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Seward History

How Seward Was Founded

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

When 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 industrial activity.

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 railroad.

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 was 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 Territory.

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 their home.

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 interior rivers.

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 Central Railway.

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 in part:

“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 territory.

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 American territory.”

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 time did.

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.