How Seward Was Founded
By John E. Ballaine
Originator and Promoter of the Alaska Central Railway
Founder of Seward Alaska
Originally printed in the
Seward Daily Gateway
January 1, 1906
I decided, in the latter part of 1901, to organize and promote
a railroad from the Pacific Coast through Central Alaska to
the Yukon valley, my first aim was to establish the ocean
terminus on a harbor easy of access and free from obstruction
every hour of every day of the year.
My other requirements of the harbor were, if possible, that
it should afford good shelter, ample depth of water, terminal
facilities for wharves and bunkers, adjacent room face factories
and smelters, and outlet for a railroad, and land area to
accommodate an ultimate population of not less than 500,000.
I held the view that the ocean terminus was of prime importance
for it would serve all future generations and in time become
one of the world’s important centers of commercial and
From every source of available information I examined in
turn Tyoonok, Seldovia, Knik, Port Well, Valdez, Illiamna,
Cordova Bay, Port Nelle Juan, Controller Bay, and Resurrection
Bay. Odd as it may now seem, Resurrection Bay was the last
that came to my notice, for it was then perhaps the least
known harbor on the entire southern coast of Alaska.
By the process of elimination, the choice soon narrowed to
Resurrection bay, Valdez, Cordova Bay and Seldovia. All of
these but Resurrection Bay presented two or more fatal objections.
They either lacked in sufficient depth of water, had restricted
land area, or offered no practical outlet for a railroad.
Some of them occasionally froze over in winter. At Resurrection
Bay alone I found every requirement to my complete satisfaction.
My attention was first attracted to Resurrection bay by
the report of Captain Glenn, of the United States Army, who
started from it in 1898 with a government exploration party
to cooperate with similar parties starting for other points
on the southern coast of Alaska to find an “All American
route to the Klondike,” for a trail, wagon road, or
The report was furnished to me by the Geological survey
at Washington D.C. Captain Glenn made the brief statement
in his report that Resurrection Bay
one of the best harbors in Alaska and that it connected with
a route of easy grades and moderate cost for a wagon road
or a railroad, either by way of the Matanuska river to the
Klondike, or up the Susitna valley to the Tanana and the Yukon.
I believe, and time has justified the belief, that the true
route for a railroad to the Yukon valley was not, as popular
sentiment then favored, northeasterly to tap the Klondike,
a mining camp on foreign soil and limited in productive capacity
but due northerly through the rich Susitna and Tanana valleys
in the heart of Alaska, striking the navigable rivers of the
interior at a point central to the widest extent of American
After the organization of the Alaska Central Railway had
been perfected, in March, 1902, and I had selected Resurrection
bay as its tentative terminal, I sent an engineering party
under R.E. Field to make a detailed survey of the harbor,
and other engineering parties to make preliminary surveys
for a railroad from Resurrection Bay.
In the meantime I had the lines run to locate a homestead
where Seward now stands, preparatory to obtaining patent from
the government should investigations result satisfactorily.
Mrs. Mary Lowell and her family were then the only residents.
They had lived for eighteen years in the cabin that is still
The reports of the engineers more than confirmed all the
favorable information I had previously obtained about Resurrection
Bay and the practicability of a route from its head to the
My investigations had convinced me that the resources tributary
to the route were diversified and abundant, including gold,
copper, high grade coal, and the best timber and agricultural
lands in Alaska. I therefore, in November 1902, definitely
selected Resurrection Bay as the ocean terminus of the Alaska
The name of the future city was not finally chosen by me
until the spring of 1903. By that time I had made encouraging
headway in my efforts to raise money for the building of the
Railroad, and it was important to have the starting point
named even thought it then existed only in a virgin forest.
The first Chief Engineer of the Railway Company, C.M. Anderson,
had designated the place Vituska on all the blueprints he
had prepared. He explained it to be a combination of Vitus,
Captain Behring’s given name, with the last syllable
of Alaska. But the only names that occurred to me for serious
consideration were Seward, McKinley, and Roosevelt.
I finally concluded that the city destined to be the metropolis
of the great territory could fittingly bear no other name
than that of the man of his day who foresaw the ultimate primacy
of the Pacific ocean in the world’s commerce.
Accordingly, in March, 1903, I bestowed upon the new town
to be the name of Seward, in honor of William H. Seward, President
Lincoln’s Secretary of State. I advised Frederick W.
Seward, now a resident of New York. That I had chosen the
name of this father as the most worthy for the future metropolis
of Alaska. He replied under date of April 6, 1903, saying
“I need hardly say that the selection of the name
seems to me an appropriate one, and that it will be gratifying
to those who knew him in life, as well as to the still greater
number who hold his name in esteem and loving remembrance.
Time has now shown that his predication sin regard to the
future of Alaska were not at all exaggerated. Your enterprise
is well conceived and the proposed route seems judiciously
chosen. It is well adapted to the growing needs of the region
through which it is to pass. I heartily hope that your anticipations
of its success may be realized.”
It was on that date in 1903 that the steamship Santa Anna
arrived with the first cargo of construction material and
a force of about thirty men to commence the preliminary construction
of the Alaska Central Railway, such as building the wharf,
setting the saw mill to work and clearing right of way, in
preparation for permanent construction the following spring.
On the Santa Anna also were a score of men who promptly
established themselves in business. The construction force
and these few business men, less than 100 in all, made up
the bulk of Seward’s population until March 1904, when
the construction of the railroad was undertaken in earnest,
and the growth of the town assured form and activity.
Returning from Seward to Seattle, Washington in September
1903, after attending the commencement of construction work,
I carried a petition from almost every man in the yong town,
asking the postoffice department to establish a postoffice
there and appoint Lillie N. Gordon postmistress.
I took the petition to Washington D.C., in November , 1903.
There I learned that Mr. Wayland, the postal inspector for
the district embracing Alaska, had filed a protest against
the bestowal of the name Seward on the embryo city of Resurrection
Bay, alleging that there were already several Sewards in the
I went personally to President Teddy Roosevelt and explained
to him the basis of my desire to have the new place named
Seward, pointed out to him that the other post offices of
that name were canneries or temporary camps which could easily
be changed to another name. He heartily agreed with my view
of the case, and asked me to address a letter to him directly,
embodying the reasons I had given him verbally, and bring
it to him nest day at 10:00 o’clock. I did so. After
he had read it he said to me, as nearly as I can remember.
“You are quite right. This railroad should give rise
to an important city at the ocean terminus. That city deserves
to be named in honor of the man responsible for making Alaska
He thereupon wrote on a margin of the latter a note addressed
to the fourth assistant postmaster general, Mr. Bristow, saying
that he agreed with my views and would be glad to have Mr.
Bristow give the subject of my letter his prompt attention.
The marginal note was signed “T.R.”
I immediately went with the letter and the President’s
endorsement to the fourth assistance postmaster general, in
company with Mr. Boynton, superintendent of the Associated
Press at the National Capital.
Within ten minutes of the time I entered his office General
Bristow had issued an order establishing the new post office
of Seward on Resurrection bay, and another order appointing
Lillie N. Gordon its first Postmistress.
To some it may appear an extravagance to say that people
now living will see at Seward one of the half dozen largest
cities on the Pacific Coast. The same people in 1880 would
have pronounced it impossible for Seattle to attain a population
exceeding 10,000 or 12,000 by 1905, as a great many at that
I remember the time very well, for as a child I cam to Washington
with my parents in 1879. Seattle was then a ragged settlement
on the fringe of impenetrable forests. It had no electric
lighting plant, no water works, no daily newspaper, as Seward
has today. Seattle in 1880 was father from the center of population,
several times over, measured in time of travel, than Seward
is in 1905.
As a matter of fact, such a statement concerning Seward’s
future is but a statement of mathematical truth to those who
consider the rapid increase of population in the United States,
and its constant trend northwestward, coupled with the fact
diminishing areas yet to be populated; who must be made with
increasing force on Alaska’s stores of gold, copper,
coal, iron and tin; who realize that Seward is the ocean gateway
to a system of railroads now building that will cover every
productive part of the territory.