Cordova Chronicles: Whitshed or Whiteshed?

“You like tomato, and I like tomahto; you say potato and I say potahto …”

Some may remember a song titled “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” written by the Gershwin brothers for the 1937 movie Shall We Dance. Part of lyrics, which are sung by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, come to mind every time I see the signpost Whitshed Road.

Right. Newcomers justifiably pronounce the road “Wit-shed”; locals violate basic rules of English pronunciation and stick with “White-Shed.” Just exactly which is it?

The first time I drove by the signpost that said “Whitshed” I turned to my wife and said something to the affect that the Boys out at the State Shop need some spelling lessons. Well maybe, or maybe not.

The road was originally called Three Mile Bay Road. Later, when the gravel road was extended to Hartney Bay, it naturally became Hartney Bay Road. My folks always called it White Shed Road, because, I was told, of all the clam digger cabins with metal roofs and wood sides faded white at the end of a planned road to reach to their clam digging headquarters.

Clam diggers in skiff loaded with boxes of razors head back to Pt. Whiteshed. Photo courtesy the collection of Walter and Margaret Olsen
Clam diggers in skiff loaded with boxes of razors head back to Pt. Whiteshed. Photo courtesy the collection of Walter and Margaret Olsen

For many years Cordova was known as “The Razor Clam Capital of the World”. At low tide, bleached white shells can still be found underneath Copper River Seafoods boat storage buildings, which were at one time the center of booming clam processing operations. In the 1930s, Cordova was the center of Alaska’s clamming industry, and in 1932 Alaska beaches produced over half the total clam pack in the United States.

Clam diggers would leave the shacks in open skiffs to dig bars exposed at low tide all over the area, including nearby Mummy and Egg Island. Buddy Janson’s mother Stella was one of the top diggers.

“On year she and my Dad dug twenty-three and a half tons in six weeks,” said Buddy. “One day, my Mom dug 1,000 pounds on back to back tides. The whole beach near Shag Rock was covered with clam sheds, and they had one right on the point. The clams were tossed into boxes made from Blazo cans with sides and handles added. The diggers would let their skiffs go dry, and then dig right up until the tide flooded them afloat.”

However, as is the case with many name places, the correct title for the point is a bit more complicated than that. According to the  Alaska Dictionary of Name Places, in 1794 it was named Point Whitshed, for Capt. Whitshed, RN, (Royal Navy), by Capt. George Vancouver, RN, after the point of land was examined by James Johnstone, RN, on June 25, 1794.

It get’s better. Fifteen years earlier, the Spanish had named it “Punta de Treville” in honor of a French admiral. If that first name had stuck, we wouldn’t have this Whitshed vs. Whiteshed issue.

This 1912 photo shows Naval communications towers at Pt. Whiteshed. The two towers are visible in the background. Photo courtesy U.S. NAVY Archives, 1912
This 1912 photo shows Naval communications towers at Pt. Whiteshed. The two towers are visible in the background. Photo courtesy U.S. NAVY Archives, 1912

Now toss in the Navy Radio Stations near Cordova. In the 1912, the Navy completed a Radio Station at what it called “Cape Whitshed, 9 miles from Cordova.” The vessel Nero anchored nearby with a large barge loaded with construction materials. A pair of 200-foot steel towers was constructed, with aerials stretched between them.

Early Naval communications called it Point Whitshed, but a later Naval report called it Point Whiteshed. Whatever the spelling of it’s name, the location did not provide optimum signals to other places in Alaska, including a big Naval Station on Woody Island near Kodiak. Access to the location by vessel only was also a problem.

In 1917, new Navy towers were built near Cordova along the CR&NW Railway. One was located at 7 Mile of the CR&NW Railway, the other at Mile 14. Remains of cement station buildings can still be seen at both sites. A string of government pole lines beside the rail right of way connected the two stations.

Yet later, Naval reports still indicated confusion about whether the original location was Whitshed or Whiteshed. No wonder. Consider this amusing story about how the new 7 and 14 Mile sites were selected, from the Personnel Recollections of Harold B. Phelps, Lt. USN (ret), published in Radio Stations Operations in Kodiak Alaska.

“A crew had been instructed to concentrate on locating the stations along the Copper River railroad. They rented a speeder and cruised up and down the track for quite a few days. They couldn’t agree on the best locations. One evening one of the engineers said: ‘I’ve just received a message from the Navy. They told us to quit stalling and locate these stations so construction could begin before winter sets in. Tomorrow morning I’m going to bring two quarts of whiskey to the speeder. When we leave town we will start working on the first quart. Where we finish that quart will be the location of the first station. Where we finish the second quart will be the locations of the second station’.”

The whole affair reminds me of the time several years ago when a pair of new ADF&G biologists were launching their boat out at the Alaganik Landing. I was waiting my turn, and asked them where they were headed. “We are headed to Pete Dahl to do some goose surveys.” The words “Pete” and “Dahl” distinctly separated. After years of running outboards, my hearing isn’t too good. So I asked them again, and they replied, somewhat louder, two distinct words, “Pete”  “Dahl”.

They looked at me like some local jokester when I replied, “Oh.  Peed-all.” They went on to explain how they were concerned about the lack of “haul eee gun,” which would cause eagles to prey on geese instead of the small fish. I was about to say “who lee gun,” but realized, at this rate, the tide might fall before my boat hit the water. Instead I just bade them a safe trip down “Al-gan-ick,” pre-empting them from pronouncing it “Al-ah-gan-ik.”

Ain’t history and the English language fun?

Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at shorn@gci.net. Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. Shellhorn has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town.

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at shorn@gci.net. Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and third place in 2017.