John Ballaine was the entrepreneur primarily responsible for initiating construction of the Alaska Central Railway (ACR) across the Kenai Peninsula. He is also credited with founding the town on Seward, the southern terminus of the ACR.
Although he had great expectations for Seward, John’s primary focus was the ACR, which he envisioned extending to Interior Alaska. However, he spent little time in Alaska, commanding his business enterprises from a Seattle office.
It was John’s younger brother, Frank, who nurtured Seward’s development, becoming his brother’s on-site manger. Frank moved to Seward in 1903 and lived there for more than 20 years. He and his wife raised their family in Seward, and both were active in the community. Frank was involved with both the chamber of commerce and Seward Water and Power Company, and published Seward’s first newspaper.
According to National Park Service documents, the ACR studied numerous routes before selecting Resurrection Bay as the site for its southern terminus. John tried to convince other company directors to invest in Seward, but they demurred, assuming it would be little more than a port facility. This left the Ballaine brothers to invest their own funds in developing the town.
Resurrection Bay had only a handful of residents when the ACR chose the site in 1902. The principal occupants were Mary Lowell and her family. She was a Russian-American Creole (of mixed Russian and Native ancestry) who had been abandoned by her American husband.
In 1903, after helping Mary file a homestead application for the land she occupied, the Ballaine brothers bought her homestead. Frank subsequently oversaw the development of Seward, signing-off on the townsite survey, parceling out lots to civic organizations such as churches, and selling business and residential lots.
In spring 1905 Frank married Genevieve Knight in Seattle, bringing her to Seward on their honeymoon. He built her a large house at 437 Third Avenue that year, while the ACR’s future was still beamish. Within a few years the railway was bankrupt. It was eventually completed — as the Alaska Railroad — by the federal government.
The Ballaine’s house is located near the crest of the hill on which Seward stands. Other prominent Seward residents, many of them ACR employees, built grand homes (at least by Alaska standards) on the same block. Since their owners believed that one million inhabitants would soon reside along the railway, those homes became known as “Millionaire’s Row,”
Frank’s place, a wood-frame 1 1/2-story structure, was built in an eclectic mix of styles. Allison Hoagland, in her book, “Buildings of Alaska,” calls it a cross between a farmhouse and a bungalow. The structure is approximately 22-feet wide by 45-feet deep, with a steeply-pitched, gabled roof. There are a plethora of windows on the first floor, an extravagance in early-20th-century Alaska homes. From the enclosed front portico (originally open), steps lead down to the street.
The house originally had a wood-shingled roof, beveled-wood siding on the first floor, and wood shingles covering the second floor’s gable ends. The house is now sheathed with aluminum beveled siding, with a composition-shingle roof.
The three-window bay on the first floor’s south facade is original, as is the oriel window at the front of the second floor. Because the front portico’s roof intrudes into the oriel’s space, the oriel’s side windows are only half-height.
The original structure had matching gable-roofed dormers on the south and north faces of the second floor, but the north dormer has been replaced with a larger shed-roofed dormer.
The house has changed little and retains its grand appearance, a reflection of the ACR’s flush early years. And the railroad, completed almost 100 years ago, still retains its importance to the community.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.
• “Ballaine House, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Alfred Mongin. National Park Service. 1978
• “Buildings of Alaska.” Alison K. Hoagland. Oxford University Press. 1993
• “Seward, Alaska; A History of the Gateway City, Volumes I and II.” Mary J. Barry. No publisher, 1986, 1993