Fourth of July 1925 © 2018
Versions of this story ran in the Seward Journal and the Alaska Dispatch News in 2016.
“SEWARD READY TO ACT AS HOST FOR 4TH VISITORS” the local newspaper headline bragged on July 3, announcing the day would begin with a 6 a.m. gun salute by Spanish-American War veterans. A double-page spread revealed the next day’s schedule. Printed programs would be distributed courtesy of the Liberty Theatre that evening and the next morning. People anticipated both a bathing beauty contest and swimming races as the town anxiously awaited the arrival of both the Alaska Railroad passenger train and the S.S. Northwestern. The Odd Fellows planned a Jitney Dance that evening. (A jitney was a small passenger bus with a cheap fare, usually a nickel, nicknamed a jitney. These events were often fundraisers in small towns. One might be charged fifteen cents admission. Once inside, entrants would buy dance tickets at a nickel each.)
World and national events supplement local doings on that July 3 front page. The “Scopes” trial was in progress in Tennessee. Clarence Darrow (defending John T. Scopes, the teacher accused of teaching evolution) was trying to get a federal injunction declaring the Tennessee anti-evolution law as unconstitutional. Boxer Jack Dempsey couldn’t book a paying fight with a worthy opponent while he waited for his scheduled bout in July with Gene Tunney. At Wimbledon, American tennis players from Indianapolis and San Francisco were doing well. Santa Barbara had been rocked with several sizable earthquakes.
On occasion, it actually happens in Seward – the best day of summer comes on the Fourth of July. That’s what occurred in 1925. “Not a cloud was in the sky,” the Seward Gatewayreported. An unexpected salute fired off by the S.S. Northwestern when it docked that morning woke those who hadn’t yet stirred. The parade started at 10:30 that morning. The Seward Drum Corps headed the parade followed by the mayor’s son, Lee Ray, dressed as Uncle Sam, and the banker’s daughter, Betty Balderston, dressed as America. Seward’s first twins, the Stotkos, followed. All the town’s children came next in floats or marching arranged by height waving little flags. Members of the U.S. Signal Corps strutted in uniform behind them.
The parade ended a half our later at a stage set up by the entrance steps to the Bank of Seward at the corner of Main and Adams Street. All the children sang “America,” followed by an invocation and more songs. Seward Mayor L.V. Ray gave a brief speech and introduced Alaska Sen. Antony J. Dimond from Valdez.
“This is a day of peace, not war,” Dimond said, “and no true American cannot help but feel a thrill of patriotism for their country on this day, the Fourth of July.”
For 35 minutes, Dimond held the audience’s attention.
“It is our privilege and duty to enroll today, Defense Day,” he said, “in order that we may be better prepared and in better training.”
The program ended as all the children sang the “Star Spangled Banner.” Everybody took an hour for lunch, and at one that afternoon began two days of activities including special foot, bicycle, and swimming races.
Children took part in many events and, to their delight, got their prizes immediately in cash. A bugler blasted out a call before each happening to forewarn the public. Jan van Empel, a noted artist in town commissioned to paint Christ’s Ascension behind the altar of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, deliver a “chalk talk,” illustrating his speech as he went along. (See The Spaces Betweenfor a chapter about Jan van Empel.) The baseball game started at 3 p.m. before an excited crowd wondering which team would win the $100 prize.
At 6:30 p.m., the starter’s gun sent five brave souls dashing up Main Street from the corner of Adams Street. They soon turned left at Lowell Creek (now Jefferson Street) as spectators cheered and prepared to focus their binoculars. In those days, there was no assigned route up or down, but by now the runners probably had a route and a strategy.
From the beginning, 25-year-old Eric Eckman, called the “Finn,” took the lead and seemed in control. Ed Vogl probably came right behind, followed by Alex Bolam who was 40 years old. Few expected Bolam to win, even though he was first to break one hour and held two records: one for his 1916 run of 54:12 and another for best time to the top. Martin Killian and a man nicknamed “Yakima Jacks” took up the rear.
Eckman reached the peak two minutes ahead of everyone else, but although those in town with binoculars noted a leading runner, no one could tell his identity. Vogel pushed on right behind him. Somewhere on the way down, Eckman fell as he tried to avoid a small child who jumped in front of him. That delay was enough for Vogel to overtake him, and as the two reached the foot of the mountain, Vogel was only about ten seconds ahead. It must have been one of the more exciting races as the two approached the finish.
“Ed Vogl flashed across the tape,” the Seward Gateway reported, “apparently in splendid shape, running with long strides and breathing easily. He trotted off from the judges’ stand heading for a shower. He had a few scratches on him, but it was Eckman who appeared to be slightly in distress as he breezed across the finish line 10 seconds after Vogl.”
Record holder Bolam came in third at 60:55 “running easily and outwardly in the best shape of all.”
“Yakima Jacks” finished fourth at 84:04; and Martin Killian fifth at 86 flat – both “in fine shape, not much worse off for making the grueling climb against time.” Although Bolan didn’t win, everyone was impressed with his finish.
“All of the athletes were scarred somewhat with the exception of Bolam,” the newspaper reported.
To the surprise of the holiday’s organizers, the Mount Marathon Race had not only been an exciting success, it had surpassed all the other events in spectator interest. “This race held the attention of everyone,” the newspaper reported, “from the crack of the starter’s gun to the last, when the fifth man came running in heavily, but swiftly.”
For perhaps the first time in the history of any Seward Fourth of July celebration, the newspaper reported that “The baseball game was a sad affair, though at first it started off like a house afire, with the fans settling down in their grassy seats, full of expectation of witnessing a close and fast game.”
That wasn’t to be the case.
“Seward whitewashed the Standard Oil nine by the big score of 17 to 0,” the newspaper reported.
In fact, both team captains and the umpires agreed to stop the game in the sixth inning to give spectators enough time to have supper before viewing the Mount Marathon Race.
The holiday ended with a dance, and other events occupied Sunday, as most visitors headed home. The Seward Gatewayhadn’t published in two days, so most locals were anxious to read some news.
On July 6, the Gatewayhad an editorial headlined “WE ARE PROUD OF SEWARD.” The day had been a great success, “one to be long remembered by the many visitors to Seward and its citizens.” The dismal baseball game followed by the exciting mountain race convinced some that “it might be a good thing to make the race an annual event, and the principal feature on the day’s program.”
By cutting other prize monies, the town could create a larger purse for the unique race to “bring runners from other parts of the Territory.” By advertising a month early, Seward might entice tourists from Seattle to visit Seward for this distinctive race.
“You have the best field for such an event I have ever seen,” one tourist said. “I sat on the hotel porch and saw the whole race in comfort, without moving from my chair … it is one of the best assets the city has to offer.”
The day’s only slight disappointment was that the 75-yard fat man’s race had to be called off because, as the Seward Gatewaynoted, there were “no men with sufficient em bon pointto qualify” – embonpointbeing a French expression for heavy people who still had an attractive girth.
Although the Mountain Marathon Race would continue to face difficulties in the future with years skipped, the seed had been planted on July 4, 1925. Today, the race is known internationally and hosts hundreds of runners, including some of the world’s best athletes and thousands of excited spectators.
Doug Capra is the author of “The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords.” He is an authority on American artist Rockwell Kent and has written the forewords for two of his books, “Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska,” and “Northern Christmas,” both published by Wesleyan University Press.