How the city of Seward got its name
Aunt Phil's Trunk
March 1, 2022 | View PDF
In March, Alaskans celebrate Seward's Day in honor of the man who succeeded in persuading the United States to buy Alaska from the Russians. And there are many landmarks named after President Lincoln's Secretary of State William Henry Seward. However, when Seward was chosen for the name of the town on Resurrection Bay, it took the personal intervention of President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt to make it possible.
By 1902, John Ballaine, originator and promoter of the Alaska Central Railway and founder of Seward, had selected the spot to be the tentative ocean terminus of the railroad he planned to build. His engineer, C.M. Anderson, had designated the place "Vituska" on the blueprints – a combination of Russian explorer Bering's first name, Vitus, and the last syllable of Alaska.
But since Ballaine was convinced this new site would one day be the metropolis of a great territory, he wanted it to bear the name of the man who foresaw the primacy of the Pacific Ocean in the world's future.
In March 1903, he bestowed upon the new town the name of Seward. Ballaine wrote Frederick Seward that he'd chosen his father's name and received the following reply from Seward's son on April 6:
"I need hardly say that the selection of the name seems to me an appropriate one and that it will be gratifying to those who knew him in life and the still greater number who hold his name in esteem and loving remembrance. Time has now shown that his prediction in regard to the future of Alaska was not at all exaggerated."
However, the postal inspector of the district filed a protest, arguing that there were already several Sewards in the territory.
Undaunted by the postal inspector's opinion, Ballaine personally went to President Roosevelt and explained his reason for wanting to call the new place Seward. He pointed out that the other Sewards were canneries or temporary camps that could easily change their names.
Roosevelt agreed and asked Ballaine to write him a letter embodying the reasons given verbally and have it back to him by 10 a.m. the next day.
Later, Ballaine recalled what Roosevelt said upon receipt of the letter.
" 'You are quite right,' Roosevelt said. 'This railroad should give rise to an important city at the ocean terminus. The city deserves to be named in honor of the man who is responsible for making Alaska an American territory.'
"Thereupon, Roosevelt wrote on the margin of the letter a note addressed to Fourth Assistant Gen. Bristow, saying that he agreed with Ballaine, and signed it T.R."
Ballaine had won his point and Seward was officially recognized. And although it did not become the metropolis as envisioned by Ballaine, its citizens overcame many disasters – fires, floods, earthquakes – to become an All America City three times. The National Civic League bestowed the honor on Seward in 1963, 1965 and 2005 to recognize how the town leverages civic engagement, collaboration, inclusiveness and innovation to successfully address local issues. William H. Seward could be proud of his namesake, the ancestral home of the Alutiiq, or Sugpiaq, people who have called the area home since time immemorial.
Today, Seward has around 3,000 year-round residents and is a destination spot for thousands of tourists each year as it offers amazing fishing opportunities, wildlife tours and many unique experiences found only in the little town on Resurrection Bay.
This column features tidbits found among the writings of the late Alaska historian, Phyllis Downing Carlson. Her niece, Laurel Downing Bill, has turned many of Carlson's stories – as well as stories from her own research – into a series of books titled "Aunt Phil's Trunk." Volumes One through Five are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at http://www.auntphilstrunk.com and Amazon.com.