Kenai Fjords
A Stern and Rock-Bound Coast: Historic Resource Study
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Chapter 8:

The military has long been interested in the Kenai Peninsula's southern coastline. Resurrection Bay, one of many indentations along that coastline, has enormous strategic value; it remains ice-free all year long, and the topography north of the bay is sufficiently gentle that roads and rail lines beginning here have penetrated the interior. These routes, as noted in Chapter 5, have allowed the area to serve as a commercial entrepôt for much of southcentral and interior Alaska. Because of its strategic value, Resurrection Bay has been the military's primary focus. Certain aspects of military activity, however, have taken place in or near present-day parklands.

Early Plans and Activities

Map 8-1. Historic Sites-Military Activity. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Russian authorities, through naval charts and occasional expeditions, knew of Resurrection Bay's strategic value by the mid-nineteenth century. During the first two decades after the U.S. government purchased Russian America, the bay's strategic value was largely overlooked. Beginning in the 1880s, however, the Lowell family's settlement and roadbuilding activities connected with Hope-Sunrise mining operations increased that value. As noted in Chapter 5, the U.S. military had the opportunity to see the area for themselves during the Klondike gold rush period; in May 1898, a three-man army expedition sailed to the head of Resurrection Bay and trekked north to Kenai Lake. Five years later, the town of Seward was founded and a railroad toward Alaska's interior was begun. From that point on, most of those interested in Alaska recognized that Seward and Resurrection Bay would be a primary access corridor into southcentral and interior Alaska. This fact was of considerable interest to both military and civilian authorities.

The military first signaled its interest in the Seward area in March 1907, shortly after Congress appropriated study funds for a suitable harbor along the "southern Alaska coast" for a navy yard and navy station. An army expedition, in 1898, had located a substantial coal deposit along the Chickaloon River, a branch of the Matanuska River near present-day Sutton; the Navy, recognizing that the Alaska Central was being built northward to make the coal deposit more accessible, was interested in constructing a coal transfer facility along the coast. But the Navy also knew of another potentially large deposit–the Bering River coal beds–so the study was intended to decide which field should be developed. [1]

During the summer of 1907, the Navy began to lean toward selecting a location near Seward, and in late September, a navy ship arrived to choose an appropriate site for a Naval Coaling Depot. By November, naval authorities had announced their intention to withdraw a 3,350-acre parcel along the west side of Resurrection Bay; it would be 2-1/2 miles from north to south and include both the Spruce Creek and Tonsina Creek drainage, and would go two miles west from the bay. The coaling depot would be sited at Lowell Point. President Roosevelt withdrew the parcel on February 21, 1908. [2]

Development of the parcel, however, had to wait until coal could be cheaply brought to the site and the Navy had demonstrated a need for it. Those conditions would not be fulfilled any time soon because President Roosevelt, in a widely disparaged move, withdrew Alaska's coal reserves from entry in November 1906. (Roosevelt issued his edict because, in his opinion, existing laws limiting coal-mine claims to 160 acres were unworkable and conducive to fraud.) Naval authorities were further stymied because the Alaska Central's end of track was more than a hundred miles away from the coalfields. [3]

Events on the federal level soon re-ignited interest in the Chickaloon River coal resources and Seward's role in the coal lands' development. On May 28, 1908, Congress passed the Alaska Coal Act, which permitted lands intended for coal developments to be consolidated in claims of up to 2,560 acres. Soon afterward, construction on the Alaska Central stopped, and as noted in Chapter 5, the transfer of the railroad's assets to the Alaska Northern did not result in additional track mileage. Construction remained at a standstill until 1912, when Congress authorized the construction of the Alaska Railroad. In 1914, Congress passed a coal-land leasing bill, which further stimulated Alaska coal development. The government, recognizing that the Chickaloon deposit would become accessible in the near future, extracted 800 tons of coal as a pilot project during the winter of 1913-14. It tested the coal and found it had good burning properties. That test stimulated further site development. The government made no secret of its intention to use Chickaloon coal to power U.S. Navy vessels. It needed to do so because the U.S., with its growing international stature, had many new navy ships docked in Pacific Coast ports, but it had few west-coast sources of cheap, plentiful coal. [4]

As a result of those actions, the military again became interested in the Seward area. By February 1916, local officials had been informed that Resurrection Bay "may be the location of a coaling station in the near future." Seven months later, President Wilson set aside Rugged Island as a military reservation, perhaps as a proposed coaling-station site. [6] Meanwhile, railroad construction (which included the rehabilitation of the old Alaska Central route) had begun in April 1915; it reached Anchorage in the fall of 1916, and by October 1917 the rails had been extended to the mine at Chickaloon. A coal train arrived there soon afterward, and on October 30, the first shipment from the government-owned mine arrived in Anchorage. [6]

Coal continued to be mined at Chickaloon for the next several years. Only a small amount, however, was mined each year; in 1919, for example, just 4,000 tons were extracted. The coal, moreover, was used locally, thus obviating any need for a Seward-area coaling station. The Navy, during this period, made no move to develop or use the mine. [7]

Beginning in 1919, the Navy decided to increase its involvement in the area. A Navy Commission report that year recommended that land be set aside at Seward "for a Navy pier and coal-handling plant," and in August, President Wilson issued an order setting aside acreage at the east end of Monroe Street "for the erection of wharves, coal storage yards and other Naval purposes." During the summer of 1920, Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels and other officials traveled to both Seward and Chickaloon to assess the situation for themselves. On the heels of that visit, the Navy decided to invest more than $1 million in the development of the Chickaloon coal deposit. During the next two years exploration activity was dramatically intensified, more than a hundred workers were brought to the area, a commodious townsite was constructed, and an imposing coal washing plant–begun in 1921 and completed in March 1922–was built several miles away. [8]

The washing facility had been completed for just two weeks when, on March 30, 1922, Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall abruptly announced that the Navy, on May 1, would close the mine and abandon the coal-washing plant. Navy officials did so because, after further tests, they found east coast coal superior to Alaska coal; because they knew that a large-scale Alaska coal source was available in case of an emergency; and because the discovery of vast new California oil fields portended the Navy's gradual transition from coal-powered to oil-powered ships. As a result of the Navy's decision, Seward never received large volumes of Chickaloon coal, and the military never constructed a Seward-area coaling station. [9]

During the summer of 1923, the hopes of Seward citizens were buoyed once again, when a survey ship visited the bay "with a view to the establishment of a navy base at some point in Alaska." The Navy, however, did not follow through on its proposal, either in the Seward area or anywhere else in the territory. By January 1925, Rugged Island was declared "useless for military purposes" and the former withdrawal was revoked. [10]

Although no facilities were constructed in conjunction with Seward area military reservations, the military was nevertheless active in Seward during this period. The government, which was constructing the railroad, had a large number of foreign nationals on the various construction crews. When the U.S. government entered World War I in April 1917, emotions rose and some of those foreigners were regarded as "enemy aliens." That same month, therefore, Seward's Spanish-American veterans' group organized an ad hoc committee for public safety and defense. By year's end, Seward's so-called Council of Defense was large and well organized, and in early 1918, its leaders requested that a military detachment be brought from nearby Fort Liscum (near Valdez) to patrol the city. The local citizens' group, which was later known as the Seward Home Guard, disbanded in March 1919. The military detachment, however, remained after the cessation of hostilities, and it was not until the summer of 1921 that the soldiers returned to Fort Liscum. A new detachment arrived in town the following summer; it probably remained until the railroad was completed in mid-1923, then left soon afterward. [11]

The military, during this period, also maintained a radio station on the Resurrection River flats north of Seward. In February 1916, the local chamber of commerce wrote the Navy Secretary and urged that a radio station would be a necessary adjunct to the proposed naval coaling station. Perhaps in response, personnel from the Naval Communication Service arrived in town that August to select an appropriate site. A 40-acre site north of town (near today's airport) was withdrawn the following April, and by December 1917 facilities had been constructed and the station was operating. The stationed remained until August 1923, when budget cuts forced its closure, but the Naval Radio Service reopened the facility in April 1924. The U.S. Army Signal Corps assumed control over the station in June 1926 and operated it until it was abandoned in 1930. [12]

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Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002