Old depot is a monument to Seward’s survival as a railroad town
The old railroad depot in Seward is testament to the travails the city has gone through as a railroad town.
Although constructed in 1917, the depot’s history can be traced back to the advent of railroading in southcentral Alaska 15 years earlier.
The Alaska Central Railroad (ACR) was organized in March 1902 by a group of Seattle businessmen. Their goal was to build a line from Resurrection Bay on the the Kenai Peninsula to Interior Alaska.
The ACR purchased the Frank Lowell family homestead at the head of the bay (his family had settled there in 1884), and, in the summer of 1903, laid out a townsite. On Aug. 23, the founders of the railroad, John and Frank Ballaine, arrived with workers and supplies to prep for construction of the line.
Track construction began in April 1904. Three years later, 51 miles of track had been laid. However, by 1908 the ACR was insolvent and filed for bankruptcy.
The Alaska Northern Railway (ANR) emerged in 1909 as the successor to the ACR, and pushed tracks another 21 miles to Kern Creek on Turnagain Arm, near present-day Girdwood.
Unfortunately, the ANR also ran short of funds, and by 1911 was lurching toward insolvency.
In March 1914, Congress authorized the construction and operation of a government-owned railroad running from tidewater in Southcentral Alaska to Fairbanks. There were several competing routes, and in April of 1915 President Woodrow Wilson chose the Seward-to-Fairbanks route.
The federal government, through the Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC), began constructing tracks northward from the new railroad town of Anchorage. It also purchased the ailing ANR and rebuilt the line. By the summer of 1917, rehabilitation work was complete as far as the old ANR’s Kern Creek terminus. The final 18-mile rail link to Anchorage was completed the next year.
In 1917 the AEC built the Seward depot. The hipped-roof 24-foot by 98-foot wood-frame depot was constructed at the foot of Adams Street, near Lowell Creek.
Helen Hegener, in her book The Alaska Railroad, 1902-1923, states that the depot was, “patterned after Craftsman-style railroad stations designed by Hendry Hobson Richardson for New England towns in the 1880s.”
The exterior walls were sheathed with cedar shingles on the upper courses and beveled siding beneath that, and roofing was composed of cedar shingles.
The depot was completed by September, which was when a severe storm hit Seward, flooding Lowell Creek and destroying much of the railroad yard next to the bay. A photo taken after the storm shows the new depot sitting safely at the edge of the ravaged area.
According to National Register documents, a new railroad dock was completed at the foot of Fifth Avenue (at the city’s southern edge) in 1928. That, coupled with more flooding in the depot area, convinced the Alaska Railroad to move the depot to its present location at 501 Railway Avenue.
The depot served the railroad until the 1964 Good Friday earthquake devastated Seward, destroying the Alaska Railroad’s docks and rail yards. The depot survived, but the railroad moved its terminus up the bay to the small-boat harbor, stranding the depot.
The building was then utilized as a ferry terminal by the Alaska Marine Highway. In 1987, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Chugach Alaska Corporation renovated the depot in 1998, restoring it to its 1917 appearance, and used the building as a Native cultural center for three seasons.
The building, which is surrounded by Hoben Park, is now owned by the Seward Association for the Advancement of Marine Science and is currently a restaurant.
- Kenai Peninsula Borough property records.
- Railroad in the Clouds, The Alaska Railroad in the age of steam, 1914-1945. William Wilson.Pruett Publishing Company. 1977
- Rails North, the railroads of Alaska and the Yukon. Howard Clifford.” Superior PublishingCompany. 1981
- “Seward Depot.” from Seward Historic Preservation Commission website. 2004
- “Seward Depot, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Michael Carberry, National Park Service. 1986
- The Alaska Railroad, 1902 to 1923: Blazing an Iron Trail across the Last Frontier. Helen Hegener. Northern Lights Media. 2017