Editor’s note: Following is part one of the histories behind some common central peninsula sites, starting in Homer and traveling mostly north toward Kenai and Soldotna. Next week’s story will cover the countryside from Soldotna and Sterling to Nikiski. Part three will cover the area east of Sterling all the way to Cooper Landing.
By Clark Fair
In the early 1960s, when Will Troyer was manager of the Kenai National Moose Range, he frequently performed aerial surveys of moose, counting particularly those animals living in the vast expanse of the 1947 Kenai burn, which had charred more than 300,000 acres of the western Kenai Peninsula.
The moose were plentiful in those days, but Troyer experienced difficulties in nailing down the locations of the big animals because most of the hundreds of lakes and ponds on his U.S. Geological Survey maps were unnamed, so he had few reference points.
“Even when I’d radio in and give my location, it was tough to explain where I was sometimes,” Troyer said. “We needed I.D.’s for the lakes.
“So we got a list of names together, including names for the lakes in the canoe system we were building. We turned in maybe a couple hundred of them, and USGS accepted them all.”
The moose range biologists attempted to maintain common-use names whenever possible, and they mostly selected names that pertained to various local plants, animals and landmarks. Today, those names have been on maps for so long that, for most people, they seem to have always been there.
But it’s more than just names on topographical maps; it’s also the names on public buildings and memorials, and the names on common landmarks. Although some of those names are fairly recent, many have been around for decades — a few for more than a century — and their origins have grown cloudy with time.
Many peninsula residents — like people in familiar country everywhere — have grown so accustomed to the names of things, from lakes and streams to bridges and buildings, that they rarely stop to think about the origins of those names. Here are some, starting in Homer and moving north.
- HOMER — Some may find it odd that the first mail drop in this area was called the Seward Post Office, in 1895. When that facility, located near McNeil Canyon, closed the following year, a new one opened on the spit with its current moniker, named for Homer Pennock, who, according to Janet Klein in “Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula: The Road We’ve Traveled,” was “a talented New York con man who established his field camp (called the Alaska Gold Mining Company) on the spit during the summers of 1896 and 1897 while he and his crew sought gold throughout Cook Inlet.” Even after the town moved inland a few years later, and Pennock and his operations moved away, the name remained.
- NINILCHIK — The name comes from the Dena’ina word niqnilchint, which Dena’ina elder Peter Kalifornsky believed probably meant “lodge is built place,” indicative of the area’s rich Native history. In 1994’s “Agrafena’s Children: The Old Families of Ninilchik,” editor Wayne Leman said that the village once had a Russian name, Munina, named for a Mr. Munin, who apparently had been sent to explore Ninilchik as a settlement site.
- STARISKI CREEK — According to several sources, this creek’s name seems steeped in Russian origins, and apparently the name was first published in the mid-1800s. In “K’tl’egh’i Sukdu: The Collected Writings of Peter Kalifornsky,” the author himself connects the name to a Russian beginning — to the word sdariski, meaning “little old man.” However, Russian teacher, Gregory Weissenberg, says that Stariski must be a corrupted adjective form of the noun starets, meaning “venerable old man.” “Starets” itself is a derivative of the noun “starik,” translated as “old man.”
- KASILOF — The meaning of this name is unknown. Kasilof (first spelled Kussiloff) sprang up on the site of the fort and settlement called St. George Redoubt, established by the Russian Lebedev Company in 1787. About a century later, Kasilof became the site of the peninsula’s first salmon cannery.
- SOLDOTNA — The origin of this name continues to be debated, although most residents believe that it originated from the Dena’ina word, ts’eldat’nu, meaning “trickling down creek,” not, as once strongly believed, from the Russian word for “soldier.”
- KENAI — Originally, the village at the river mouth was known to the Dena’ina as Shk’ituk’t, and the river itself was known as Kahtnu. The inhabitants of the village were Athabascan Indians who called themselves Kahtnuht’ana, which translates as “people of the Kahtnu.” The Alutiiq people of the peninsula called the Kahtnuht’ana people Kenaiyut, which translates as “people of the Kenai River.” It is this Alutiiq term that the Russians adopted to refer to the Dena’ina, calling them “Kenaitze.” The Russianized term became the source of the city’s name.
- SLIKOK CREEK — It is the mouth of the creek that most directly accounts for its present name. The mouth was known by the Dena’ina word shlakaq’, which means “little mouth.” The creek itself was known as Shlatnu, meaning “little river.”
- EAGLE ROCK — Interestingly, like the English name, the Dena’ina name for this well-used fishing landmark on the Kenai River refers to a bird — but not to an eagle. The name, Yeq Qalnik’at, means “cormorant’s rock.” The renaming of it as “Eagle Rock” has an origin that has faded with time.
- CUNNINGHAM PARK — Kenai homesteader Martha Cunningham donated this lower-river parkland to the city, and it was named for her. Cunningham was a widow whose husband, Ethan, had been shot to death by Bill Frank in January 1948 to permanently end a dispute between the two men. Frank shot Cunningham three times —once through the wrist and groin, once in the chest, and once in the head — for reasons that some longtime residents continue to debate: perhaps because of an affair between Mr. Cunningham and Mrs. Frank, or perhaps because of something as innocuous as noisy dogs. Martha Cunningham later remarried, but soon divorced her second husband and returned to her first married name.
- WARREN AMES BRIDGE — A son of longtime Kenai residents Phil and Betty Ames, Warren and a friend were canoeing through Naptowne Rapids on the Kenai River near Sterling in the early 1970s when their craft overturned. The friend was able to swim safely to shore, but Ames was not. Sometime later, another of Ames’ friends, Frank Mullen Jr., while working as legislative aide in Juneau, asked that a bill be drafted to name the new bridge on Bridge Access Road for Ames.
- CENTENNIAL PARK — This favorite fishing and boat-launching site was created in 1967, during the centennial celebration of Alaska’s purchase from the Russians by the United States.
- DAVID DOUTHIT VETERANS MEMORIAL BRIDGE — This Soldotna crossing point was given its current name officially on Sept. 11, 2002, in honor of all those who have put themselves in harm’s way to protect America’s freedoms, and in particular Staff Sgt. David Quentin Douthit, of Soldotna. Douthit, the only Alaskan to lose his life in the Persian Gulf War, died while serving as tank commander during the initial breach of frontline Iraqi defenses. He was killed in action Feb. 27, 1991, while covering the evacuation of wounded soldiers. Staff Serg. Douthit was posthumously awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart for gallantry and heroism.
- VERN GEHRKE FIELD — This baseball field next to the Soldotna Rodeo Grounds was named for the former Soldotna City Council member and charitable public servant who was an avid Little League booster and frequently played Santa Claus in the local mall when the holidays drew near. Gehrke died in 1995 at the age of 83.
- JUSTIN MAILE FIELD — In 1987, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly named Soldotna High School’s football field for Soldotna’s headstrong mayor of the early 1980s. Maile spearheaded numerous public works projects throughout his tenure with the city, and at various times he was also a member of the hospital board, the borough assembly and the first SoHi booster club. Maile died in 1985 at the age of 68.
- LEIF HANSEN MEMORIAL PARK — The younger son of Dr. Peter and Karolee Hansen, of Kenai, Leif Owen Hansen was an Eagle Scout and only three years past his 1983 graduation from Kenai Central High School when he died in a tragic drowning incident in Seward. The city-center park was named in his memory, and it has become a memorial for dozens of other peninsula residents, as well.
- ERIK HANSEN SCOUT PARK — The elder son of Dr. Peter and Karolee Hansen, of Kenai, Peter Erik Hansen succumbed to brain cancer at age 32. A 1982 KCHS graduate, Hansen became an Eagle Scout in 1981 as a member of Kenai Boy Scout Troop 357, and the bluff-side park was named in his memory.
- BERNIE HUSS TRAIL — Off Main St. Loop in Kenai is a half-mile-long, looping community trail (formerly a fitness trail with workout stations) named for Bernard Huss, who died at age 25 in a traffic accident near Kenai in 1982. Huss, a former congressional aide for U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel and legislative aide for state Rep. Pat O’Connell, was honored for his beautification efforts within the city. With O’Connell, Huss was instrumental in allocating the funds to help Kenai’s then-mayor Vincent O’Reilly build the Kenai Recreation Center.