidal wave in the bay was verified in 1936, and a 395 foot one recorded in 1853 or 1854.

    He said a major fault runs NW-SE through mountain ridges and passes through the upper portion of the bay. The bay is a favorite anchor point for fishing boats in the area.

    On Sept. 10, 1899 an earthquake raised the foothills of the St Elias Range, which borders Yakutat Bay, a measured 47.3 feet, while on Disenchantment Bay, an arm of Yakutat Bay, the same quake depressed some areas so low that the sea ran into the forests.

Skipper Tells How Trawler Hit after Alaska Earthquake, 1958

    JUNEAU, July 10 (UPI) - William Swanson, skipper of the trawler Badger, lay in his hospital bed today and told how "incredibly lucky" he was to survive a five-hour earthquake which rocked the rugged coastal area northwest of here.

    "We - my wife, Vivian, and myself - were anchored about 200 yards from the head of Lituya Bay when the quake struck. A huge glacier reaches right down to shore at that spot, and that quake just ripped a huge chunk out of the river of ice and tumbled it into the water," he said.

    The massive block of ice set up a wave which picked up the Badger and carried it over a 40-foot high landspit, Swanson said.

    "Our boat started swamping and Vivian climbed up alongside, he said; "just then a smaller wave hit us and she started to go over the side. I was hanging onto the rigging and managed to grab her."

    "We had a small skiff tied up alongside the Badger and we managed to pull it up next to us when we started to sink. "We managed to bail out the skiff and climb in, and just in the nick of time. We didn't have any oars, so I jerked out the middle seat, snapped it in two and made my own oars.

    "We were in that skiff for an hour, going up one huge wave and down another before the Lumen (another fishing vessel) picked us up. Vivian and I both got cramps. "The Lumen took us to Dixon Harbor, about 10 or 15 miles up the coast, where Dean Goodwin (a bush pilot from Juneau) picked_us up and flew us here.

    "They tell me they haven't found the Sunmore. The last I saw of her, she was under power and heading for the entrance of the bay. (The Sunmore has been reported missing by the Coast Guard and a search was underway.)

    "The tide wave hit her and last I saw of the Sunmore, she was going over another 40-foot landspit. I don't know what happened to it. Orville and Mickey Wagner of Juneau used to operate that boat."

Ten Minutes in Lituya Bay
This lengthy article by Alan Bellows describes a 1936 tsunami as well as the 1958 Lituya Bay megatsunami which remains the highest such wave in recorded history.

Giant Waves at Lituya Bay, Alaska
USGS Publication by Don J. Miller, 1960 (pdf, 48 pages, 83 MB).

The giant waves of Lituya Bay
An Alaska Science Forum article by Ned Rozell.

The giant wave of Icy Bay
The Icy Bay landslide on October 17, 2015 was larger than the amount of rock and soil that slid at Lituya Bay, but the Lituya Bay wave was larger because it fell from a higher elevation into deeper water.

World's Tallest Tsunami
A well-illustrated article at geology.com.

Wildest Alaska: Journeys of Great Peril in Lituya Bay
This compelling and eerie memoir tells of Philip L. Fradkin's odyssey through recorded human history and eventually to the bay itself, as he explores the dark and unyielding side of nature.