Railroads played important part in the development of Lake Kenai’s eastern shore
Kenai Lake, located 20 miles north of Resurrection Bay on the Kenai Peninsula, has hosted visitors since the early 1900s. During the Cook Inlet gold rush in the mid to late 1890s a winter-only trail (following Dena’ina Athabascan paths) was blazed between Resurrection Bay and Cook Inlet’s Turnagain Arm. That trail passed along Kenai Lake’s eastern shore.
According to Diane Olthuis’s 2003 publication, “Lawing: Alaska Nellie’s Stabilization Plan,” the roadhouse that once stood at Roosevelt (24 miles north of Seward) may have been built during this period.
When the Alaska Central Railway (ACR) began constructing a railway northward from Seward (with plans to reach the Yukon River), its railbed followed the gold-rush dog-sled trail. Construction began in 1904 and tracks reached Kenai Lake in summer 1905. The ACR built a section house at Lakeview (mile 20, at the lake’s southeast end) and a siding at Roosevelt Roadhouse. Roosevelt was probably named for Theodore Roosevelt, U.S. president between 1901 and 1909.
By 1908, the ACR was bankrupt, having completed only 77 miles of track. The Alaska Northern Railway (ANR) took over in 1910, and built a station at Roosevelt. The ANR added another 21 miles of track to the line before it, too, encountered financial difficulties.
The federal government finally stepped in to complete the railway. The U.S. Congress authorized construction of a federally-owned railway in 1914, and in 1915 the government bought the ANR. The railbed, bridges and other infrastructure constructed across the Kenai Peninsula by the ACR and ANR had been underbuilt and poorly maintained, so the Alaska Engineering Commission (the agency that built the Alaska Railroad) had to rebuild much of the line.
In 1918 the AEC constructed a section house in the Roosevelt vicinity. That was the same year that the railroad tracks between Seward and Anchorage were completed.
The Alaska Railroad was completed in 1923, which is when Nellie Neal (Alaska Nellie), a woman who had operated several roadhouses for the AEC, bought Roosevelt Roadhouse. Shortly after moving to Roosevelt, Nellie married Billie Lawing, and the two upgraded their roadhouse on Kenai Lake into a major tourist attraction along the railroad. In 1925, when a post office opened there, the name was changed from Roosevelt to Lawing.
The extended community along Kenai Lake’s the eastern shore included more than just the Lawing’s property. In 1939 about 25 people lived in the area, and a 1948 publication states that Chugach National Forest had its Kenai Peninsula headquarters there.
Billie died in 1936, and Nellie passed away in 1956. The original roadhouse, which Nellie converted into a museum, was damaged in the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake and eventually disappeared. Their homesite at Lawing was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Although there is a public road to the site, all the surviving buildings are on private property. Some, like the one described below, are visible from the road.
The building shown in the drawing is an old storage shed. It is a rectangular 7-foot by 19-foot wood-frame structure with a curved roof. It has a narrow door on one end and small single-pane windows on the sides. The walls are built of vertical tongue-and-grove clear fir boards.
In Olthuis’s 2003 report, she relates that the building, as originally used, was most-likely temporary quarters for railroad work crews. Two such sheds would fit on one 38-foot-long flat car. The building’s age and when it was moved to Lawing are unknown. It could have belonged to any of the three railways mentioned, and is a unique reminder of the role that the Alaska Railroad and its predecessors played in developing the area.
- “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
- “Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.” L.H. Allen. No publisher, Hope, Alaska. 1948
- “Lawing: Alaska Nellie’s Stabilization Plan.” Diane Olthuis. Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm Corridor Communities Association, Alaska Nellie’s Historical Society. 2003