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Christmas tree on Seward mountain brings fractured town together

Doug CapraSeward Journal
Photo by Kibondo via Creative Commons

SEWARD -- The spruce tree hovers, almost leans over a ledge on Little Bear Mountain. Its 500 colored lights cast a reassuring glow – sometimes sharp through clear, crisp air; sometimes dim through dense, eerie fog; sometimes muffled through a steady, silent snow. It appears spectacular as one stands on Fifth Avenue and looks west down Washington Street. 

It is Seward’s mountain Christmas tree.

Soon after Thanksgiving, we look up to see if our tree has been lit. If it shines, we relax and start counting the days until Christmas. If it’s dark, we wonder why, and look up more frequently with anxious, sometimes annoyed expectation. The town seems naked without it this time of year. It’s just supposed to be there. 

Few realize the danger that used to be involved when city electric crews climbed the mountain to check the tree each year and replace burned out bulbs. It can be treacherous to climb the trail up there in winter, so local volunteers usually check it out in summer.

Years ago, when I started inquiring about its history, people would say things like, “Oh, it’s always been there. At least as long I can recall.” Others told me it was put up during World War II. Old-timers knew it hasn’t always been there, but most couldn’t quite remember exactly when or why it first appeared. Even they now regard the tree as a kind of symbol, a permanent Seward fixture. But the tales of its history varied so much that I decided that it was time to research and tell the true story.

Visible far out in Resurrection Bay

Fifty years ago this month -- Monday afternoon, Dec. 11, 1961 -- the town first looked up to see “the very spirit of the season begin to glow out of the fog on Little Bear Mountain.” Seward’s newspaper, the Petticoat Gazette, noted that businesses and homes throughout the town embraced the Yuletide spirit with Christmas scenes, light arrangements, and decorations. But the lights up on the mountain caused the most excitement.

“We are told that the tree can be seen when boats first get through the entrance,” the newspaper reported, “and it is completely distinguishable three miles out” in Resurrection Bay.

For years, city electric crews had decorated and strung lights on a community Christmas tree at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and Adams Street. Seward Mayor L.V. Ray had started the tradition back in 1926. In 1961, the tradition remained, the tree that year selected and brought in by Herman Leirer. For some reason, though, one of the city’s electric crew, Casey Cobban, wanted to lay a cable up to Little Bear Mountain. He had scouted out the ridge and knew the right tree to decorate.

Perhaps we’ll never know exactly where Casey got the idea to light a tree on the mountain, or why he chose the Christmas of 1961 to do it. 

“He was always interested in doing things like that,” his wife Gwin told me. “He really loved people and he loved the Christmas season.” Others say Casey was very civic-minded, always volunteering. Perhaps he hoped the tree would help create some community spirit.

And if ever Seward needed some community spirit, it was in 1961.

Friends fought friends

Beginning in the late 1950s, controversies split the town into at least two camps. Those who wanted to remain neutral found it difficult. The surface issues, as complex as human personalities, perhaps began with the Seward schools -- teachers, unions, management styles, power, control, and change.

At this time, Seward had its own local school system, and the local school board hired a new superintendent with changes in mind. Teachers were fired and people took sides. Some started a petition to recall the school board. It failed.

In January 1957, three city council members resigned, and the next year some citizens circulated a petition to abolish a city manager form of government. The petition failed at the polls by six votes. During 1960, the city council, with its new city manager, remained a center of controversy. In 1961, an election failed to recall three city council members, but the next year it succeeded and four left. During this time, the city manager resigned, but was later rehired. In 1962, people again took sides over the firing of a city department foreman. The city manager resigned again and was replaced. 

As in any small town where the social and political interests mesh, these controversies embedded themselves into the fabric of everyday life. Friends fought friends. Family members became estranged. Longtime neighbors stopped talking to each other. Emotions ran high.

This struggle lasted several years, during which time some people tried to help unify the town while promoting needed community services, such as a new library building. Gradually, and with much difficulty, wounds began to heal. Even today, though, some old-timers I interviewed for this article told me they avoid this topic with friends so as not to open up old wounds.

In 1962, Seward won its first All-American City Award. Two years later, it won the award again. But it took a disaster – the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake – to focus Seward’s energy on a single community goal, to rebuild the city. For several weeks, people had to work together and talk to each other for the benefit of the town, regardless of personal animosities. One Seward old-timer commented that he didn’t want this misinterpreted, but in some ways, the earthquake was the best thing for Seward. It took a disaster to bring people together again.

In the midst of those controversies, during the fall of 1961, Casey Cobban went to city council with his idea. He needed permission to run a power line up the mountain, and he needed lights and wiring. The city agreed, and the Chamber of Commerce purchased the lights and wiring by asking for contributions from local businesses.

“Probably nothing has excited so much interest in and added more to the Christmas spirit in our small town this year,” the Petticoat Gazette reported on Dec. 21, “than the light-festooned, star-topped tree which the city’s electric crew have seemingly hung halfway up Bear Mountain. It can be seen from almost any point in the surrounding area – land and sea.”

Stop talking a while

People tended to react in two ways. First, they looked up. Then, they started talking about the new tree. “Persons who spoke only tersely, guardedly, or even not at all because of some former, real or imagined slight, have found it a common ground for communication again,” wrote the Petticoat Gazette.

As Christmas got closer, the newspaper began to see a metaphor in the tree up on the mountain. “This tree symbolizes graphically one of the lessons God intended to teach us when He sent His Son into the world as a babe. It was why he lit the message with a star. Christmas and all that it means was meant to make men look up and thus help draw them together.”

The newspaper urged people to consider the meaning behind the tree. “This year there has been in our community too much politics – too much worms-eye view of one another. This Christmas may we not only lift our eyes to the tree on the mountain, but at the same time lift up our hearts and minds to our God and embrace our fellow man with understanding, charity, and forgiveness.”

Let’s talk with each other, not at each other, the newspaper urged. Indeed, let’s stop talking for a while and look up toward the tree and listen to both God and each other. “Certainly loose talking has been the basis of much of our local difficulties,” the newspaper reminded us. “Perhaps this Christmas, if we may use the vulgar, we might express it thusly – ‘Look up and shut up.’ ”

Perhaps there are no accidents in life. Perhaps the tree appeared just when needed to remind this town that healing was past due. Perhaps Casey Cobban knew exactly what he was doing.

Fifty years ago this Christmas, the Petticoat Gazette encouraged the people of Seward to make Christmas more than a mere spending spree. Keep the spirit of the tree’s bright lights within you, the newspaper urged, even after they have been extinguished at season’s end.

“A good place to begin would be to go to the church of our choice this Christmas season,” the newspaper said. “And when you go, lift up your heart, soul and mind; still the strident voices about and within you so that you may listen and learn.”

This story is reprinted here and in the Seward Journal, and is copyrighted by and with the permission of Doug Capra from his book, “Something to be Remembered: Stories from Seward History.”