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History of Seward
Commerce and Economic Development
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The gold mining strikes at Sunrise and Hope on Turnagain Arm in 1893 turned into a gold rush in 1896. One of the routes to Turnagain Arm started at Resurrection Bay. Other gold producing areas on the Kenai Peninsula developed: Russian River, Palmer Creek, the Moose Pass district, and Nuka Bay. Seward became the principal supply point of the Kenai Peninsula mining operations. (Barry 1986)

Alfred Lowell and others located mining claims in and near Seward on Tonsina Creek, Humpy Cove, Falls Creek, Sunny Bay, Thumb Cove, and the head of Fourth of July Creek. These unprofitable mines were soon abandoned, leaving little in the way of buildings or other indications of their existence.

While no coal deposits were found in the Seward area, it was the coal fields located in the interior that lead Ballaine to believe that a railroad was economically feasible and ultimately led to the founding of Seward as a debarkation point for coal from the northern fields. The withdrawal of development and mineral rights of these coal fields by the Federal Government in 1906 led to the bankruptcy of the railroad and the cessation of railroad construction. Today that interior coal is moved by rail and shipped to overseas markets.

Fur trade in the area was limited. After Frank Lowell settled on Resurrection Bay in 1884 a ship would come in once a year to pick up furs, perhaps obtained from pelagic hunters who sought otter and other sea mammals, and to leave supplies. (Barry 1986)

While fur hunting was not a major part of Seward's economy, by 1923 Seward functioned as headquarters for outfitters and guides on the Kenai Peninsula and Fox Island was the site of a fox farm. Fox Island was also the home of noted New York artist and book illustrator, Rockwell Kent and his son during the winter of 1918-1919. Kent's book, Wilderness (1920), was written about his life on Fox Island.

With the establishment of dairy herding in 1904, Seward residents were supplied with fresh milk as early as 1904. In 1915, the Seward Dairy was established at Mile 3 (the McPherson Homestead) by Adelman and Quilty. Mr. Adelman, later sole owner, moved the business to what is now called Dairy Hill, formerly Chamberlain Hill (Barry 1986). Purchased in 1924 by Henry Leirer, the Dairy operated until 1956. The present residence was built in 1929 and is still occupied by the Leirer family.

The fisheries industry began when San Juan Fisheries and Canning Company established the first cold storage plant in Seward in 1917. It was located offshore on pilings between Monroe and Van Buren Streets as was the subsequent salmon saltery, halibut processing plant, and salmon cannery. Remains of the pilings are still visible. (Williams)

The Halibut Producers Co-Op (now Seward Fisheries-Icicle Seafoods) was the first business to rebuild in Seward after the 1964 earthquake, following complete destruction of the original processing plant on the waterfront. At one time it was the nation's largest halibut processor. It is still in operation and processes salmon, halibut, cod, and crab in season. This operation has been expanded several times and has an active dock area.

Since the townsite and the surrounding area had an abundant timber growth of spruce and hemlock, cottonwood, birch and alder (much used to smoke fish) small scale logging was part of Seward's industrial development from its founding. Sawmill operations were opened at Mile 3-1/2 and logging was opened up in 1923 at several sites around the Bay, at Fourth of July Creek, and at Bear Lake. A sawmill operated at Bear Lake by the Tressler Brothers until 1973 when it was acquired by Louisiana Pacific and was moved and enlarged. It closed and left Seward in the 1970's.

President Theodore Roosevelt established the Chugach National Forest on July 23, 1907. Today it is one of the oldest national forests in America. The original boundaries included what is now Anchorage all the way to, and including, Kodiak. It is currently the second largest national forest in the country. (Allen)

Tourism was a part of the economy even before there was a town of Seward. Steamships landed passengers and freight at the head of the ice free bay and from there they headed north to the gold fields by horse, dog team or on foot. As the work on the railroad progressed, more traffic was generated and early Seward boasted the Coleman House, Hotel McNeiley, Seward Hotel, Hotel Overland and others. The Van Gilder, built in 1916 as an office building and meeting rooms, was converted to a hotel in 1921. Only the Van Gilder survives today as the others were victims of fires.

With the creation of the Kenai Fjords National Monument by President Carter in 1978, tourism began to occupy an important place in Seward's economy. It became a national park in 1980 and visitation has since grown to 170,000 visitors in 1993. (U.S. National Park Service). There are numerous fishing charter boats, tour boats, buses and cruise ships all catering to the visitor industry. This trend is expected to increase with cruise ship dockings growing each year. Numerous bed and breakfast operations have joined the hotels and motels and new restaurants have opened each year.

Development of the small boat harbor waterfront between Third and Fourth Avenues, outside the original townsite, has resulted in a second commercial district with restaurants, motel, art gallery, shops, charter/tour boat operations, etc. Several of the businesses are housed in relatively small buildings designed only for summer use. Many of the businesses, even in more substantial buildings, close for the winter. Commerce in the boat harbor is particularly busy in the summer tourist months. The U.S. National Park Service has established the headquarters for Kenai Fjords National Park in the boat harbor area.

General Commerce began in Seward even before the town plat was recorded in 1905. By October, 1904 there were over 40 businesses established in town. These included two barbershops, a dairy and a delivery service, three restaurants, four saloons, and three hardware and furniture stores.

Brown & Hawkins, the oldest businesses in Seward, and the oldest business in the state still run by the same family, is still housed in the original building. The Yukon Bar occupies another of the earliest buildings. Other early structures are the Orlander, Osbo, and Seward Commercial Buildings, all on Fourth Avenue.

There were two machine shops, one of which housed the Ford dealership. Lechner's Seward Machine Shop still remains, albeit abandoned. The Buick Building on Third Avenue, once a car dealership, survives and is now used as a laundry and apartments.

The shrinking number of banks, from two in 1915, (the Harriman National Bank of Alaska at Seward and the Bank of Seward,) to one in 1923 (Bank of Seward), reflected a decline in population and commerce as Anchorage grew. The old Harriman bank building, now known as the Ray Building, serves as a adjunct to the Seward City Hall. A new bank building was erected in 1979 on the site of the Bank of Seward on the corner of Fourth and Adams.

Longshoring at the port of Seward was one of the main occupations during the early and mid-1900's, and during the 1940's, 50's and early 60's, employing over 250 men. Most of the freight to interior Alaska came through Seward. The city also supplied the needs of western Alaska. As the transportation industry changed, fewer men were needed. Anchorage built a dock and began shipping. The Alaska Railroad decided to use rail barges and Whittier became the base for this traffic, primarily for economic reasons. (Seward Phoenix Log) By 1950 the population in Seward had soared to 2,114. But by 1960 reduced commerce had left Seward with a population of only 1,891.

The Alaska Railroad Depot, constructed in 1917 at what is now Adams Street and Ballaine Boulevard, was moved to its present location on Railway Avenue following a damaging flood down Jefferson Street. A craftsman style building, it was used as the depot until 1964, when the railroad was destroyed in the earthquake and more recently as headquarters of the Alaska Marine Highway ferry Tustumena for over twenty years. The depot was entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.

The highway from Seward to Anchorage was completed in 1951. However, various segments of the road were constructed to Moose Pass and Hope and it was possible to drive to Hope in 1928 - if one first took the train to Moose Pass. An 18 mile segment from Seward to Kenai Lake was finished in 1923, but the Mile 18 bridge, which was referred to as the "missing link," was not completed until 1946, allowing access by highway from Seward as far north as Hope, and as far west as what is now the Russian/Kenai River Confluence (Henton's Lodge or Sportsman's Lodge).

Seward's place as a major port began with the Alaska Central Railway=s development of extensive docking and warehousing facilities at the foot of Fourth Avenue where all water transportation arrived. Nothing except old photographs remain of the early trestles, warehouses, docks, and railroad tracks and facilities.

Following the 1964 earthquake and urban renewal, a new small boat harbor was built in an area created by dredging and filling north of the original townsite. The Seward Small Boat Harbor has 500 slips and 7000 lineal feet of transient boat space. Many businesses have opened up in the harbor since 1970.

St. Peter's Episcopal Church (1904), which is listed on the National Register, is the only active early religious building still used for religious purposes in the original townsite. Sacred Heart Catholic Church, built in 1909-1910 and replaced by a new A-Frame church building after the 1964 earthquake, burned in 1988.

The Jesse Lee Home was built in 1923, as an orphanage for Alaska=s native children, under the auspices of the Wesleyan Women of the Methodist Church. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.

Health care came to Seward in 1911, when Dr. J. H. Romig established a hospital in the former Cameron House on Millionaires Row, 423 Third Ave. He became the chief surgeon of the Alaska Railroad.

A major health problem in Alaska, tuberculosis, was detected in the State during WWII and in 1946 a Sanitarium under the auspices of the Wesleyan Ladies Auxiliary was opened in buildings erected at the decommissioned Fort Raymond. The "San" as it was called, could accommodate over 100 patients and was a major employer in Seward after the war. This property is now owned by the City of Seward and occupied by the U.S. Army and Air Force Recreational Camps which were established after the Sanitarium closed in the mid 1950's. The building now housing the Wesley Rehabilitation & Care Center on First Avenue was built in 1958 to house the nurses employed at the "San". (Williams) The present Seward General Hospital was erected in 1957.

Community Celebrations have always been a part of Seward's history. The Fourth of July has always been an important celebration day in Seward, embellished by the addition of the Mt. Marathon Race. This is the second oldest foot race in the U.S. dating from 1915. Held annually, the race attracts runners and sports enthusiasts from all over the United States and some foreign countries.

The Alaska Legislature has designated July 9th a state holiday - Alaska Flag Day. This was the date upon which the Alaska Flag was first flown in Alaska. Benny Benson, an orphan housed at the Jesse Lee Home, created the winning design for the Alaska State Flag in 1927.

The devastating fire of 1941 burned 19 businesses from McMullens south on the east side of Fourth Avenue to the Arcade Building on the corner of Fourth and Railway and over to the Seward Hotel on Fifth Avenue. Over 450 persons were left homeless. The Army provided tents to house them. Another fire in 1942 burned the west side of Fourth Avenue from the present day Elks Lodge on the corner of Fourth and Washington south to the Lechner property. One hundred persons were left without homes. (Polk)

The 1964 Good Friday Earthquake and its resultant tsunamis devastated the industrial heart of Seward. It destroyed the San Juan, Army and railroad docks, the tracks leading to the dock, the oil tank farms, fish processors, warehouses and the small boat harbor. The waterfront of downtown Seward was permanently altered.

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