Kenai Fjords
A Stern and Rock-Bound Coast: Historic Resource Study
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Chapter 5:

Roads and Road Proposals

Within a few years of its founding, Seward had become the Kenai Peninsula's largest town, and although Seward was built as a railroad town, its citizens demanded roads as well. Seward development interests began to lobby for a road network connecting the port with its hinterland, recognizing that a well-developed road system emanating from Seward ensured the town's commercial hegemony.

To some extent, a road network had been established before the town had been founded. The Hope and Sunrise areas, the site of a minor gold rush during the early to mid-1890s, was largely inaccessible by water; ice closed Cook Inlet during the winter, and during the summer the mud flats and the enormous tidal range made access difficult. Land access from the east was similarly difficult because Portage Pass was surrounded by a dangerous snowfield. As a result, miners hoping to access an ice-free port headed south to Resurrection Bay. They cut a pack trail from Sunrise to the foot of Kenai Lake. South of the lake, a trail led south to Salmon Lake (Bear Lake). Between there and the head of Resurrection Bay, a California mining company opened up a road to the head of Resurrection Bay "at the expense of a great deal of time and labor." The Mendenhall party that traveled north from Resurrection Bay in May 1898, however, found that the mining company's route soon "developed into a very poor road;" the road (and the survey party) crossed Salmon Creek several times on their way north. [41]

Topography and the existing wagon road suggested that the first Seward-area trunk road would parallel the Alaska Central tracks. In 1907, local residents and the newly formed Alaska Road Commission (ARC) pooled their efforts and completed a seven-mile road from Seward north to the agricultural settlement of Bear Lake. The ARC, in those early days, expended few funds outside of the Richardson Highway corridor and the Fairbanks and Nome mining areas. Even so, the commission in 1912 funded a six-mile extension to the Snow River. That road quickly deteriorated, however, and in 1916 the ARC began a new 5-mile road north from Seward that paralleled the railroad tracks. In 1920, Seward-area roads received a shot in the arm because of an agreement that transferred road administration to the Bureau of Public Roads, the agency in charge of National Forest roads. Perhaps as a result of the new funding source, the road was gradually extended north, and in November 1923 the road was finally completed to the southern end of Kenai Lake. [42]

During the same period that the Seward-Kenai Lake road was being built, construction was taking place at the north end of the Kenai Peninsula that would affect the future of roadbuilding in what is now Kenai Fjords National Park. In the summer of 1907, the ARC improved upon the decade-old pack trail and built a 37-mile wagon road that connected Sunrise with the Alaska Central Railroad. That wagon road followed up the Sixmile Creek drainage to its confluence with the creek's East Fork. It then headed up that fork and continued on into the Bench Creek drainage to the Johnson Creek Summit. South of the summit, the trail continued until it reached the railroad right-of-way at Milepost 34, at the northeastern end of Upper Trail Lake. [43]

The Sunrise road remained the only other ARC-sponsored road on the Peninsula for the next several years. But in 1909, the ARC constructed a 14.5-mile sled road that ran northwest from the railroad community of Moose Pass to the Johnstown (later Gilpatricks) mining camp, which was located in the upper reaches of the Quartz Creek drainage (near today's Summit Lake Lodge). By 1911, the sled road had been extended 10 miles into the Canyon Creek drainage, and in 1913 it was extended again to the point that it joined with the 37-mile-long wagon road that had been built six years earlier. [44] By this time, traffic had begun to thin out on the road because of the decline of the Hope-Sunrise placer mines. As that trend continued, the old wagon road began to fall into disrepair. But the Moose Pass-Canyon Creek route, where mining remained active, was upgraded in 1917 to a wagon road. By the early 1920s the ARC had abandoned most of the old (1907) wagon road, but on the other route, a 1923 Seward Gateway report noted that "a fine road is now being built from Moose Pass to Hope." The new route became the only ARC-designated route between the Hope-Sunrise areas and the new government railroad. [45]

By the time the ARC was upgrading the Moose Pass-Canyon Creek sled road, several families had moved into the Cooper Landing area. In 1919, therefore, the agency stated that it planned to open up a new route from Mile 8 on the Moose Pass-Canyon Creek Road west to the Kenai River-Russian River junction. It hoped that, by doing so, it would "open up a potentially [rich?] farming country." This sled road was built in either 1920 or 1921. The agency's 1919 proposal may have been the first step in a plan to improve its 60-mile trail connecting Kenai Lake with the Cook Inlet settlement of Kenai. Soon afterward, the Bureau of Public Roads announced the proposed road plan to local residents. [46]

The first road out of Seward went to Kenai Lake. It was completed in 1923. This photo, taken along the road, likely dates to 1919. The Pathfinder, May 1920, 2.

The plan to create a sled road connecting Moose Pass and Kenai was not well received by Seward's business leaders. In their view, any roads going west to Kenai should go directly from Seward (and not via Moose Pass). Sewardites, therefore, championed a route that connected the Seward and Cooper Landing areas via the Resurrection and Russian river valleys. As noted in a February 1922 issue of the Seward Gateway, they made their voices heard in a petition sent to the Bureau of Public Roads. That petition noted that

the natural obstacles to be overcome in the construction and maintenance of this road ... are very few. There is a perfect water grade from Seward up the Resurrection River to [Upper] Russian Lake and down the Russian River to the Kenai. The cost of construction of this road to this point would be so low that the cost of a substantial bridge across the Kenai River would not bring the general cost per mile of the road up to an excessive figure.... The present road plans of the Bureau in Kenai Peninsula do not correspond with these proposed plans and in the minds of those thoroughly familiar with the country are not as feasible.

The advantages of the proposed system of roads are many and very important. The road from Mile 3-1/2 to the mouth of the Russian River in itself would work great good. It would open up a large tract of some of the finest timber on Kenai Peninsula. Russian Lake, which has been recommended as a hatchery site by the Territorial Fish Commission, would be made accessible.... In addition to this the road will pass through a country with great mineral possibilities. There are three very promising properties now in this section which are in need of such transportation as this road would afford. At Mile 18 there is the Dubriul [Dubreuil] placer property and further on there [is] the Tecklenberg and Stotko quartz properties and the Russian Pass district is considered to have many good quartz discoveries.... The extension of this proposed road [to Kenai] would open up one of the richest sections of Alaska in agricultural and grazing possibilities....

The proposed route would shorten the winter travel between the towns of Kenai and Seward about twenty-five miles.... This would mean better mail service to the towns on Cook's Inlet, and would provide a means of transportation to farmers, fishermen, fox ranchers and oil men when transportation is closed on Cook's Inlet [and] would take the hunter and tourist to the center of the greatest moose and sheep.

The request to the Bureau of Public Roads to drop its present plans and recommending the construction of the Resurrection River road is not in the way of criticism of the splendid work carried out by the Bureau but is intended as advice in the most friendly spirit.... [47]

The Bureau, in response to the petition, stated that it hoped to survey the Resurrection River route in the summer of 1922. The survey apparently took place as promised, but the agency's position toward proposed road locations did not change. The Bureau, in fact, was squarely against Seward's plan because such a road threatened to divert traffic away from the railroad. With the government now operating a subsidized railroad, all federal agencies acted in concert to minimize the line's losses. As stated in an ARC annual report, "an especial effort has been made within this [southwestern] district to furnish adequate roads, sled roads or trail to all points of development in order that traffic may be developed for the Alaska Railroad." [48] Consistent with that policy, the Bureau in 1924 began upgrading and improving the Moose Pass-Kenai trail into a widened, improved sled road, a task that took the Bureau and the Alaska Road Commission portions of the next three seasons. By the advent of World War II, the route between Cooper Landing and Moose Pass had been improved from a sled road to a wagon road. [49]

The road builders, however, did not entirely ignore the Resurrection River valley. In early 1923, ARC Superintendent Anton Eide announced, as part of the summer's work plan, that the agency would work on a sled trail connecting Seward and Kenai, the work to be paid for with territorial funds. (An ad hoc trail already existed along portions of the route because, as noted above, several mining claims were located in the upper Resurrection River valley.) The agency began graveling portions of the route that summer, but it is not known how much work was completed. ARC maps dating from the 1920s and 1930s show that a designated trail, suitable for dog teams, wound along the Resurrection River-Russian River route. The agency, however, ignored the trail in its annual reports, and the low levels of activity in the valley suggest that the trail had faded back into the forest before World War II. [50]

As noted above, a wagon road connecting Moose Pass with the old Sunrise mining camp had been completed in 1921; two years later, a road was completed connecting Seward with Kenai Lake. As soon as the Seward-Kenai Lake road was completed, Seward citizens began to demand that the various road building authorities construct a seven-mile-long "missing link" connecting the Kenai Lake road terminus with Moose Pass. But steep topography along the Kenai Lake shoreline, a lack of funds, and the ARC's attitude toward roads that competed against the railroad meant that the "missing link" was not completed until 1938. [51]

The remainder of the Kenai Peninsula's primary road network was not completed until the decade that followed World War II. In 1946, the peninsula road system was the same as it had been in 1938; it consisted of a gravel road extending northward from Seward to Hope, and a branch road reached westward to Quartz Creek to the Kenai River-Russian River confluence. But construction beginning that June pushed the road west from the Russian River, and by June 1947 a "pioneer road" had been roughed through to Kenai. The extension of the Sterling Highway from Kenai south to Homer was put through in rough form in December 1949 and completed to ARC standards in 1950. (The route was named for Hawley Sterling, a longtime road-commission superintendent, who had died in September 1948.) Plans were also made to construct a road from Moose Pass north to Anchorage. A route survey had been completed in 1945, road construction south from Anchorage began in 1948, and during fiscal year 1949, bids were let to construct a road between the Anchorage area and the Canyon Creek-Sixmile Creek confluence (today's Hope Junction). Work on that project began during the summer of 1949, and a road linking the Kenai Peninsula and Anchorage was completed and dedicated in October 1951. [52] No intercity roads have been built on the Kenai since that time.

Although Sewardites failed in their 1922 attempt to have a road constructed up the Resurrection River valley to the mouth of the Russian River, they continued to press authorities to have the road built. Their second attempt took place in the fall of 1925, when the local press reported that

the proposed Resurrection river road to the lower Kenai peninsula regions was the main topic of business confronting the local Chamber of Commerce at its regular weekly meeting.... All members were pledged to get behind the movement and individually write letters to those in authority advocating the construction of the road. Residents of the Kenai district have sent in petitions for the road and it is confidently believed that with united effort it will be constructed. [53]

Undercutting the efforts of road boosters, however, was the slow construction and improvement of a route headed westward from the Moose Pass railroad station. By the early 1940s, a government report noted that the existence of a good road from Moose Pass to Cooper Landing obviated the need for a route up the Resurrection River valley. [54]

In 1957, perhaps in response to the new Swanson River oil discoveries (see Chapter 10), Seward citizens and the Chamber of Commerce made a renewed effort for such a road. They argued that constructing such a road would shorten the distance between Seward and the communities of the western Kenai and relieve some of the traffic on the Anchorage-Kenai highway. In 1959, the advent of statehood raised hopes that the new, more independent government would move to construct the road. Neither of these efforts, however, moved highway department officials to seriously consider a road in the Resurrection-Russian River corridor. [55]

In 1967, the City of Seward issued a Comprehensive Development Plan that "strongly recommended" a road from Seward to Cooper Landing. The document noted that the road would serve three purposes: provide a more direct route between Seward and the western Kenai population centers, open up lands for recreation use, and "provide an alternate tourist route through spectacular country." [56] By this time, Herman Leirer and other local citizens (as noted in Chapter 10) had already begun pioneering a road between Seward Highway and "Resurrection Glacier" (today's Exit Glacier). Lehrer's goal was a recreational road that would provide a scenic diversion for tourists; he had no interest in going farther up the Resurrection River valley. [57]

In its 1973-74 comprehensive plan, the Kenai Peninsula Borough reiterated the need for such a road; the Alaska Department of Highways also recommended such a road during hearings held in April 1974 by the Joint Federal-State Land Use Planning Commission. [58] Those plans, however, were not implemented. Since that time, the likelihood that this road will be built has significantly decreased, due both to the establishment of Kenai Fjords National Park and because of the Forest Service's decision, in the early 1980s, to construct a recreation trail through the proposed road corridor.

The rugged topography typical of the southern Kenai Peninsula, and the existence of the Harding and other nearby icefields, have precluded serious proposals for any other long-distance transportation routes in the vicinity of Kenai Fjords National Park. Those factors, however, did not prevent two men from lobbying the Alaska Road Commission for a trail connecting Seldovia with the head of Nuka Bay. That request, in November 1933, met with a blunt, unambiguous denial. ARC official Hawley Sterling told the petitioners that the trail was "neither feasible nor practical or that it would ever be used as a through trail." A road was later built from Seldovia southeast to Rocky and Windy bays, but no serious, long-distance road or trail proposals have been located in the Nuka Bay vicinity or elsewhere in the present park. [59]

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Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002