The strong connection between Seldovia’s booming past and its quieter present is spelled out at the Seldovia Village Tribe’s Museum and Visitor Center.
“From past to present, from subsistence harvesting to commercial exploitation, and from thriving fisheries to diminished resources, cycles of economic boom and bust have been a way of life in Seldovia. With great resilience, generations of villagers have adapted to these turbulent changes. Through their reliance on the area’s abundant resources Seldovians have found ways to survive and flourish,” reads one of the displays.
A 20-year arch drawn by the U.S. Census shows the area’s population at 378 in 1930. By 1940, it had exploded to 980. In 1950, it had dropped back to 701. The 2010 census indicates the population had dropped to less than 300. A development outside of Seldovia is partly to blame for that decline: construction of the Sterling Highway.
“In 1951, when the highway finished slashing its way down the length of the Kenai Peninsula, Homer became officially tied to the grid,” Seldovia resident Paulette Bokenko Carluccio wrote in the chapter about Seldovia in “Snapshots of Statehood: A Focus on Communities That Became the Kenai Peninsula Borough.”
“Once connected to the highway system, Homer started to grow by leaps and bounds, quickly surpassing Seldovia. The last year that Seldovia could claim an official population larger than Homer was 1959.”
The road caused attention to shift away from services Seldovia could offer. Mail that once came through Seldovia was now delivered along the highway. Supplies needed for winter could be purchased elsewhere.
Mining suffered a downturn. The logging industry faded. Seldovia’s tie to the fishing industry remained strong for a while, but the four canneries that once existed in Seldovia and employed hundreds of people eventually closed.
The single biggest blow to Seldovia came at 5:36 p.m. on Good Friday, March 27, 1964, when a 9.2 earthquake struck the Prince William Sound area and pulled the rug out from under Seldovia.
For some residents, sounds associated with the earthquake are remembered: harbor pilings snapped like sticks; water rushed out of the harbor.
Darlene Crawford recalled struggling to hold cupboard doors closed “so the dishes wouldn’t come out.”
In the midst of rehearsing an Easter program at church, Ester In-Hout wedged herself into a doorway until she thought the ground had stopped shaking, only to find it still moving when she tried to make her way home. Her husband, Tuttle, was at home when the quake struck and realized their entire house was moving.
Seldovia and the surrounding area dropped almost four feet, but “I don’t think people even knew we sank until the big tides came,” said Darlene Crawford.
When Lillian Elvsaas and her family moved to Seldovia later that spring, they wondered why the stove and furniture were raised off the floor of their rental home. It didn’t take long to get the answer.
“When the tide came in, it was a foot higher in the house,” said Elvsaas. “My brother, Lars, got out of bed and put his feet right in the water.”
The following October, Seldovia residents approved urban renewal assistance to get them back on their feet. Buildings along the waterfront and the picturesque boardwalk were torn down. A hill was leveled and rock from it used to construct a new road to take the boardwalk’s place. A new harbor was built. A water and sewer system was installed.
It was a turning point for Seldovia. The borough’s quarterly report of key economic indicators, reflects a continued drop in sales. The Susan B. English School, originally built in 1958, added to in 1972 and again in 1983, had an enrollment of 158 for the 1971-1972 school year, but currently has 40 students in attendance.
However, aspects of Seldovia continue to attract people.
Teachers Rod and Sunni Hilts and their five children arrived in 1970. It was to be a one-year move and a stepping-stone to get to Homer, but that was before they laid eyes on Seldovia.
“We came on the ferry and came around the corner and Rod said, ‘Forget Homer,’ and I said, ‘Thank you, God,’” said Sunni Hilts.
After teaching one year, Sunni Hilts worked as a substitute teacher and ran a local substance-abuse program. Rod Hilts taught until 1987 and then went to work for Seldovia Village Tribe.
During their years in Seldovia, the Hilts family has lost several family members. A wave swept their son from a fishing boat, their daughter died in 2000 and her husband not long after that. They lost an adopted daughter to substance abuse.
“My ties to this community are really strong,” said Hilts. “It’s one of those kinds of communities that people know too much about each other, but when there’s a problem, they all come together.”
Jenny Chissus, her husband and three children moved to Seldovia in 2002, in search of water for the 32-foot sailboat dry-docked in the front yard of their Fairbanks home.
“And we wanted a small community so we could raise our children in a safe, Alaskan environment,” said Chissus.
It took awhile for employment and housing to sort itself out, but Chissus said she remembered “coming off the boat and crying, I was so glad we were here. I still feel that way.”
In 2004, Chissus got her real estate license; since 2008 she has owned and operated her own business, Seldovia Property. Since 2009, Chissus has published Seldovia.com along with the Seldovia Gazette, an online newspaper. The couple has rental properties and has begun a business watching properties for people who are out of town. In addition to teaching, Paul Chissus is a contractor who does carpentry work.
“We’re a small community, but there’s a lot of energetic spirit here,” said Chissus. “It really doesn’t matter what you bring to Seldovia, because there’s opportunities everywhere! People here support local businesses and encourage new ventures. The trick is finding the person with the passion to create. …
“What we need? People who have entrepreneurial spirits, who are go-getters.”
Special events developed over the years have helped boost Seldovia’s tourism industry.
Born in Seldovia in 1959 and raised in the community, Crystal Collier has been president of the 514-member Seldovia Village Tribe since 1988. Although she believes Seldovia is currently in a decline, Collier is optimistic.
“I see that as opportunity to come in with new excitement, new energy,” she said.
In addition to the museum and visitor center, the Seldovia Village Tribe provides medical and dental services in Homer, Seldovia and Anchor Point and operates the M/V Kachemak Voyager, a ferry linking Seldovia to Homer. Community programs include:
“Every program we have, we have tailored it to serve all people,” said Collier.
The tribe provides jobs for about 80-full time employees.
Collier believes Seldovia is a “great place to grow up. That’s what we can say is the selling point for Seldovia. If you have children, it’s a great place to be.”
Upcoming Seldovia events
McKibben Jackinsky is a reporter at the Homer News. Reach her at mckibben.jackinsky(at)homernews.com. Used with permission.