Gwin's Lodge

Gwin's Lodge as it looks today. Except for the decking and signage, the building's exterior has changed very little in the past 70 years.

Pat and Helen Gwin opened a lodge in Cooper Landing at mile 52 of the Sterling Highway in 1951. However, when they moved to Alaska in 1946, the Sterling Highway did not exist. Cooper Landing was an end-of-the road community, only recently linked by road to Seward.

Cooper Landing began coalescing in the 1890s along the Kenai River, just south of its outlet at the western end of the 22-mile-long Kenai Lake. It was insulated from other communities by rugged mountains, and the only routes into the area were waterways and pack trails.

Roads developed slowly. Between 1903 and 1911, railroad tracks were laid from Seward northward to Turnagain Arm. By the 1920s, the Alaska Road Commission had completed a road paralleling the tracks from Seward to the eastern shore of Kenai Lake, as well as one stretching from the railroad siding at Moose Pass, 10 miles beyond Kenai Lake, to Hope on Turnagain Arm.

This left a roadless gap between Kenai Lake and Moose Pass, while Cooper Landing still lay isolated at the western end of Kenai Lake.

According to a 1986 Forest Service publication, it was not until the 1930s that the road situation improved. Cooper Landing is situated within Chugach National Forest (established in 1907), and during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) partnered with the U.S. Forest Service on projects in Alaska. Between 1937 and 1939, the CCC connected the southern and northern portion of the Seward-Hope road, and also constructed a spur road to Cooper Landing.

The Sterling Highway, running from the Seward-Hope Road to Homer, was completed in 1950. It was named after the Alaska Road Commission superintendent Hawley Sterling. In 1951, the peninsula’s highway system was completed when the Seward Highway linked up the Seward-Hope Road with a new road from Anchorage.

Pat Gwin had married Helen in 1934, and when his Colorado job ended in 1946, they moved to Alaska. Pat preceded Helen to Alaska via steamship, with their truck in the ship’s hold. Landing at Seward in March, he drove to the Cooper Landing area. Unable to reach Skilak Lake, his intended destination, he decided Cooper Landing was good enough. Returning to Seward, he picked up Helen, who arrived in May, and they drove back to Cooper Landing. In a 1986 interview, Helen noted that Cooper Landing had about 30 year-round residents when they moved there.

Pat and Helen had hoped to open a grocery store. They ended up obtaining a roadhouse license, which allowed them to operate a packaged goods business (selling sealed containers of alcoholic beverages, as well as wine and beer by the glass). The only other package goods store in the area burned in 1949, and neighbors convinced them to apply for the license.

Pat began harvesting logs for a lodge in 1949. The lodge building was erected in 1950, and Gwin’s Lodge opened on New Year’s Eve of 1951. Later in the 50s, the Gwin’s built rental cabins behind the lodge.

The Gwins divorced in 1959. Helen continued operating the roadhouse, while Pat worked elsewhere in the area. Helen sold the lodge in 1976, but she and Pat continued to live in Cooper Landing.

Pat died in 1986 and Helen followed in 2007. Several years after Helen’s death, two mountains behind the lodge were named in their honor: Helen Gwin Peak and Old Buzzard Ridge. Old Buzzard was the endearing term Helen used towards Pat.

The lodge, one of the oldest on the Kenai Peninsula, has seen a succession of owners since Helen sold it, but it has always been called Gwin’s. Now owned by Keith Mantey, it still looks the same as it did when the Gwin’s owned it.

Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.

Sources:

“A Stern and Rock-bound Coast: Kenai Fjords National Park Historic Resource Study.” Linda Cook & Frank Norris. National Park Service. 1998

“Helen Gwin is interviewed by Rolfe Buzzell on February 13, 1986 in Cooper Landing, Alaska.” In the Oral History Collection, UAF Archives

“Living landmark.” Sharon Bushell, In Anchorage Daily News. 1-16-2005

“Pinnacle of Honor – Cooper Landing starts effort to name peak, ridge after pioneers.” Jenny Neyman. In The Redoubt Reporter, 7-23-2014

“The Forest Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps: 1932-42,” Alison T. Otis et. al. U.S. Forest Service. 1986

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