THE CITY OF SEWARD
Home of Alaska Day
by Doug Capra © 2017
Asst. U.S. District Attorney Cecil H. Clegg stood before the podium at Moore’s Hall in Seward, Alaska on the evening of July Fourth, 1906. Five hundred local citizens waited anxiously for his speech to begin.
In those optimistic and patriotic days of the new century, the Fourth of July was a big event throughout the country and especially in frontiers like Alaska. Seward had special reasons to celebrate. Only three years old, the small settlement on Resurrection Bay was now a thriving town with a thousand citizens. They had their eyes on incorporation as a city now that the railroad they were building from tidewater to Alaska’s resource-rich Interior, had progressed nearly fifty miles north.
To observe the 1906 Fourth of July, the Alaska Central Railway offered townspeople a free excursion to the end of steel, a spot perfect for picnicking, hiking, fishing and swimming. At that point, the railroad faced the difficult task of boring several tunnels through the mountains. Those wanting a quiet day could remain in town. Flags and bunting decorated all the downtown businesses, but otherwise Seward was like a ghost town with most everybody on the train trip. That evening at Moore’s Hall the whole community gathered to commemorate the holiday with entertainment and speeches.
Cecil Clegg was the main speaker and during his short presentation, he would introduce an idea that remains with us today.
There are two holidays unique to Alaska. On the last Monday in March, we celebrate the signing of the Alaska purchase treaty, March 30, 1867. We call it Seward’s Day to honor Andrew Johnson’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward, who negotiated the treaty. We’re often told not to confuse it with Alaska Day, a holiday we celebrate on Oct 18 to recognize the anniversary of the formal transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States in Sitka on a Friday, Oct. 18, 1867.
On a 1906 evening exactly thirty-nine years later at Moore’s Hall in Seward –the idea for celebrating the October event throughout Alaska emerged.
Seward citizens awoke that morning to a cool, cloudy Fourth of July and to anvils banging and explosions caused by, the local newspaper reported, “those persons whose patriotism is of the turbulent description.” Wooden, frontier towns like Seward banned public fireworks for fear of fire and local merchants agreed not to sell them — but the youngsters had still managed to get firecrackers. And with railroad tunneling occurring, other explosives were not impossible to obtain.
The cloud cover brought a brisk wind — but at least it wasn’t raining. Wood and coal stoves fired up and people ate breakfast. Most packed a bag or two for the railroad excursion while some looked forward to quiet day in town. Everyone anticipated an evening at Moore’s Hall for entertainment and speeches. In late afternoon, the train returned with most of the town. People were tired, and those organizing the evening knew it. “With rare and good judgment,” the Seward Gateway reported, “the committee in charge made the program short. It occupied little more than an hour and every feature commanded attentive interest, its variety preventing its becoming a drag even for a moment.”
At some point in the middle of all this, Cecil H. Clegg spoke. He glorified the USA and made “glowing prediction of the future of the territory.” Knowing local politics, he advocated for Seward’s incorporation as a city, mostly because it would double school funding. Then he proposed something new – a recommendation that the formal anniversary of the transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States at Sitka on Oct. 18, 1867, be celebrated annually in the territory.
Immediately after Clegg’s suggestion, the Rev. Louis H. Pederson, introduced a resolution that read: “Resolved: First – that it is the sense of this meeting that October 18, the day of the year when the formal transaction of Alaska was made by Russia to the United States, be a legal holiday in Alaska. Secondly – that the said holiday be observed by appropriate exercises wherever practicable.” The entire gathering adopted the resolution “unanimously and enthusiastically.
On July 14th Seward’s Fourth of July Committee met to close the financial books for the year and voted to use their small cash balance for the Alaska Day celebration. They would meet again in September to plan events for the new holiday. Meanwhile, they decided to send letters to all Alaska communities urging them to hold a celebration in October. Before adjourning, they drafted a letter to Alaska Governor Wilford B. Hoggatt asking him to “proclaim a public holiday in honor of the recurrence of the anniversary of Alaska’s annexation.”
July turned to August and then September arrived. Eyes focused on the mountains looking for termination dust and other signs of winter. Fairbanks, only a year old than Seward, caught on to the Alaska Day idea right away. On Sept. 10, 1906, the Fairbanks Daily Times acknowledged Seward’s lobbying campaign and noted that “from all places a hearty approval was returned,” and that “All the places feel it particularly appropriate that the suggestion should come from Seward, the town named after William H. Seward, who was so large an instrument in the purchase of Alaska.”
On Sept. 22, a Seward Gateway editorial reminded citizens of the earlier commitment to celebrate Alaska, noting that the idea had attracted other towns. Ketchikan had already made plans, and an article in the Ketchikan Mining Journal gave Cecil H. Clegg of Seward credit for the idea. On Oct. 5, Seward’s Alaska Day Celebration Committee met. With only part of the town canvassed, they had raised $105. Most of that would be used for a safe fireworks display, the rest to rent a hall and decorations.
The Rev. L.H. Pederson, Seward’s Methodist minister, assumed chairmanship of the entire celebration. He organized the evening wisely with songs, recitations and children’s flag drills to avoid potential boredom from the occasionally long-winded, jingoistic speakers. He made sure they would smoothly slip into slots between the more captivating entertainment — perhaps wondering how they could compete with the cute marching youngsters and humorous recitations.
The evening of Oct. 18, 1906 at Moore’s Hall in Seward began with a singing of “The Star Spangled Banner” followed by trio of “In Old Madrid” and then John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, “Barbara Frietchie,” set to music. The town’s children performed flag drills. After a piano solo and a reading of “Our Pilgrim Fathers,” the miners present especially enjoyed a parody of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech called “The Prospector’s Soliloquy.” To remind everyone why they had all gathered that evening, Cecil Clegg read selections for the treaty of cession from Russia to the United States. Dr. C.H. Gibbons spoke of Alaska’s natural attractions and resources – and introduced a theme that would highlight future Alaska Day celebrations – the “neglect and tyranny” the territory suffered from the federal government. Judge L.S. Howlett, a newcomer and the evening’s main speaker, lightened things up. He spoke humorously about the fascination of Alaska life from a cheechako’s point of view, and promised to become a sourdough as rapidly as possible. Following all the music and speeches, the band struck up a tune, and townspeople danced into the early morning hours.
Other celebrations were planned throughout the territory. Led by former Gov. A.P. Swinford, Ketchikan presented literary and social programs with Alaska Native dancers. Wrangell had a special reason to celebrate. They claimed Edward Lendecker as a resident, the first American soldier to arrive in Alaska, and the soldier said to have hauled up the American flag at Sitka on that important day thirty-nine years earlier. That flag, they noted, was now in a Seattle vault, the property of R.L. Rodman, and it would be used at the opening of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Wrangle also claimed M.J. Halley, another soldier among the first troops in Alaska after the purchase.
The town of Douglas planned a celebration with a grand ball at the Treadwell Clubhouse. Juneau decided to observe the day “in a manner befitting the occasion,” with a town meeting and the reading of memorials. As part of the Sitka celebration, citizens would visit the places where the town’s history took place. The White Pass Athletic Club in Skagway challenged the town of Douglas to a football game, the winning team to receive $100. Kake and Haines were ready to celebrate as well.
So went the 1906 Alaska Day holiday. Before the year ended, however, the Seward Gateway noticed an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer with an annoying error. That newspaper congratulated Ketchikan as having “inaugurated the plan of celebrating Alaska Day.” The Gateway corrected the error, noting that Ketchikan had, “with commendable good taste, carried out the suggestion” – but the idea had originated in Seward. The Seward paper then observed that Napoleon had once said that history is merely a fable agreed upon, and added, “but a strenuous effort will be made to prevent the newspapers of the Northwest from agreeing upon a fable that any town but Seward set the example of celebrating Alaska Day.”
In the years leading to Alaska’s gaining territorial status in 1912 and for many years after, Alaska Day became a platform to promote the territory and for lobbying against mistreatment by the federal government — a theme that sometimes carries over into today’s politics.
In Seward, the day will come and go most likely with little fanfare. But that shouldn’t be the case. This is the place where the idea for the event began. Seward is the town that lobbied for what is now a statewide legal holiday. The town should hold a special celebration. It doesn’t have to be lengthy or monumental. But we should do something special.
Seward is the “Home of Alaska Day.”
PHOTOS — Both photos were taken on July 4, 1906 and show those in Seward who took the train about 45 miles out of town to celebrate the holiday. Photos courtesy of the Resurrection Bay Historical Society.
DOUG CAPRA is the author of The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords.