By Jenny Neyman
Shana Loshbaugh came to the Kenai Peninsula under circumstances familiar to many who settled here before her. She moved up from the Lower 48 to live with her husband, Doug, in 1981, looking for opportunity and adventure, being immediately awed by the natural landscape, and taking a little longer to discover the greater nature of the place.
“I think it’s just full of surprises. When I first came here I was like a lot of people, ‘Oh, beautiful wilderness and animals and pristine nature,’ sort of the pretty face of the Kenai Peninsula. And then I started finding things that maybe didn’t quite make sense and started asking more questions,” she said. “I just gradually over time became obsessed with Kenai Peninsula history when I realized it was so interesting and so little of it had been actually pulled together and made public and published in accessible ways, and so I started digging around and the more I learn about it, the more interesting it gets.”
Loshbaugh, who holds a doctorate degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in environmental history and now lives in Anchor Point, wanted a piece of the peninsula to call her own. In that regard she was a lot like the settlers about which she was speaking at the Kenai Historical Society meeting on Sunday at the Nikiski Senior Center. Her presentation was on homesteading on the Kenai Peninsula, and she had some experts in the room.
“Let me ask a question, though, with this group of people, how many people in this room were homesteaders?”
About 10 people in the packed conference room raised their hands.
“So I don’t know if I can tell you anything you don’t already know about this, but for the other folks in the room … ,” she began.
Owning a piece of the Kenai Peninsula hasn’t always been as straightforward as a real estate purchase is today. Back when the U.S. bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, the matter was complicated.
“Who owned the Kenai? Well, technically the federal government owned it. Why? Because they bought it from the Tsarist government, which claimed that they owned it. This of course was a big surprise to lot of the people that actually lived in Alaska, who didn’t have anything to do with either of these governments,” Loshbaugh said.
Between the time of the Alaska purchase and about 1900 there were no legal titles to the land in Alaska, she said. New people and commercial interests coming to the area, joining those already living and making a living here, existed under rather nebulous legality.
“By the time you got to circa 1900 this was becoming a major problem — there was no legal land titles. And the U.S. federal government was kind of forced to pay more attention to Alaska,” Loshbaugh said.
In 1898 Congress passed a law extending the Homesteading Act of 1862 to Alaska.
“The whole idea was to settle the great expanse of United States for farming, which was believed to be the gateway to civilization,” she said.
The federal government had control of the entire Kenai Peninsula. First, in about 1903, the government set the boundaries of the Chugach National Forest, and in 1941 established the Kenai National Moose Range, which now is known as the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Some of the existing communities and landholders, like Native villages and canneries, were recognized. And areas along the western part of the peninsula were made available for private ownership.
Many of the first recorded land titles in the Kenai area went to commercial interests, mostly in the fishing industry — Northern Packing in 1904, Nautilus Fishing and Mining in 1908, Northwest Fisheries in 1918 and Libby McNeill and Libby in 1925. John “Kenai Joe” Consiel, filed for a land title in 1929 for what became the bar in Kenai. The Russian Orthodox Church applied for a land title in Kenai in 1909.
The first people to file for land titles under the homesteading act in the Kenai area were Roy Forsyth in 1915, John “Moosemeat” Hedberg in 1917 and Harry Lassley in 1925. Except for Hedberg, Loshbaugh has little information about them beyond their names, and no one in the audience could offer any more detail. Hedberg’s cabin was the original visitors center in Kenai and later became the Kenai Chamber of Commerce office. It currently sits near the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.
It isn’t until a little later on that more familiar, Kenai-area homesteader names started to appear in the national register, including Ethen Cunningham in 1941 (of Cunningham Park on the Kenai River), Charles “Windy” Wagner in 1944, Harold Lewis in 1945, Edward Ciechanski (of Ciechanski Road) in 1946 and Grover LaFlee, also in 1946.
“OK, people are nodding, OK,” Loshbaugh said, surveying the room.
After World War II, homesteading saw its boom on the Kenai Peninsula, with the construction of the Sterling Highway and as veterans were enticed with perks to encourage them to homestead.
“After 1947 the federal government decided it really wanted people in Alaska, and it really wanted to Americanize Alaska, and that’s when everything changed. And from that time on there are so many homesteads I cannot list them on a slide, we would be here all year. There’s hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them,” Loshbaugh said.
A little bit of land by Seward was opened to homesteading, but the vast majority of it was along the western coast of the Kenai Peninsula, from Point Possession down through Nikiski, Kenai, Kasilof and Ninilchick, a big chunk of land around Homer and a corridor along the Kenai River. Some Kenai Peninsula homesteaders did try their hands at farming, and a few found some success at it, such as the Mullen family that homesteaded what now is downtown Soldotna around the Y intersection of the Kenai Spur and Sterling highways. But most found the climate and conditions challenging for crops, so set about cultivating other means of making a living.
By the early 1960s homesteading on the peninsula was drawing to a close as the next big population boom was starting, set off by Richfield Oil Co. striking oil at Swanson River in 1957. The last year people filed for homesteads on the Kenai Peninsula was 1962, though the very last homestead title in the entire U.S. was filed in 1988 near Lime Village.
But, according to research done by Dr. Alan Boraas, anthropology professor at Kenai Peninsula College, the Kenai Peninsula remains as important to the national history of homesteading as homesteading did to the growth of the peninsula’s population.
“It appears that the city of Soldotna is the very last town in the United States that was founded from scratch by homesteaders. So if you think of homesteading as the whole westward movement of the United States, coast to coast, this is literally where it ends — here on the Kenai Peninsula,” Loshbaugh said.