As long as I can remember there has been a bit of rivalry between Seward and Anchorage. I used to hear my parents bemoan the fact Anchorage, established in 1914 as a tent camp for construction of the Alaska Railroad, got everything; while Seward, founded much earlier in 1903, remained neglected.
I didn’t know until years later that the main source of this agitation was that Seward, where the Alaska Railroad originated, wasn’t named headquarters. The federal government took over railroad construction from owners of the private, Alaska Central Railroad, which had made considerable progress in pushing the railroad north from Seward. But instead of making the Alaska Railroad quarters in Seward, they bestowed the honor upon Anchorage. This led to Anchorage becoming a transportation hub and ultimately, a thriving metropolis.
I won’t delve into the details of that piece of history, except to say it could be likened to the “headwaters”—a point of origin for Seward-Anchorage rivalry for years to come.
Throughout history Seward residents and other Alaskans complained that Anchorage got everything…a big private airfield, military bases, a large international airport, government offices, etc.
I don’t think the gravity of what Anchorage “had” sunk in until my first trip there from Seward, when I was nine. This was in 1954, about a year before the Seward Highway was paved. For a kid in the back seat of a car, particularly a rocking, bouncing car, time dilates astronomically. I estimate the trip in our 1951 Desoto took 15 hours, even though it was more like six or seven.
It’s hard to recapture the mixture of fear and anticipation I felt going to this “big city.” I remember gasping when I saw my first two skyscrapers…the 14-story L-Street Apartments (now called Inlet Towers) and the McKay Building, which was then called the McKinley Tower. It was also 14 stories, but because of extensive damage received years later in the 1964 earthquake, it remained condemned for many years. It was finally purchased in 1998 by Marc Marlow, and later remodeled and brought up to code. It is currently the McKinley Tower Apartments.
For a kid from Seward, this was amazing stuff, especially after I was told there was a television antenna on top of the McKinley Building. It was Anchorage’s first television station–KTVA–channel 11. Television is something I’d only heard about.
After a ride on Alaska’s first escalator at the Caribou-Wards department store in Mountain View, I was convinced that Anchorage did have everything. Maybe too much. I was glad to return to Seward, where the cottonwood trees were taller than the highest building and if you yelled loud enough, you could hear your echo off Mt. Marathon.
Anyone who has lived in Alaska awhile knows the tension between Seward and Anchorage wasn’t unique. Just about every town and city in Alaska felt that Anchorage “got” everything. Seward, Whittier and Valdez didn’t like Anchorage’s new, dredged port dipping into their shipping; Fairbanks didn’t like Anchorage getting more of the University of Alaska system. Juneau didn’t like Anchorage getting more State offices and threatening the Capitol seal— stolen years earlier from Sitka.
“If Anchorage has everything,” I used to ask these people, “then why don’t you move there?”
That seemed to quiet the air.
As I got older, I began to realize Anchorage and Seward each had their good and bad points. For example, Seward had pretty blue Resurrection Bay, while Anchorage had its murky, mucky Cook Inlet. Back in those good old days Anchorage had television and three classy movie theaters all within walking distance on 4th Avenue, while all Seward had was a small movie theater, a radio station and a small bowling alley (albeit with a great name, Dreamland Bowl). Anchorage had a Piggly-Wiggly supermarket, while Seward had smaller family groceries–the Seward Trading Company and Werner’s Family Market. Anchorage had a police “force,” while Seward had one or two officers, depending on the time of the day.
But since everyone settled in Anchorage, it quickly developed a diversified economy–something that didn’t happen in Seward until the l980s, almost a third of a century after I left.
Today, I don’t think you’d hear anyone from that Resurrection Bay city complaining about what Anchorage has. In fact, Sewardites claim although their fair community isn’t heaven, you can see it from there. In summer thousands of tourists flock to Seward to see if the claim is true.
I suppose the rivalry will always remain. There are trepidations among some that if they keep making the Seward Highway straighter and wider, Anchorage might be tempted to claim the seaport town as one of its bedroom communities.
“In your dreams!” retort Seward folk.
Anchorage loyalists concede Seward is older. They’ll admit it is more picturesque than Alaska’s largest city. They can’t deny it’s a fishing haven. But nowhere in Seward, they’ll remind you, can you find escalators like they have at Nordstoms, a water park like the one in south Anchorage, a Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, or a hamburger as good as you’ll get at The Lucky Wishbone.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and ECHO News team member who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired grade school teacher.