How Did Seward Get Its Name?

Seward’s deepwater port in Resurrection Bay, seen here around 1908, made it an ideal spot for a railroad terminus.
Seward’s deepwater port in Resurrection Bay, seen here around 1908, made it an ideal spot for a railroad terminus.

In March, Alaska celebrates 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. 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 blue prints – a combination of 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 places named Seward in the territory.

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 be named an All-American City three times by the National Chambers of Commerce. William H. Seward would be proud of his namesake.

2 comments on “How Did Seward Get Its Name?

  1. Thank you, Paulla! My mom and her identical twin were raised in Seward. My grandmother was a maid at the Van Gilder Hotel.

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