By Jenny Neyman
Joanna Hollier moved to Kenai long before it gained its “Village with a Past, City with a Future” motto. Before it was even a city, when the village’s past was the present. When Old Town Kenai was just Kenai.
“I came here in August of ’46, and there was no roads. I mean, no getting around with cars and what not. So we were more or less out there in old town, or Kenai — it was just called Kenai at that time — was downtown at that time,” she said.
Hollier came to town to work with the Civil Aeronautics Administration, the precursor to the Federal Aviation Administration, and has lived here through the town’s most dramatic period of change, as described by historian Shana Loshbaugh at a meeting of the Kenai Historical Society on Sunday at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center.
“Back in the early part of the 20th century, Kenai was basically an offroad Native village, like so many in Alaska still are,” Loshbaugh said. “It had a lot of Russian influence, the big industry in the area was the canneries. But really very different from what we have today. There were a lot of changes that started about 1940 to 1960, which is really when Kenai morphed from the village to city. As of the time of the beginning of World War II, you can see Kenai was pretty isolated, didn’t have a good port, no roads. The 20th century, however, was slowly coming to Kenai.”
Hollier worked for one of the biggest agents of change in Kenai — aviation. In 1926, the first plane came to Kenai, and the first “airstrip” was established in 1937.
“And basically little planes could land on the road just over here on Overland Drive,” Loshbaugh said.
The village got airmail service in 1930, though by the end of the ’30s mail service stopped because the community was seen as too small, and residents had to go to Kasilof for their mail.
But World War II was brewing, and the federal government saw Alaska as an integral part.
“Now, the war is when the changes really started happening in this area,” Loshbaugh said. “When the United States was not part of the war effort there were a lot of national leaders who really had a premonition that the U.S. was going to get dragged into it and there were also people who recognized the strategic importance of Alaska so they started sending federal resources to Alaska and ramping up for a potential war effort in this area.”
In March 1941, the military reserved a huge chunk of land — two to three square miles — just outside the Kenai village site, from the bluff adjacent to where the Kenai Senior Citizens Center is now, out into the wetlands north of town. In December, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the U.S. officially joined the fight. In 1942, the CAA built a 5,000-foot airstrip in Kenai, which has turned into the airport we have today. It didn’t end up having much role in the war effort, but had a huge role in transforming Kenai.
“It was the war that brought this airfield to Kenai and it was set up to be a major airport that they could use in an emergency situation,” Loshbaugh said. “So that’s basically what Kenai got out of World War II was the airstrip. And when the Air Force and the military wound down and the war ended the airstrip stayed, and by 1945 the descriptions show that the Civil Aeronautics Administration that ran it was one of the major employers in the Village of Kenai.”
Road access was the next big change for the then-little community. In 1946, surveying for the Sterling Highway began, and the road was dedicated in 1950, with the Kenai Spur Highway completed not long after.
“At that point the population of Kenai in the official census in 1950 was 321. That’s less than 10 more than had been 10 years before, so Kenai was still a little bitty place at that point, but things were on the move. Next thing they get electricity,” Loshbaugh said.
Town started to get a little more official at that point, as well. Back before the early 1900s, there was no legal title to land in Alaska — as least not that Uncle Sam recognized. The feds set up a system to bestow land titles in Alaska around 1900, and the first titles in the Kenai area went to canneries and the Russian Orthodox Church. But even then, there weren’t any official boundaries to the parcels, so ownership was difficult to track.
“It turns out that because the U.S. had bought Alaska and it was the 20th century and people were moving there, somebody realized, ‘You know, we’re going to have to make it part of the system,’ which means paperwork and stuff. They had in Alaska all these old villages where people had been living for sometimes hundreds of years, and they had their own homes they had built and were living in for generations, and they had absolutely no legal title to any of it under the federal government,” Loshbaugh said.
The federal government started sending surveyors to Alaska to map lot lines, establish ownership, legitimize existing land claims and designate communities as townsites. In summer 1951, Elliott Pearson was sent to Kenai to conduct an official townsite survey.
“The reason why they were doing this was not only so the government would know what was going on and could tax people but so that people would have legal right to the land. Apparently before this was done people could not legally sell their land, bequeath it to their heirs, or if a squatter came in and took over their house while they were gone, prove in court that it was their place. So that’s what this survey was about,” Loshbaugh said.
She shared one horror story of a son who sold his mother’s cabin while she was out of town and the new “owners” tore it down before she got back. The matter was resolved in court and she ended up getting title to the lot, but such situations were unfortunately not unheard of.
Pearson had his work cut out for him. Town — what is now Old Town — developed from the Native village and around the Russian Orthodox Church buildings, when there were no roads, no need for uniform lots or even straight lines separating property.
“It was just this kind of spaghetti of cabbage patches, little jumbled cabins and stuff. So, Mr. Pearson’s mission was to come in to this scenario and make a modern American map with lot lines and straight lines and divvy it all up,” Loshbaugh said.
He did a serviceable job — as good as could be expected given the hodgepodge.
“You can see he’s got straight lines in here, but it’s still pretty funky compared to the way they do subdivisions nowadays. But if you look at, say, the borough parcel viewer of Old Town Kenai, it really hasn’t changed much. This is how the lots are today and this is where that comes from, this survey in 1951,” she said.
Pearson took the survey maps around town in 1954 to update the list of owners, and the federal government used that data to issue official legal deeds to the owners. It also allowed for a sale of vacant lots around town.
Hollier was at that sale. Her group bought three lots to build the Methodist Church, which still stands along the Kenai Spur Highway.
“I wasn’t smart enough to buy any of the land,” she said. “It wasn’t that much, and we should have bought four lots. We only bought three. When we built we kind of built in a swamp and we’ve had trouble with the drainage ever since. It was kind of interesting.”
Becoming a townsite and having lots straightened out precipitated the growth of the 1950s and 1960s that was soon to come to Kenai.
The 1950s were the biggest decade of change yet.
“You had people just pouring in to the area, and, really, the area is getting modernized. So the big items on the list are Wildwood being built, Kenai got a chamber of commerce, there was a lot of commercial building going on along the highway. Then in 1957 was the Swanson River oil strike, and the next year was the gas strike in the Kenai field, so this was the beginning of Kenai as an oil city.”
The center of “town” started migrating from the village site on the bluff above the mouth of the river to the highway corridor and the area around the airport, then eventually stretching east along the highway toward the brand-new community of Soldotna. The 1960s brought even more population influx and modernization, with being incorporated as a city in 1960.
“The 1960s was when the oil and gas industries were really taking off and you started having lot of infrastructure being built, utilities, city facilities and malls. And some pavement starts to show up in a few places too, so that was the roaring’60s.”
Twenty years is a mere blink in the overall history of Kenai, with Native habitation of the area dating back long before the arrival of the Russians in the 1700s. But it was a monumental period of transformation from what the village was to what the city would become.
“The big changes, starting way back in early 1940s — first the airport and then the highway. Those connected it to rest of world and led to an influx of new people. And you had these things boosting the economy, such as Wildwood and the oil industry and statehood. Just a huge amount of change in a really short time,” Loshbaugh said.
A peninsulawide meeting of area historical societies will be held Oct. 3 at the Donald Gilman River Center in Soldotna. It is open to the public.