In the fall of 1914, the talk in Seward covered everything from the Great War in Europe to which town would get the new government railroad. In 1915 Seward became the terminus of the Alaska Railroad, and life in our small town changed rapidly as thousands of newcomers began arriving in Alaska.
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Georgia, one of this country’s most mysterious detective stories involved the disappearance and possible murder of the Nelms sisters – Beatrice, and Mrs. Eloise Nelms Dennis. Twenty-six-year-old Beatrice was a blond, blue-eyed, brusque and self-reliant businesswoman. Her sister, Eloise, was a slender and talkative 30-year-old brunette. Their brother, Marshall, wasn’t satisfied with the official investigation and was determined to learn the truth. He tried to get the FBI involved, but they were a relatively new entity mostly concerned with the White-Slave Traffic Act. They weren’t interested. Marshall’s main suspect was Victor E. Innes, a 40-year-old married man from Portland, Oregon – a former district attorney and divorce lawyer. The story is complicated and moves all over the place, from Atlanta to San Antonio to California to New Orleans to Houston and maybe even to…Well, more on that later.
Marshall gathered enough evidence to get police in various states to investigate. On their way to San Antonio, the sisters had dinner in New Orleans with some friends, they “stopped in Houston and were seen to leave the train in San Antonio and were later seen in company with two others believed to be Mr. and Mrs. Innes,” Marshall told the press. “In the meantime, Innes, I have learned, rented a cottage at 120 Wilkins avenue in San Antonio, into which he moved. It was discovered that the windows had been nailed down, canvas tacked over them and two stoves in the home were kept going for four days although it was the middle of summer. Our theory is that my two sisters were done away with, their bodies cut into pieces, ground in a meat chopper and either burned or buried.” Portland police later found a large meat grinder in the Innes’ home. You can image the press that this kind of story received.
At this point you may have two thoughts; first, what does this have to do with Seward and second, how did this Innes-Nelms story end?
As I research Seward and Alaska history, I find interesting events like this that distract me – in a fascination way – from the subject I’m supposed to be investigating. Such was this story when I found the first enticing newspaper article about it, but it was the second press report I found that captured my attention. The headline in the May 22, 1919, Rogue River (Grants Pass, Oregon) Courier read, “NELMS SISTERS ARE REPORTED ALIVE.” What followed sent me down yet another rabbit hole. Datelined Snohomish, Wash., it stated, “While Victor E. Innes and his wife were taken from their home in Eugene, Ore., to stand trial for the murder of Mrs. Eloise Nelms Dennis and Miss Beatrice Nelms at San Antonio, Tex., the two women were living in Snohomish, according to the newest developments in the famous mystery case. They are believed to be living now at Seward, Alaska.”
What a story, I thought. So, there went a whole day’s worth of research that came to nothing. I found no reference in Seward of these women, nor of authorities arriving in town to search them out. Of course, this time in Seward history would have been ideal for anyone to escape to Alaska and remain anonymous. Thousands of job seekers, from gandy dancers to businessmen and women, were arriving in Alaska with the 1915 announcement that Seward would be the terminus of the new government railroad and with the growth of Anchorage. Alaska has always been a perfect place to disappear, assume a new name, and reinvent yourself.
You also may be asking: What’s the whole story of Innes and the Nelms sisters? I’ll leave that up to you if you are interested. You can find many articles about it online, and there’s at least one book written about it. The case lingered for many years and eventually ended up in the US Supreme Court in 1923, the year the Alaska Railroad was completed. For all we know, Beatrice and Eloise stepped off a steamship in Seward under assumed names, got jobs or opened a business, married some local men, and are buried in our cemetery or the one in Anchorage. Could be some of their descendants are walking around town today.
I tell you about this mystery to give an idea of the kind of rabbit holes I wander down in search of the stories I do decide to write. I have many dozen files with stories like this, representing research I started but that didn’t amount enough for at least a 1,000 to 1,200-word story.
Like guide and trapper Edward Frederick and his four-year-old, 217-pound, three-foot high, great bear dog named, of all things, “Cub.” I found this article in the April 15, 1917 (Portland) Oregon Daily Journal. “This species out-classes the husky or malamute in speed, strength and intelligence,” the newspaper claimed. Not only could Cub carry a man’s load, but “He can easily carry his master, who weighs 145 pounds, on his shoulders.” Cub could be “gentle as a lamb,” the story goes, “playful as a kitten, obedient, domesticated and is the general favorite of everybody in Seward.” Some thought he combined the traits of a wolf, bear and Newfoundland dog. Cub liked to play with other dogs but, “he felt much forsaken by his brothers in the flesh” because “his massive frame tosses them aside like so many puppies.” He played rough. I think I’ve found a photo or two of Cub in among the archives of Seward photos, but I can’t be sure. This article was written by a fellow nicknamed Alaska Blacklock – who was George Edward Lewis, a man of many talents. He was involved in producing a 1920 feature film in Seward initially called, “Dorothy: A Daughter of the North,” the title later changed to “Hearts of Alaska.” Lewis later helped form the Alaska Motion Picture Corporation and produced “The Cheechakos” in 1923. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to locate the Seward film. You can find the story about his Seward movie in my book, “The Spaces Between.”
The story of “Cub” probably emerged because there was much discussion in Alaska about what was called the “wolf-strain” dog. A story out of Alaska reprinted in the May 8, 1917, Tacoma Times reported that, “Within the past few years many children have been scarred and maimed, and a number killed, out in the Nushagak country, by a savage husky and malamute. The result has been the development of a furious hatred by white fathers and mothers toward the roving packs of half tamed dogs ranging the western villages.” Notice the reference to “white fathers and mothers” and “western villages.” This suggests part of the controversy may be between white and native culture. That’s another interesting rabbit hole I’ve not explored further.
There are some hints of stories I found but not investigated fully, like the May 11, 1915, brush fire that nearly wiped out the town of Seward. It started out at the Rudolph homestead, which now includes part of the cemetery and ball fields. A year later to the day, the Seward Gateway recalled the event; “The town was aroused at 1 o’clock in the morning by the fire bell. After two hours of work the fire seemed under control, but at 7 o’clock the wind came up again and it swept right up to Lowell creek, burning several small buildings, the Alaska Northern machine shop, and several cars.” That would bring the fire up to Jefferson Street, probably along lower Mount Marathon and First and Second Streets.
Then there’s the new Alaska community of “Sunset,” 29-miles out of Portland, Oregon, the idea of H.F. Kennard, who purchased the 1,200 acres of land as a place for retiring Alaskans. This is probably the community of Sunset Beach in Clatson County, Oregon, between Seaside and Warrenton, near the Sunset Beach Recreation Area. In a March 11, 1941, Seward newspaper, we learn that several Alaskans are settled or planning to build there, including two Alaska Railroad men, Charles Matheson and “Hurryup” Jones. I know many Alaskans retired to Washington and Oregon, so someone has probably already written this story, but I haven’t had the time dig deeper.
One more mystery story I’d like to solve. We know that Frank Lowell, who settled Resurrection Bay with his second Alaska Native wife Mary (Fogels) in 1884, came from Maine shortly after the Alaska purchase from Russia. After leaving Mary he went to Kodiak where he married another Alaska native woman. In her master’s thesis about Mary Lowell, former Kenai Fjords National Park ranger Sandy Brue, noted that Frank came to Alaska with his uncle and first settled in Sitka.
I found a fascinating article syndicated in several 1897 newspapers, headlined “NOT IN LOVE WITH THE KLONDIKE: John T. Lowell, the Owner of Lowell, Alaska, Tells People to Stay at Home.” The story is dated Aug. 9, 1897, from Buck’s Mills, Bucksport, Maine. John T. Lowell has returned to his home to visit relatives. He now owns the village of Lowell, about 300 miles north of Sitka. He’s an old sailor, the story says, “who served through the war (Civil War) and went to Alaska soon after its purchase…marrying one of the native women, and getting a living by fishing and hunting until his boys grew up and were able to support him.” When this was written, he had been operating a trading schooner between Sitka and San Francisco for several years. This could very well be Frank Lowell’s uncle, the man who first brought him to Alaska in 1870 as a young man. As I write this, my interest is renewed, and I may investigate this further and eventually write whatever I can find.
People sometimes ask me where I find these stories about Alaska and Seward. I find them in old newspapers and magazines, from Alaska items I purchase from eBay and other online auctions, and from my large personal collection of old Alaska books, and from collections at our library and museum. I have notes and recorded interviews from Alaska pioneers I interviewed back in the 1970s, when many of these old timers were still alive. I love to research. That’s the fun part. At some point, though, you’ve got enough information to tell the story, even though you don’t have everything you want. You never get everything you want. Research is never done. Now you’ve got to organize the material, make sense of it, and frame it. If everything seems to fit together nicely, however, you may have a problem. As Charles Baxter wrote in his book, “Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction,” “When all the details fit in perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story.”
Now you begin to write, and that’s when the real work begins.
Doug Capra lives in Seward with his wife, Cindy. He’s the author of The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords, and the foreword to the reprint of a special edition of Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska published by Wesleyan University Press in 1996.