From an expansive wilderness to the icy heights of Denali, Alaska is home to a harsh and unforgiving landscape. But the risks on land are far more predictable than those at sea. The waters of Alaska are home to brutal storms, raging waves, and sea ice that can trap or destroy ships. Setting sail in these waters will test the seaworthiness of any vessel. And not all ships return with a passing grade. Some will not return at all.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hosts the impressive Historical Map & Chart Collection. Among the archives is this 1916 map titled Vessels Wrecked in Alaskan Waters. It notes more than 400 vessels lost along Alaska’s coast or at sea. Ninety-nine of these shipwrecks, for which the value of loss exceeded $20,000 (about $398,000 in 2023), appear on the map. The map depicts Alaska while it was still a US territory. Alaska would not achieve statehood until 1959.
Vessels Wrecked in Alaskan Waters is an artful analysis laid out in a clean, dense design. Shipwrecks appear as intuitive symbol and label pairs. A numerical legend provides more details on each, while clear typography maintains legibility. Hachures depict Alaska’s rugged topography, orienting readers even where place labels are absent.
Most notably, this map does something few maps do even today. It acknowledges shortcomings, inaccuracies, and incomplete data up front. In total, there are no fewer than five separate notices of lacking or conditional data. Such notices enhance rather than subtract from the accuracy of this map.
By The Numbers
total value lost in hulls and cargo—that’s about $157.7 million today
Years of data represented
Trade throughout Alaskan waters was necessary and precarious in the early 20th century. Many ships, cargo, and crew perished in pursuit of livelihood and opportunity. This map provides a glimpse of the perils of trade at sea. And it does so with an elegance and honesty that cartographers can still learn from today.