Alaska Nellie was an Alaska legend
Nellie Neal Lawing was born in 1873 and grew up on a Missouri farm. According to her 1940 autobiography, “Alaska Nellie,” since childhood she had an adventuresome spirit, and her mother called her “half domestic and half wild.”
In 1901 she left home, wandering her way westward — working in railroad restaurants and managing hotels. In 1915, single and 42 years old, she boarded a steamer bound for Alaska. Landing at Seward in mid-July, she found employment as a cook at a mine near Kenai Lake.
She worked at the mine until it closed for the winter, and spent the rest of the winter trapping. In the spring Nellie hiked to the Alaska Engineering Commission’s Anchorage office where she was hired (the AEC’s first female employee) to manage a railroad construction roadhouse at Mile 45 out of Seward.
Nellie later managed the AEC’s Kern Creek and Dead Horse roadhouses. She was at Dead Horse when President Harding overnighted there during his 1923 Alaska tour. 1923 marked the completion of the Alaska Railroad, and the closing of railroad construction camps. Nellie decided to move into tourism and returned to Kenai Lake.
The Roosevelt Roadhouse sat adjacent to the Alaska Railroad, on the eastern shore of Kenai Lake. It’s owner had died, and his widow sold the roadhouse to Nellie in August of 1923. The next month Nellie married Billie Lawing in Seward, and the two set about making Roosevelt a tourist haven. Catering to sportsmen and tourists, they converted the roadhouse into a wildlife museum filled with trophy animal mounts Nellie had bagged herself. From there she regaled visitors with tales of her adventures.
The Lawings added a kitchen and dining room to the roadhouse/museum, which sat mere yards from Kenai Lake. With lake waters lapping at the kitchen wall, Nellie could throw a baited set line through an open window into the lake. A bell in the kitchen, attached to the line, would ring when a fish was hooked.
The roadhouse, now called Lawing, became a regular stop on the railroad, with one southbound and one northbound train per week. Between 1926 and 1931 the ARR also ran a tourist train from Seward to Lawing and back.
By 1925 there was road access from Seward to the southern end of Kenai Lake, and the Lawings bought a cabin cruiser to ferry guests the additional five miles to the roadhouse. Lawing became a de rigeur stop for sportsmen and the rich and famous, attracting English royalty and Hollywood personalities. Metro-Goldwn-Mayer Studios even produced a short film about Nellie.
With business booming, the Lawings expanded operations. In one instance, they disassembled, rafted (utilizing their boat), and then reassembled a two-story log cabin (shown in the drawing) from another lake-shore location to their property. Nellie’s book contains a detailed account of the move.
Billie died of a heart attack in 1936. Nellie soldiered on for a while but the roadhouse closed during World War II and never recovered. Nellie died at Lawing in 1956 and was buried in Seward alongside Billie.
After her death most of her estate was auctioned off. Numerous photos, letters and books from Nellie’s were acquired by the Seward Museum.
The roadhouse is now gone, succumbing to the elements some time after 1969. The only buildings remaining are the two-story log cabin (which was probably used as a cafe), Nellie’s frame house (which is collapsing), another small cabin, and a railroad car converted into a shed.
Over the years, various entrepreneurs have tried resuscitating the roadhouse. In the 1970s a shed-roofed museum/warehouse was built, and a gift shop operated out of the two-story cabin, The buildings, now empty, have sat vacant for the last several decades. They are on private property, but are visible from Lawing Drive, at mile 23 of the Seward Highway.
- “Alaska Nellie.” Helen Hegener. Northern Light Media website. 2014
- “Alaska Nellie.” Nellie Neal Lawing. Friends of Alaska Nellie. 2010
- “Alaska Nellie’s Homestead, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. Jacques L. Connor. National Park Service. 1975
- “Lawing: Alaska Nellie’s Stabilization Plan.” Diane Olthuis. Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm Corridor Communities Association, Alaska Nellie’s Historical Society. 2003