“Life is like a dogsled team. If you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes.” – Lewis Grizzard
One of my favorite towns in Alaska is Seward, located at the head of Resurrection Bay on the Kenai Peninsula; Seward is one of Alaska’s oldest and most scenic communities. I ended up staying here for two weeks and still look forward to coming back next time I am in Alaska. To make it easier on my readers I will break the blog posts up into two for this interesting and scenic location. So let’s start with a little history:
Seward celebrates its place in Alaska’s history by being home of the Alaska State Flag and the start of the 2,300 mile Iditarod National Historic Trail.
First called Vituska on early Railway blueprints (a combination of Vitus, Captain Behring’s given name, with the last syllable of Alaska). John E. Ballaine, Originator and Promoter of the Alaska Central Railway chose the final name of Seward in 1903 in honor of William H. Seward, President Lincoln’s Secretary of State who foresaw the ultimate primacy of the Pacific Ocean in the world’s commerce. He felt that it was important to have the starting point of the Railroad named even though it then existed only as a virgin forest.
“The flag is the embodiment, not of sentiment, but of history.” – Woodrow Wilson
More than 30 years before Alaska was to become a state, the Alaska Department of the American Legion sponsored a territorial contest for Alaska children in grades 7 through 12. A flag was needed to represent the future state of Alaska and somebody had the idea to tap into the creativity of Alaska’s future generation.
Contest rules were circulated throughout the Alaska Territory in January, 1927. The rules stipulated that the first stage of the competition would take place at a local level. Each town would set up a panel of judges that would determine the ten best local designs and forward these to Juneau where the final competition would take place. A total of 142 designs were forwarded to Juneau. Several interesting concepts were represented, and eventually rejected, in the submissions reviewed by the Juneau Flag Committee. All of these concepts were rejected as too specific to one or another individual aspect of the vast Alaska Territory.
The winner of the contest was a seventh grade Aleut student, thirteen year old John Bell (Benny) Benson from Chignik. He was living in an orphanage in Seward, the Jesse Lee Mission Home, at the time of the contest. On his design submission, Benny explained the scene for the judges: “The blue field is for the Alaska sky and the forget-me-not, an Alaska flower. The North Star is for the future of the state of Alaska, the most northerly in the Union. The dipper is for the Great Bear – symbolizing strength.” Benny’s simple, elegant flag design was adopted by the Alaska Territorial Legislature in May, 1927.
The Benson-designed flag was flown for the first time on July 9, 1927 on the flagpole at the Jesse Lee Home, one and a half miles north of the city of Seward. It was Benny himself that attached the flag to the halyards and stood at attention as the National Anthem played and the flag was raised. Alaska was granted official statehood in 1959 and Benson’s flag turned into the Alaskan state flag.
“We should also consider our obligation to assure the fullest possible measure of civil rights to the people of our territories and possessions. I believe that the time has come for Alaska and Hawaii to be admitted to the Union as States.” – President Harry Truman, 1948
The Iditarod National Historic Trail is Alaska’s sole National Historic Trail. This network of 2,300-mile winter trails evolved to connect Alaskan Native villages, established the dog-team mail and supply route during Alaska’s Gold Rush, and now serves as a vital recreation and travel link.
Hiking with Cory & Mark (a friend I met in Seward) we learned after trying to hike a section of the trail just outside Seward, much of the trail is not passable without snow cover, at least without webbed feet and serious mosquito repellent. We still managed to find the Seward Meridian – the point that was the basis for the land surveys that define 138 million acres in South Central Alaska.
Although the gold rush era spurred development of the Iditarod Trail, its origins are the trails of the Dena’ina Indians and the Inupiat and Yupik Eskimos. The trail takes its name from the Athabaskan village on the Iditarod River, where the discovery of gold once lured thousands of prospectors north. The demand for goods and supplies between the port of Seward and the mining communities drove the need for a shipping route and the year-round ice-free waters of Resurrection Bay made Seward an ideal port and supply point.
In 1908, the Alaska Road Commission formally surveyed, cleared, and marked a trail from Seward to Nome, using the network of roughly blazed paths that connected mining camps and trading posts. The two ends of the trail met in the gold mines of Interior Alaska and eventually the route became known as the Iditarod Trail. For two decades, the Iditarod Trail was the link between many communities and the main artery for Alaska’s winter commerce. Seward’s historic Iditarod Trail monument located along the shoreline of Resurrection Bay commemorates this lifeline at its starting point where thousands of people set off from here trying to realize their dreams of fortune.
On February 21, 1924, the first Alaska airmail flew into McGrath. By the end of the decade airmail made the Iditarod Trail nearly obsolete.
The Iditarod Trail sprung into the national spotlight during Nome’s 1925 diphtheria outbreak when serum was desperately needed. Severe winter weather made flights from Fairbanks to Nome impossible and winter ice had closed the port city from the outside world without enough serum to inoculate its residents. Serum from Anchorage was rushed by train to Nenana and picked up by a sled dog relay. Twenty of Alaska’s best mushers and their teams carried the serum 674 miles from Nenana to Nome in less than five-and-a-half days.
“I train my dogs to have a ‘trust-and-be-trusted’ relationship…It’s mutual trust. Theirs in my guidance, and mine in their ability and instincts in the wilderness.” – Susan Butcher
Today, that heroic run is commemorated by the now-famous 1,049-mile Iditarod sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome.
While in Wasilla I visited the Race Headquarters and enjoyed seeing the dogs, puppies and talking with mushers about the race. There was also the opportunity to hold one of the two week old sled dog puppies – their eyes not even open yet.
Seward offered many opportunities from hiking and paddling to visiting Kenai Fjords National Park both on the water and at Exit Glacier. Stay tuned for the next post and even more about these opportunities.
“Thomas Edison’s last words were “It’s very beautiful over there”. I don’t know where there is, but I believe it’s somewhere, and I hope it’s beautiful.” ― John Green, Looking for Alaska