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Part 5 of 5

On July 24, 1916, Joseph P. Cotton, a federal attorney and member of the Alaska Engineering Commission, left Washington, D.C. to inspect construction progress of the Alaska Railroad. Now that Valdez and Cordova were no longer competitors, Seward had a new rival – the growing town of Anchorage along Ship Creek. Cotton noted the antagonism between Anchorage and Seward and strongly suggested they get along. At the heart of the dispute was the primary port to ship out resources. One commodity in particular dominated.

“Coal was the key to Alaska,” Lone E. Janson writes in her book, The Copper Spike(1975). “Coal was the source of power to run the railroads and to smelt the copper. Coal was heat. And coal provided fuel for ships of the U.S. Navy. Without coal, Alaska was effectively locked up.”

The spat between the two ports had started in 1915: “The truth is bitter,” the Seward Gateway proclaimed on Dec. 18, “but no one can very well say that Anchorage waters are clear of ice and that ships are sailing in there so fast that the longshoremen have to work thirty-six hours a day to clear the freight.” Two days before the 1915 Christmas one Outside headline read: “Pioneers in Arctic Town Ice-Locked – Turkeys Held in Seward.” The rest of the story followed: “Fifteen hundred men, pioneers building the government Alaska railroad, are ice-locked in Anchorage, America’s newest frontier town, waiting to resume work with the first appearance of the northern spring … thousands of tons of freight for Anchorage, including a supply of turkeys meant for holiday feasting, is being held at Seward, while the road builders have to content themselves with canned goods and dried meats … the steamers Admiral Farragut, Northwestern, Kansas City and Alliance, carrying cargoes for the new port were forced to return to Seward.” Navigation into Cook Inlet had closed earlier than expected in 1915.

There would be plenty of turkey in Seward that Christmas. Resurrection Bay wasn’t iced up. Quickly build those tracks to the Chickaloon coal fields north of Anchorage, Seward agreed. But then quickly connect them to the 71 miles of track already out of Seward so the coal could be shipped to an ice-free port. Cotton’s report stated: “The evidence on this point [ice conditions] is rather conflicting, some witnesses claiming that there are periods during every month when the harbor [Anchorage] can be entered with safety.” Not true, the Seward Gateway wrote. And everyone knew that even in summer, if the Port of Anchorage was to be kept safe for shipping, it had to be dredged. Studies showed dredging to be feasible but expensive. In his report, Cotton recommended that $250,000 be authorized for dredging to be done by July 1917. Furthermore, there was only a temporary dock at Anchorage that had cost $25,000. “All passengers and freight delivered at Anchorage,” Cotton wrote, “transfer from ship to shore by lighter. That is highly inconvenient and dangerous to passengers …Lighterage is always costly, and because of tidal conditions at Anchorage, lighterage there is particularly costly and difficult.” Merchants in Anchorage were not happy, Cotton reported, “as it now costs them about as much to get their goods from ship to shore at Anchorage as it does to bring them up from the States. Often it costs more.”

In addition, the coal from Matanuska couldn’t bear lighterage costs at Anchorage and still be shipped outside for profit. Even the cost of a new wharf to eliminate lighterage (which Cotton estimated at $250,000), as well dredging and other factors, would make any profit prohibitive. The expense of shipping the coal to Seward and building a new wharf there would also prevent a cost-effective venture. There were no substantial markets for the coal on the rail line. Perhaps the Juneau mines and the Copper River Railroad could be a market, but not in sufficient quantities. The main market would be the U.S. Navy, that’s why naval vessels were canvassing the coast for suitable coaling station.

While Cotton was in Alaska, the antagonism between Seward and Anchorage emerged in the newspapers of both towns. Cotton noted these squabbles and tried to bring the adversaries together: “A prominent attorney, who is visiting Anchorage, and who is interested in Alaska,” the Seward Gateway wrote, “suggests to the [Anchorage] Times that Anchorage and Seward bury the hatchet, let bygones be bygones, and work in harmony, to the end that both towns shall grow and prosper.” That sounded like a good idea but the energy and aggression had to be released somehow.

Well there was always an athletic battlefield: the baseball diamond. The two towns had faced each other back in 1916 for the championship of this part of Alaska. Seward won that series. Their feud had gotten worse by 1917, so another three-game series seemed appropriate, and this time it would be in Anchorage on the last three days of July, a Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.

“Great enthusiasm has been aroused over the series among old timers in Alaska,” the press reported, “and among forces employed in the construction of the United States railroad.” Bets estimated at $25,000 made the stakes even higher. In today’s money that would be over $600,000. The stakes were so high that both Anchorage and Seward recruited semipro players from Seattle. The Vancouver, B.C. press reported that 6,000 spectators in Anchorage watched Seward win the first game 4 to 3 in 11 innings on Sunday, July 29. “Several crack players from the south” participated, the newspaper noted. Anchorage took the lead with two runs in the first inning, but Seward came right back and tied the game. Neither team scored until the 11th, when Anchorage scored one run and Seward two to win. 

On Monday, July 30, Seward won the second game, taking the series. The two Seattle players, Beem and Coughlin, figured prominently in the outcome, newspapers said. Shortly after the series ended, the two were drafted into the army. 

The Great War ended in November 1918, and work continued on what people later called the Alaska Railroad. It was completed in 1923.

NOTE – This will be my last weekly column for the Seward Journal. I’ve been writing these columns since the first issue. Now I need to finish my Rockwell Kent book and stage play and begin to assemble some of these columns into books.   

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.