By Clark Fair
Some debate exists over who was the first registered surveyor on the Kenai Peninsula, and the honor generally goes to Henning Johnson, who moved to Homer in 1953 and then lived in the Clam Gulch area for about 40 years, starting in the late 1950s.
But there are some caveats to the claim, according to Johnson’s son, Borough Assemblyman Brent Johnson, of Kasilof.
To begin with, said Brent, state surveying licenses were issued numerically, and Henning’s license does not have as low a number as a few other individuals who also worked as surveyors on the peninsula.
For instance, there’s Charlie Parker, who was surveying in Anchorage before moving to Soldotna. Parker surveyed Soldotna’s second subdivision in 1952, but he didn’t become a peninsula-based surveyor until 1961.
Then there’s Dave Bear, who also has a lower number than Henning Johnson, but, according to Brent, Bear “only visited the peninsula, living in various places while working.”
And there’s Stan McLane, who came to the central peninsula around the same time as Henning Johnson but had a much higher registration number, indicating that he became official later than Johnson. McLane probably began his surveying career in Anchorage before moving south to live.
Therefore, said Brent, “Dad was the first resident surveyor on the peninsula, so long as we don’t count Featherstone Williamson.”
Featherstone W. (“Billy”) Williamson, a native of Pennsylvania, participated in a survey of the United States-Mexico border in the early 1900s, before moving to Juneau in 1906 to become a surveyor for the U.S. General Land Office. In 1920, he and his wife, Harriet (“Mickey”) built a home and fox ranch at Coal Creek in the Kasilof area, and, according to a historical note by the Society of Professional Land Surveyors, he was “in charge of most work extending the Rectangular System of Surveying in the Cook Inlet Basin from 1917 to 1924.”
The Williamsons later moved to Lawing on the upper end of Kenai Lake, and then on to California sometime after the market for fox furs declined.
And therefore, said Brent, “I think it is true that Dad was the only licensed surveyor on the peninsula in 1953 and for a while.”
Henning Johnson was born in Boyceville, Wisc., on Feb. 2, 1922, and he eloped to St. Louis with his sweetheart, Ruth Dabbert, of Chicago, on March 28, 1942.
Ruth had been an elevator operator in Chicago for almost eight months prior to the marriage, but Henning wanted to move to Seattle, so she found a new elevator operator job there, working for the Metropolitan Building Company. Ruth’s new boss had a uniform made for her, but she probably shouldn’t have bothered because shortly thereafter Henning decided they should move again — this time to Alaska.
“I can still hear her hollering,” Ruth said of her unhappy employer.
The Johnsons arrived by boat in Juneau, and Henning learned the surveying trade when he went to work on an airport job for the Morrison-Knudsen construction company. From Juneau he moved on to a job with the Army Corps of Engineers, which shipped him in August 1943 out to Attu Island, retaken only months before from the Japanese.
According to the National Park Service, the Corps’ most remarkable achievement during Johnson’s time on Attu was the construction of a 3,133-foot-long storage tunnel cut through a ridge near Clevesy Pass.
Then, said Brent Johnson, “Dad was taken from actually doing something with the Corps and drafted. So he joined the Army on July 12, 1944, and was stationed in Anchorage at Fort Richardson. ‘We fought the Battle of Anchorage,’ Dad was fond of saying, which was his humor at saying they didn’t accomplish a thing.”
By the time Henning was honorably discharged in 1947, he and Ruth and their oldest children
(daughters Gail and Sherry) had become only the second family to settle in an area just north of Anchorage.
In fact, it was Henning, while attending a community meeting, who suggested naming the place “Chugiak.”
While living in Chugiak, Henning worked on a lighting-installation project for the Civil Aeronautics Administration at the Kenai Airport and on C.A.A. electrical projects in Bethel and on St. Lawrence Island.
Then in 1951, tragedy struck the Johnson family.
At the Thanksgiving break, the school bus stopped near the Johnson driveway in Chugiak, and out hurried 8-year-old Gail, 7-year-old Sherry, and a 10-year-old neighbor girl.
“Probably there was excitement for the holiday,” Brent Johnson said. “The bus had no stop sign operated by a lever. No flashing lights. In fact, it didn’t even wait for the kids to cross the road. It just dropped them off, and the driver drove away. Sherry and Gail apparently ran to cross the road right when a truck barreled around the corner.
“Perhaps the noise of the bus pulling away contributed to them not hearing the truck. Maybe they were antagonizing each other, as siblings do. Both my sisters were hit. Sherry was killed and Gail knocked unconscious for three days. The 10-year-old wasn’t hit. In the long run, Mom couldn’t handle living there anymore — not driving by the spot where the accident happened.”
Henning, who earned his surveyor license in 1951, moved his family to Homer two years later.
On the peninsula, one of Henning’s early jobs was surveying Kenai’s first power line, installed by Frank Rowley in 1958. He also worked on rebuilding the Homer dock after it was damaged in the 1964 Good Friday earthquake.
In 1959, the Johnsons homesteaded in Clam Gulch and lived at first in a 10×12-foot, two-story cabin that Henning had built on the property. Gail stayed behind in Homer to finish high school, graduating as a junior. Younger sister Judy later returned to Homer, too, to attend high school, rather than commute to Kenai.
Brent and his older brother, Jerry, worked sometimes for their father on the survey crew. One of Brent’s favorite stories about that experience involves a near-disaster when he was a junior or senior in high school.
That spring, Henning, who died in 1999, was surveying a site near East End Road out of Homer, and he was being assisted by Brent and a high school friend named Jeff McHone.
“Dry grass was everywhere,” Brent said. “Dad set up the transit and turned an angle. ‘Here!’ he said. ‘Look through the instrument.’ As I did as he asked, ‘Do you see that tree? Line just hits it a bit, so make a notch so you can see past and go ahead and run this line for a quarter-mile. I’ve got to go visit a client.”
In his father’s absence, Brent made an executive decision to exceed his orders: He decided to cut the tree down entirely.
Unfortunately, his tree-felling skills were less well-honed than his axe. The tall spruce fell in the direction opposite his intentions — and across two power lines, snapping both in two. The tree then dropped across the road, blocking traffic, and the power lines began “snaking about in a writhing fashion.”
“Fire erupted from the grass,” Brent said, “and the whole hillside beckoned to it, almost screaming ‘Eat me!’” The two boys whipped off their coats and attempted to extinguish the flames by beating them. Once the fire was out, Brent raced for his chainsaw and cut the tree while his buddy dragged the logs off the road.
“Dad returned a few minutes later. ‘In my entire career of surveying I’ve never done anything like this!’ he yelled at me. As luck would have it, we were working on a Sunday. So HEA got in some nice time-and-a-half work — at my expense.”
Perhaps it was all for the best, therefore, that Brent eventually went into commercial fishing full time every summer, and Jerry joined the family surveying business once he returned from a six-year stint in the Navy. Eventually, Jerry took over the business entirely after Henning retired.