Fourth of July 1925 © 2018

Versions of this story ran in the Seward Journal and the Alaska Dispatch News in 2016.

Part 1

As the 1925 Fourth of July approached, some in Seward thought that maybe it was time to run that crazy race again – the one up Lowell Mountain. The first official race had been run on the Fourth of July 1915, and only weeks later, some were calling that peak the Marathon Mountain.

Seward had been established in 1903 by the Ballaine brothers, who planned to push their Alaska Central Railway north to the coalfields. The Alutiiq/Sugpiak and Kenaitze/Athabaskan had been in and out of the area for thousands of years. The Russians built a shipyard along the bay they named Resurrection in the 1790s. That’s where they constructed and launched the Phoenix, their first Alaska-built vessel. By 1884, Frank and Mary Lowell settled along the shores where they raised their family. Frank, a sea captain from Maine, worked for the Alaska Commercial Company; Mary, half Russian, half Sugpiak, was born and raised at Nawalek on the Kenai Peninsula. 

Local legend claims the Mount Marathon Race began as a barroom bet. Could anyone reach that first peak at 3,022 feet and return in less than an hour? Unofficial sprints probably started years before the town decided to make the contest official on July 4, 1915. The peak had often been used as a lookout for ships entering Resurrection Bay, even after cable communication connected Seward in 1905 to the outside world. The wires could tell Seward when ship left Cordova or Valdez, but once at sea, no one knew exactly when it would get into port. The early races were probably dashes down the mountain to see who could be the first to announce a vessel’s arrival. (See my book – The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords– for a chapter about the origin of the race.)

In 1915, James Walters won that first official race in one hour and two minutes, enticing some to break an hour. The next year, Alec Bolan did that at 55:12. In 1917, Tom Hardoff finished at 57:39 as the tradition continued. Though Joe Karaoff kept the under-one-hour times intact at 58:30 in 1918, D. Mautino finished in 1:06:45 in 1919. During these years, the Great War was raging in Europe, and in April 1917 the U.S. joined the conflict. 

John and Frank Ballaine’s Alaska Central Railway had gone bankrupt, as had its successor, the Alaska Northern, after completing only 71 miles of track. In 1915, a new government railroad began construction with Seward as its terminus and later Anchorage as its headquarters. There had been a shortage of labor during the war years, and it may have been difficult drumming up interest in what some considered a silly, though grueling, climb up a mountain when millions were dying in Europe. Alaskans had other things on their minds. For five years – between 1920 and 1924 – there would be no Mount Marathon Race. 

By 1925, the situation had changed. The Alaska Railroad was completed in 1923, and Warren G. Harding, the first president to visit Alaska, drove in the golden spike at Nenana. With the tracks now connecting the Gulf of Alaska to Anchorage and the Interior, business was booming. Standard Oil arrived to service the Port of Seward, along with other new businesses. Twenty-five men were building the $100,000 Jesse Lee Home, a Methodist-run orphanage and school for children, which had moved here from Unalaska. Seward touted the Kenai Peninsula as an ideal location settlement to entice businesses, homesteaders, farmers, and ranchers. Many veterans of the Great War lived in Alaska, and patriotic fervor lingered, as did the suspicions of the Red Scare and un-Americanism following that conflict.

Most remembered how reluctant this country was to get involved in European clashes and how unprepared our military was on the day we declared war on Germany in April 1917. In the summer of 1925, President Calvin Coolidge declared July 4 of that year as National Defense Day, or as some preferred to call it, Defense Test Day. He wanted to know how fast volunteers could be mustered for war and hoped to open a discussion about preparedness.

By June 1, most state governors were willing to cooperate with the president out of respect, but feelings were mixed. The governors realized what the president wanted and agreed to a day to take stock of the defense situation – but many argued that July 4th was not the proper venue. It would not only be expensive to muster the guards, but these civilian volunteers would want to celebrate the holiday with their families.

Patriotic fervor in Seward had been strong during World War I with one of the most active Red Cross organizations in Alaska. The town quickly formed an American Legion right after the organization was founded in 1919. From 1922 to 1924, Seward hosted this country’s first Red Cross public health nurse – Stella Fuller, who had served in France during the war (See The Spaces Betweenfor a chapter about this nurse). Patriotism and Americanism combined with a zeal for economic growth and prosperity. The 1925 Fourth of July fell on Saturday, providing a weekend opportunity for a combination of efforts.

“You can’t go wrong,” an ad in the Seward Gatewaypromised, “in spending the glorious 4th in Seward. Bring the family. Ample accommodations.” The S.S. Northwesternwould be in port with nearly 100 passengers, and the town expected many from the canneries and outlying districts. Other large vessels in town that day included the Starr, the Standard Service, and the tugs Canadaand Imbucaria.Extra accommodations for at least 40 had been arranged in case the hotels became full. “This is one day Seward is going to CELEBRATE — WHOW!!!,” the newspaper shouted. 

Since 1915, the race up to the first peak of what later became Mount Marathon had been an off-and-on Fourth of July happening, but not the main event. Between 1915 and 1950, sometimes only three and no more than eight competitors entered the race, all from Seward. The baseball games the town played against Valdez, Cordova, Anchorage, and visiting ship crews usually took top billing. It wasn’t until after World War II that the mountain race became an annual event. But in 1925, the tenth anniversary of the race, a new vision of the event’s potential importance to the town emerged.

By July 2, six men had signed up to challenge the mountain with a few more expected. That was good news, since there would be no race unless at least four ran — a possible reason why there had been no races in past years. “Local stores report a good sale in field and spy glasses,” the Seward Gatewayreported. “Each day, at all hours, it is a common sight nowadays to note a group of people standing along the street, gazing aloft on old Marathon, watching some speedy racer either scaling its face or coming down like a sure-footed mountain goat, making gigantic leaps on the downward journey.” The first three runners in would receive $100, $50, and $25.

“The public will be able to watch the racers speeding up the mountain side,” the newspaper promised, “from almost any point in the city.” Mel Horner planned to climb the mountain before the race to plant the flagpole the runners would have to circle. As they circled it, Horner would hand each a letter proving to judges they had actually reached Race Point.

Seward’s baseball team had been practicing all week, delighted that the infield was in better condition with “many of the humps leveled out.” Coach Rood, who had trained under Gill Dobie of the University of Washington, pushed his players hard, but the newspaper noted, “The lads eat that stuff up.” Seward would play at least two games, the first on Saturday against the Standard Oil nine just before the mountain race, and then Sunday against a team from Sawmill Bay.

The local fire department opened a store carrying novelties and fireworks, “mostly of a small and harmless nature.” Purchasers were told, however, to shoot them off on the beach, since local ordinances forbid them within city limits. Ellsworth’s Store, Seward Drug, and Brown and Hawkins had gone all out with their patriotic window decorations. The Northern Pool Hall’s window display attracted special attention. Red, white, and blue adornments encircled merchandise cleverly placed beside a number of large shells from “cannons of goodly size caliber.” Not to be outdone, the Palace Bar joined in along with those of many other Main Street businesses.

See the July 3 edition of the Seward Journal for the conclusion to this Fourth of July tale.

CORRECTION: Since last week’s article about the Lowells, I’ve been in touch with another descendant — Jerie McQueen, daughter of Allen and Inez Scheffler and Autumn Scheffler's aunt. Jerie cleared up some errors and confusion. Her parents had two children, Jerie Lucinda and Allan. Her brother, Allan, and his wife, Jaqueline, had three children — Aaron, Steven, and Autumn. Jaqueline died at age 22. Her brother was Wendell Stark. Jerie attended school with Wendell. Last year, Jerie, her brother Bob, and six friends landed in Seward on a Holland America cruise. While in Seward, she may have mentioned her Lowell connection, but apparently nobody picked up on it and passed it along. If readers run into visitors like this, please contact me at capradr@yahoo.com.

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.