The Port of Bristol Bay is an arm of the Bering Sea that extends some 320 kilometers along Alaska's southwest coast. Located at the northeastern end of the Alaskan Peninsula, the Port of Bristol Bay is about 83 nautical miles southeast of the Port of Dillingham (86 kilometers, or 53 miles, by air) and almost 300 kilometers (182 miles) west-northwest of the Port of Kodiak. Facilities for the Port of Bristol Bay are located in Naknek, the borough seat, and the borough is home to over 1200 people.
The indigenous Yup'ik and Athabaskan peoples have lived around Bristol Bay for at least six thousand years. The area around the future Port of Bristol Bay and much of the Bering Sea Land Bridge was dry and suitable for agriculture in ancient days. Since the earliest days, humans have been drawn to the area around what would become the Port of Bristol Bay by the rich natural resources: minerals, animals, and seafood.
On his 1778 voyage in the area, Captain James Cook named the Bay to honor England's Admiral Earl of Bristol. The Russian American Company established a few settlements around Bristol Bay in the late 1700s and explored the coastline and nearby islands. The first detailed charts of Bristol Bay were created by Andrei Ustiugov, an Aleut, in 1819. The Russian Navy also surveyed the Bering Sea coastline in the 1700s, giving many of the geographic features the names we know today.
Bristol Bay was one of the first boroughs to be created in the new State of Alaska. Incorporated in 1962, it is also one of the smallest of Alaska's boroughs, containing only one town, Naknek, which serves as the Port of Bristol Bay.
In 1821, Captain Lieutenant Mikhail Nikolayevich Vasilyev arrived at a Yup'ik village named Naugeik which the Russians called Naknek. They built Fort Suvarov near the village and a Russian Orthodox church, and fur traders from Russia lived in the area before the purchase of Alaska by the United States in 1867.
In 1890, the first salmon cannery was opened on the Naknek River. By the turn of the century, twelve canneries were located around the Port of Bristol Bay. Native squatters created shelters around the Russian Orthodox church, and this area later became the center of Naknek and the Port of Bristol Bay. A United States post office was opened there in 1907.
Today, the Port of Bristol Bay is important as both a commercial and sport salmon fishing center. It is called the "Red Salmon Capital of the World." Commercial fish that is canned at the Port of Bristol Bay is then shipped to King Salmon, where there is an airport, some 25 kilometers (15 miles) for distribution outside Alaska.
Early in World War II, the United States built an air force base in King Salmon near the Port of Bristol Bay. The US Corps of Engineers constructed a road connecting King Salmon and Naknek in 1949, and a post office was established there. The air base was closed in 1994.
South Naknek, located on the south bank opposite the Port of Bristol Bay, is a more traditional community without roads to connect it to the outside world. During the winter, a small winter trail offers access across the iced-over Naknek River. Once the site of the native village of Qinuyana, many of its inhabitants came from the New and Old Savanoski villages that were abandoned after the eruption in 1912 of the Katmai volcano.
In June 1912, the Novarupta Volcano presented an eruption ten times more powerful than the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. A week of serious earthquakes forewarned the eruption, which changed the Katmai area forever. Destroying all life in its path, pumice, ash, and gas were ejected to blur the sunlight for most of the Northern Hemisphere. The eruption buried over 25 thousand acres in deposits up to 213 meters (700 feet). After the eruption was over, it left small cracks and holes in the ash deposits that vented steam and gas, leading National Geographic Society explorer Robert Griggs to name the area "The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes."