Mountain men — Central peninsula pioneers ascend to pinnacle legacies

By Clark Fair

Photo by Clark Fair, Redoubt Reporter. A pair of hikers high on L V Ray Peak in the 1990s take a break while enjoying the view. Below is the curving surface of upper Crescent Lake, with a glimpse of Kenai Lake through the saddle between Madson Mountain, left, and Right Mountain. Carter Lake lies at the base of LV Ray Peak, to the right of the hikers and out of the picture.

Redoubt Reporter

As the Sterling and Seward highways wind through mountain passes between the city of Seward and the central Kenai Peninsula, they pass two especially impressive, rocky and impassive triangular peaks that loom above the blacktop and surrounding countryside. These two peaks, Cecil Rhode Mountain at Mile 48 of the Sterling Highway and L V Ray Peak at Mile 32 of the Seward Highway, both rise to more than 4,000 feet but commemorate very different men.

L V Ray Peak 

Hikers climbing the Carter Lake Trail near the Trail Lake Fish Hatchery will notice the dark gray pointed summit of LV Ray Peak aiming heavenward just south of the highway. Connected by a ridgeline to Madson Mountain, which towers over Moose Pass, L V Ray tops out at 4,840 feet and is named for LeRoy Vincent Ray — a Seward lawyer and mining investor who was the city mayor three times and the Senate president of the first Alaska Territorial Legislature.

Ray, commonly known as L.V., was born in Brookline, Mass., in 1878. After studying for the bar under several attorneys and spending a year working in Ketchikan, the 28-year-old Ray arrived in Seward for the first time in January 1906. The town was booming with industry — shipping, fishing, mining and the Alaska Railroad — and there was more to come after the opening of the Iditarod Trail and the establishment of the Chugach National Forest in the next few years.

With industry also came a burgeoning population and a commercial center, and Ray fit right in. He opened a law office in 1906 in the Harriman bank building downtown, and the very next year he was appointed assistant U.S. attorney for the Third Judicial Division. After being stationed for a time in Seward, he was transferred to Valdez, where he met and married young Hazel Sheldon in 1908.

According to historian John P. Bagoy, Sheldon, who had been born in Seattle and had lived in Alaska since she was 11 years old in 1900, was working as a Valdez telephone operator when she met L.V. After his job prompted a few brief moves, L.V. brought his bride back to Seward to live in 1910.

Ray’s daughter, Patricia Williams, now 102 and living in Anchorage, described her dark-haired father as “fine-looking” and “well-liked.”

“He was a very private person, well-educated and dignified. I would say that people came to him rather than he to them,” she said.

In Seward, she said, L.V. Ray was “a person to be admired, and there weren’t the feelings about attorneys then that there are now.”

Two years after the Rays moved to Seward, Alaska became a territory, and in March 1913 L.V. took his place as Senate president. The first act of this first Alaska Legislature was to grant women in the territory the right to vote. (By comparison, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified seven years later, would provide all U.S. citizens the right to vote.)

That was hardly the only big event during Ray’s days in Seward, however.

In July 1923, during one of Ray’s terms as mayor, the president of the United States came to town. Warren G. Harding, who was touring the western United States, western Canada and Alaska, cruised into Seward aboard the naval transport, the U.S.S. Henderson. 

Construction of the Alaska Railroad had begun in Seward in 1903, and in 1923, after some financially troubling years and changes in management, the southern section of the railroad had been completed all the way to Nenana, where it met the northern section, which had begun in Fairbanks. After shaking hands and speaking in Seward, Harding and his retinue rode the rails all the way to Nenana to drive the commemorative golden spike that symbolically completed the railroad.

Harding returned to Seward on his way south and spent a restful 24 hours there before moving on. Unfortunately for Harding, who had not felt well for several days, he would live only two more weeks. He died in San Francisco on the evening of Aug. 2, 1923, of an apparent heart attack during the middle of a conversation with his wife.

Back in Seward, L.V. Ray continued his successful law business, for a time commuting by rail between his office in Seward and a second one in Anchorage. He also invested in mining operations around the peninsula, among the most successful being the Bruhn-Ray Mine on Canyon Creek near today’s Hope Highway.

L.V. Ray died at age 68 in 1946, and Hazel died at about age 94 in 1982. Both were buried in the Pioneers of Alaska Seward Cemetery.

Cecil Rhode Mountain

Photo by Mona Painter. Cecil and Helen Rhode pose in June 1974 on the beach of Kenai Lake near their home in Cooper Landing.

It is nearly impossible to pass through Cooper Landing and fail to notice craggy Cecil Rhode Mountain standing sentinel over the community near the nexus formed by the Sterling Highway, Snug Harbor Road, Bean Creek Road and the bridge spanning the headwaters of the Kenai River. Rising to 4,405 feet just above the highway — and to nearly 4,600 feet on one of its back ridges — Cecil Rhode Mountain dominates the scenery in an area dominated by mountains and by the turquoise sweep of Kenai Lake.

The mountain is named for Cecil Rhode, a renowned former resident of Cooper Landing, a man whose wife, Helen, was renowned as a photographer; whose younger brother, Leo Rhode, was renowned as 15-year member of the Alaska State Legislature, a member of the University of Alaska Board of Regents, and a two-time mayor of Homer; and whose cousin, Clarence Rhode, was renowned for his speedy climb to the top of the territorial Game Commission and for the long mystery surrounding his death in a 1958 plane crash. (The remote crash site went undiscovered for 21 years, despite an extensive search costing more than $1 million, according to “Forgotten Heroes of Alaska” by William Wilbanks.)

Cecil Rhode himself, who in 1937 built a cabin on a federal homesite parcel in Cooper Landing, was known primarily for his wildlife cinematography, which he turned into his full-time profession in 1946. For many years he filmed wildlife in Alaska during the summers and traveled to the Lower 48 during the winters to show and narrate his films.

He also worked for three years as a cinematographer for Disney Studios, and he published illustrations and articles in National Geographic, Outdoor Life and a number of other periodicals. In his later years he was also a popular still-picture photographer.

Rhode was born in North Dakota in 1902 and moved with his family to Oregon and then to Eureka, Kan., where he graduated from Eureka High School. According to a 2002 article in the Eureka Herald newspaper, Rhode worked in the local Carter Jewelry store, first as a janitor and errand boy, but soon learning how to repair and build timepieces.

While panning for gold in the Colorado mountains in the early 1930s, he became enamored of some of the other

Photo courtesy of Mona Painter. This photo of Helen Rhode was taken in the early 1950s by Cecil Rhode high on the mountain that would come to bear his name. The distinctive diagonal ridgeline of Slaughter Gulch can be seen across the valley.

prospectors’ tales of Alaska, so in 1933 Cecil and Leo headed north, with the intention of floating the Yukon River. They arrived by steerage on a steamship into Ketchikan, where they obtained a skiff and spent the summer sailing more than 600 miles to Haines. They enjoyed themselves so much that they convinced Clarence to join them in 1935, and all three men lived out their lives in Alaska.

Cecil kept his same cabin and homesite on Kenai Lake, living there for all but the four years of United States involvement in World War II, when he closed the door of his home and traveled to Seattle to work in the instrument division of Boeing.

Also working at Boeing was Helen, and they met there and were married in 1946. In an early 1990s article for “We Alaskans,” Doug O’Harra describes the Rhodes’ move to Cecil’s Cooper Landing cabin later in the same year they were wed:

“They flew to Anchorage, boarded a train for Seward, got off at Moose Pass, and found a ride to the cabin. Helen says she remembers that Cecil walked straight into the kitchen and unrolled the dried remains of his sourdough starter, wrapped in wax paper. It was still potent after four years. A few days later, they ate sourdough pancakes for breakfast.”

Many years before, Cecil had studied film at the University of Michigan, and upon his return to Alaska he set about producing a wildlife film. He and Helen invested in film-making equipment, and he backpacked right out of their lakeside home and into the Kenai Mountains for days seeking just the right images. Three years later, he finished his first film, and he and Helen traveled out-of-state to promote it.

Over the next 30 years, he produced a half-dozen independent films, as well as footage for Disney and National Geographic studios. Also during this time, according to O’Harra’s article, Helen began accompanying Cecil on his wilderness excursions. Cecil gave her a German-made Exakta camera, and she began making still images of the same subjects he was filming.

In the 1960s, Helen bought a Leica that she used for the rest of her life. With her camera, she produced

Photo by Clark Fair, Redoubt Reporter. A lone hiker makes her way along a goat path on the summit ridge of Cecil Rhode Mountain in 2006. In this shot, looking toward the Juneau Creek drainage, note the tremendous increase in development since the 1950s.

photographs that appeared in newspapers, books, magazines, postcards and placemats.

Besides the wildlife imagery that the Rhodes brought to the world, they were heavily invested in their community. Cecil helped with local elections and conservation issues, while Helen was involved with the Cooper Landing Community Club, the local school and planning commission, the Dall Homemakers and the local gun club. She also helped with trash cleanups, and was known as Cooper Landing’s leading booster.

In the Aug. 10, 1967, edition of the Seward Phoenix-Log, Margaret Branson wrote about a showing Cecil put on in Cooper Landing, projecting his film on a sheet hung on the wall at the home of Jack Randall. She called Cecil “modest and self-effacing,” but claimed that these qualities “must be part of his charm and his success with his audiences.”

After Cecil died in December 1979, an effort was launched to change the name of what was then known as Cooper Mountain to Cecil Rhode Mountain, and (although few maps show this yet) six years after Helen’s death in September 1992, a similar effort in her honor produced similar results.

Now, if hikers pause atop Cecil Rhode Mountain and look just south of due west across the narrow Cooper Creek drainage, they can eyeball a 3,947-foot peak called Helen Rhode Mountain in the Cooper Mountain massif.

Still side by side, after all these years.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Mountain men — Central peninsula pioneers ascend to pinnacle legacies

  1. kevin

    What a great article to commemorate Cecil and Helen Rhodes. I was wondering if anyone had the names of Cecil Rhodes’ films? I was also curious if anyone knew where their photography was housed? I live in Cooper Landing just across the way from the mountains named for Cecil and Helen. Every time those names roll off of my lips, I can’t help but wonder a little more about the people behind them. Any information would be great. Thanks.

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