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Articles Blog

Seward, Alaska

Karyn Planett

What’s In a Name?? 

Locals will be happy to tell you the history of how their tiny town got its name. Actually, if you had a year or two to spare they could go all the way back to the earliest of days, 30,000 to 10,000 years ago, when bands of hearty travelers crossed the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. They’d fill in the blanks with details about the Aleuts, Inupiats and Yup’iks, Athabascans, Tlingits and Haidas, all tribal people who fished and hunted and built communities. Yes, the Russians followed, as did Captain Cook. The Americans and the Brits also had an eye on this bountiful land so America ultimately bought Alaska from the Russians for the whopping sum of $7.2 million. The year was 1867. Back then it was a load of dough. Today you can hardly remodel a bathroom for that. 

So, who do you think orchestrated that deal? You guessed it … the then Secretary of State William Seward (pronounced “Soo-word”) for whom this town is named. Now you know. Unfortunately Secretary Seward, serving in President Abraham Lincoln’s administration, was lampooned in Washington and the whole ordeal was referred to as “Seward’s Folly” because of the high dollar figure paid for this 663,000-square-mile backwater wilderness. 

More of the story unfolded when a gentleman named John Ballaine arrived in 1903. He founded the town and the Alaska Central Railway to serve this deepwater port. A marker to memorialize this event is located on the shore of Resurrection Bay in Hoben Park. 

By the way, it was Seward who had the very last laugh when gold was discovered in 1908 on Otter Creek, a tributary of the Iditarod River, and the rush was on. You can almost hear his gloating chuckle echoing off the hills even today. 

That Brings Us To The Iditarod Story 

We all know about the famous sled dog race called The Iditarod. Well, the whole thing began years ago when sled dogs were basically the only means of traveling about the countryside across rugged peaks and swollen rivers. This was long before snowmobiles and Ice Road Truckers became popular. Anyway, these huskies, malamutes, samoyeds and other robust dogs served as the power source for the only available form of transportation for people and goods over harsh terrain. Their mushers’ early goal was to open up a route to a newly discovered gold mine, right in Iditarod.

The Iditarod’s 1,150-mile-long Anchorage to Nome race* retraces an event in 1925 when mushers and dog teams had to make the grueling 674-mile journey to deliver diphtheria medicine to the people in Nome who feared an outbreak of the epidemic. They completed the trek in an epic 127 hours. Today’s race runs between Nome and Anchorage but the actual Iditarod Trail begins in Seward and is still referred to as the Seward-to-Nome Mail Trail. This string of smaller trails felt the footsteps of thousands of prospectors starting in 1910. Along the route were ramshackle lean-tos, rudimentary shantytowns, hovels, dog barns, sheds and cabins.

A Dog Named Balto

You’ll also hear tell of Balto. He was a mighty Siberian husky who is famous for the mission of mercy role he played in saving Alaska’s children. He lived from 1919 until 1933 and was celebrated as the sled dog that guided his team during the final stint of the famous diphtheria delivery. Then six, this jet-black dog is known for his ability to withstand the final leg of the run in -23 degrees Fahrenheit, in near whiteout conditions and mostly in the dark. The medicine that began its journey in Seattle was safely delivered to the doctors and nurses who inoculated Nome’s youth, saving the day by successfully preventing a potential tragedy.

Other dogs and mushers deserve their place in history as heroes, as well, but it is Balto who became famous. There’s even a statue of him in New York City’s Central Park plus an animated 1995 movie of the same name. And, for the record, he was named after the famous Sami explorer Samuel Balto. 

Seward Today 

Approximately 2,700 people call Seward home, with another 2,700 or so living on the outskirts of town. That number swells with visitors coming by ship and others interested in exploring the Kenai Fjords National Park. Many visitors make their way to the Benny Benson memorial (not directly in town). This 13-year-old Alutiiq “orphan” living at Seward’s Jess Lee Orphanage was born in 1913 and is credited with having designed the state flag, the winner over 700 other entries. That was the good news. The bad news was he had to wait another 32 years for Alaska to become America’s 49th state. The contest was open to all the children of Alaska between the 7th and 12th grades. Benny’s design depicted the Big Dipper and the state’s flower, a forget-me-not, set against a blue background. His notoriety served as an enormous sense of pride for Alaska’s native citizens when it was flown for the first time on July 9, 1927, only four years after Native Alaskans received not only citizenship but the right to vote, as well. 

The people of Seward have much to be proud of and you’re going to hear all about it.