The Western Region, the west coast from Kotzebue Sound down to Bristol Bay, including the lower Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, is underlain with discontinuous permafrost, producing a moist tundra. The tree line remains several hundred miles in from the coast except near Norton Sound and Bristol Bay. Between them are the deltas of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.
The climate is generally maritime, with temperatures considerably warmer toward the south. Total precipitation is about 20 inches annually. The flat lands and seashore setting are subject to an unremitting wind.
The region north of Norton Sound was traditionally home to the Inupiat Eskimo, and to the south, Yupik Eskimo. With diets based largely on fish or sea mammals, the Eskimo lived near the shore or on rivers. Occasional hunting forays inland would provide meat. The Russians established redoubts and trading posts on the Nushagak, Kuskokwim, and Yukon rivers. Their influence is apparent in the number of active Russian Orthodox churches in the villages along these rivers. Usually set slightly apart from the houses, higher if possible, the three-part plans of the churches are visible in their silhouettes, which are often crowned with onion domes and three-bar crosses.
Change occurred rapidly near the end of the nineteenth century, when the wealth of salmon in Bristol Bay was discovered by white Americans. Canneries were soon built at every river mouth, threatening the Natives' subsistence patterns and bringing in new people.
Gold had an even greater effect on the Seward Peninsula. The first strike was at Council City in 1898. When gold was found in creeks 80 miles to the west, near present-day Nome, stampeders came rushing to the scene. And in 1900, after gold was found to be lying on, or just under, the beaches, thousands of gold seekers poured into Nome. Although relatively few stayed after the first season, when the easy gold was removed, subsequent strikes made gold mining profitable for about a decade. In the 1920s gold dredges and cold-water thawing made larger operations successful, and gold mining continues today.
There are few roads in the entire region, but the advent of the airplane has made most villages comparatively accessible. Settlements continue to be located along the shore or on rivers. Building materials—except for native sod and driftwood, which are rarely used today—must be imported into these treeless places, and prefabricated dwellings have found a special applicability here. Yet at least one traditional Native dwelling and many Native churches survive. Buildings constructed by white Americans at the turn of the twentieth century were not particularly responsive to the climate, tending to resemble buildings that would have been built elsewhere. They stand as evidence of gold-rush towns, of well-intended missions, of roadhouses along winter trails, and of remote settlements, reflecting the many reasons for building.
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