Jack Lean and his mail-hauling dog team get a ride across the outlet of Kenai Lake, circa 1930. (Photo courtesy of Jim Taylor.)

Jack Lean and his mail-hauling dog team get a ride across the outlet of Kenai Lake, circa 1930. (Photo courtesy of Jim Taylor.)

You’ve got mail, Kenai … eventually

Receiving mail a century ago in roadless Kenai, Alaska, was no easy matter.

By Clark Fair

For the Peninsula Clarion

While sailing near Fire Island in Cook Inlet in September 1905, 6-foot-4, 280-pound George S. Mearns, the second postmaster ever appointed to Kenai, leaned into the rail of the S.S. Tyonic, lost his balance, fell overboard and drowned. His body was never recovered.

The next month, big game guide William J. Hunter was named as Kenai’s third postmaster. He declined the appointment, as did Mrs. P.H. Ross two months later. In August 1906, Eugene R. Bogart, who had been the village’s first postmaster, was appointed to the position again. He accepted.

Receiving mail a century ago in roadless Kenai, Alaska, was no easy matter.

From April to October the mail was shipped via steamboat once a month up the inlet directly to Kenai. But from November to March, mail shipments ended at the Homer post office in Coal Bay; from there, someone usually toted the mail up the inlet shoreline, crossing larger streams in boats left by canneries operating near the mouths of the Kasilof and Kenai rivers.

Mail carriers who found that a boat had been left at a cannery on the opposite bank were forced to hail a caretaker or winter watchman across the water to row over and give them safe passage. At smaller streams, such as Deep Creek or the Anchor and Ninilchik rivers, carriers likely headed upstream to find a suitable crossing over the ice.

In October 1902, Alexander R. “Paddy” Ryan, assisted by Alexander Demidoff, Jr., was awarded a $900 Star Service mail-route contract to haul mail over this route. In addition to his mail-toting duties, Ryan — born in Canada, living in and around Kenai since 1888, and with a reputation as a hard-drinking bully — had managed to be appointed as a special deputy marshal for the area.

Previously, he had been an agent for the Alaska Commercial Company, but bad behavior had cost him that job. It wasn’t the last time his actions would have serious consequences.

In 1903, a grand jury tried Ryan for attempted manslaughter, yet he remained a deputy and a mail carrier. Then, in 1908, he lost both jobs when he was sentenced to two years in a federal penitentiary. In 1918 he was shot and killed while protesting a school board election.

Even in Ryan’s absence, the winter mail continued to be delivered to Kenai, although the methods and the routes evolved over the years.

Ryan was succeeded as mail carrier by Gregory George Brown, who used a horse to make the trip between Kenai and Homer, and then by Nick Kalifornsky, who employed a dog team for the task. According to Alan Boraas, former anthropology professor at Kenai Peninsula College, many Dena’ina men other than Kalifornsky also ran portions of the mail route.

Soon, because of its railroad terminus and its year-round ice-free port, the fledgling community of Seward began to replace Homer as the entry point for all peninsula mail. By September 1913, most of the winter mail was arriving regularly on a steamship in the Gateway City.

That same month, the U.S. Post Office Department called for bids on an overland winter mail route between Seward and Kenai from Dec. 1 to March 31. The contract required carriers to cover the distance in no more than seven days each way while carrying a maximum of 300 pounds of mail. Homer residents, then, began receiving their winter mail via Kenai, rather than vise-versa.

A year later, in order to better connect often widely separated Alaska communities, the Territorial Legislature created road districts and provided for elected road commissioners. It would be more than four more decades, however, before any road reached Kenai. In this time before airplanes could reliably carry the mail — and before small communities had runways capable of accommodating safe landings and takeoffs — overland delivery during the winter remained the only viable option.

Once the railroad had been completed to Moose Pass, winter mail could be sent up the rails and picked up by mail carriers for hauling to Kenai. The problem was that no reliable trail existed between Moose Pass and Kenai. Routes had been proposed, and some overland travel did exist, but there was no official infrastructure.

Originally, the Alaska Road Commission proposed creating a route from Kenai that closely followed the Kenai River to its Skilak Lake outlet, then over rough and wooded hills to the river inlet, up the Kenai River canyon, along the north bank of the river to Quartz and Dave’s creek drainages and around Trail Lakes to Moose Pass.

Generally speaking — before an official mail-route trail was built — the winter mail route varied somewhat from winter to winter because conditions were so variable. It was also soon realized that a more direct and reliable route was possible.

From Kenai, carriers generally followed an old Native winter trail to the confluence of the Moose and Kenai rivers. They then traveled upstream on or along the Moose until they could safely cross and continued across the lowland lake country (now called the Sterling flats) toward Jean Lake.

After crossing the lake, they traveled along the north side of the Kenai River — climbing near the present-day Resurrection Pass Trail to cross Juneau Creek above the falls before descending along Bean Creek — and then to Quartz Creek and on to Moose Pass.

There were hazards on this route, too — mostly steep side-hills and overflow — but it would be a few more years before the next improvements materialized.

In virtually all types of weather, carriers traveled with heavily laden freight sleds. These sleds were longer than modern racing sleds and narrower and more sturdily built, usually of hickory or ash. Carriers rarely rode on the backs of their sleds, and travel could be very slow as they occasionally had to don snowshoes and walk out in front of the dogs to break trail in heavy snow.

In 1918, longtime Kenai resident Paul Wilson Sr. was awarded a Star Route contract to carry the mail by dog team to Kenai from either Moose Pass or Lawing, depending on which had the official U.S. post office at the time.

Star Routes were developed by the U.S. Congress in 1845 to provide the swiftest and most secure means of mail delivery possible at the lowest possible price. A contract typically lasted four years and was usually awarded to the lowest bidder.

The first Star Route in Alaska was awarded in 1894 to Tlingit musher Jimmie Jackson, who had the prodigious task of delivering mail from Juneau more than 1,000 miles to Circle, north of Fairbanks. He managed the feat a single time, traveling from Juneau by canoe to Atlin Lake, British Columbia, and then on foot and by dog team the rest of the way. On the trip, Jackson hunted and fished to feed himself and his team. Two of his dogs died on the trail. A third dog he was forced to use for food.

Read the second installment here.

Photo from the Knackstedt Collection 
This shelter cabin, located near the confluence of the Moose and Kenai rivers, was constructed in the early 1920s for mail carriers traveling by dog sled between Seward and Kenai.

Photo from the Knackstedt Collection This shelter cabin, located near the confluence of the Moose and Kenai rivers, was constructed in the early 1920s for mail carriers traveling by dog sled between Seward and Kenai.

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