Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Every Anchorage park, all 223 of them, was named for a reason. Most were named for admirable reasons, to recall remarkable residents or to reflect the environment. Then there is Balto Seppala Park, which would have angered its namesake — Seppala, not the dog. A few weeks ago, I offered the backstory on several local parks, and now the topic continues. Again, there are far too many parks to cover in one or two articles. If your favorite park is not included here, rest assured that it will be featured in the future.
Brown’s Point Park sits at the southwest corner of Anchorage’s Government Hill neighborhood, on the edge of the bluff. Visitors can peek between the trees from the park and see the Knik Arm, port, trainyards, and downtown Anchorage. Due to its panoramic view, the immediate area had been a resident and tourist destination long before it became an official park in the late 1950s. The “totem pole” in the park is a former telephone pole carved by a local Boy Scout troop.
In 1959, it was named Brown’s Point Park after longtime residents Jack and Nellie Brown. The Browns married in Cordova in 1912 and quickly relocated to the mouth of Ship Creek. The following year, they built a cabin on the creek flats. When the Alaska Engineering Commission arrived to construct the Alaska Railroad in 1915, the Browns lost their prime location along the creek but soon claimed a homestead on Green Lake north of town. After proving up, they moved back into town but kept the homestead through World War II when the Army claimed the land. The Browns received $2,500 in compensation. Nellie said, “They were worth more than that, but we wanted to do our part. Besides, we believed that, after the war was over, we could repurchase our land. However, that never became possible.”
Jack worked for the railroad, and Nellie did a bit of everything, including running a diner for a while. They were local celebrities, friends with all the important people and a consistent quote machine for any curious visitor or journalist. Thus, the park was named in their honor while they were still alive, a rare accomplishment. Jack died in 1972, and Nellie followed him in 1978.
At the end of the tiny road into the tiny park is a stone memorial for Stuart “Stu” Hall (1935-2005). A longtime Government Hill activist, the lawyer and former state ombudsman worked tirelessly to support and improve his community, even to the very end. Seventy years old when he died, he had sent at least 30 emails on neighborhood concerns in his last week.
As the memorial notes, Hall “trod this path many times with dog Pal at his side.” A sidewalk was installed with the embedded footprints of a man and dog. Today, you can follow those steps just as Stu and Pal did so many times before.
Longtime residents might recall when Dave Rose Park in east Anchorage was called Conifer Park. First developed as Conifer Park in the 1980s, the park was renamed in 2006 in honor of Rose (1937-2006), the former member of the Anchorage Parks and Recreation Commission, City Council, Borough Assembly, and Municipal Assembly, among many other civic organizations. He was also the first executive director of the Permanent Fund.
Ruth Arcand Park, with an entrance on Abbott Road between Lake Otis Parkway and Elmore Road, was named for Ruth Henry Arcand (1918-1997) on July 23, 1985. As Mayor Tony Knowles wrote in a memorandum to the Assembly, “If it had not been for her individual work and her influence with clubs and organizations, this park would not be available for the enjoyment of the people of Anchorage.
Arcand moved to Anchorage in 1947 and married in 1953. That year, her husband, George, urged her to advocate for a park near their homestead. He would often remind her to save a park, but the time never seemed right. A park never seemed like a pressing issue until she saw an article about nearby land to be auctioned off. That land, which became Ruth Arcand Park, was then state land known as Section 16 and intended for private development. She instantly began her campaign to preserve the land as a park.
She wrote letters, spoke at countless meetings, gave tours, drummed up community support, steered organizations to her whims, formed coalitions, and cajoled every legislator in reach. In 1971, she told the Anchorage Daily Times, “This is one of the most beautiful pieces of land left in the Anchorage area. It has all of the natural vegetation and ground cover native to this area and it should be preserved.
In 1983, her efforts were rewarded, and the property was set aside to become a park. Over the years, many others had fought in the same crusade, but none could say they had worked harder or longer than Arcand. And so, in 1985, the new park was named after her, somewhat to her dismay. She told the Times, “I’ll be embarrassed whenever I see my name on the sign. Just saving the land is reward enough. But it’s an honor.”
The land for Tikishla Park, north of Chester Creek in Airport Heights, was purchased as a partnership between area residents and the city in the 1970s. Development began in 1983, and the first playground was dedicated in 1985. “Tikishla” is a mangled version of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina “ghedishla,” meaning a black bear.
Michael J Shibe Park, south of Raspberry Road and east of Jewel Lake Road, was originally named Gladys Wood Park after the former teacher and principal Gladys Wood (1916-1970). She moved to Anchorage in 1950 and began teaching that year at Denali Elementary. Shibe (1956-2005), a longtime community volunteer, was killed in a tragic 2005 accident at the national Boy Scout Jamboree. On Jan. 24, 2006, the Anchorage Assembly voted to rename the park after Shibe. Since the nearby school was still named after her, Wood’s family did not object to the new park name.
Then there is Balto Seppala Park, nestled between Wisconsin Street and Milky Way Drive. It was named in 1981 and developed in the mid-1980s. All good Alaskans know that the name refers to the legendary dog and his owner, musher Leonhard Seppala. By the time the park was created, Seppala had been dead for over a decade, but his lack of participation is apparent from the name alone.
Seppala was already a well-known sled dog racer and breeder when a severe diphtheria outbreak struck Nome in 1925. While adults are susceptible, children are at the greatest risk of infection, and the town’s only doctor had run out of the necessary serum. Isolated as Nome was by geography and winter, the residents faced the ugly possibility of having to watch their children choke to death as infected tissue swelled and blocked their airways.
Dog sleds were the only viable method of long-distance transportation left. And Seppala promptly departed for Nenana, where a shipment of serum awaited. His favorite and most trusted dog, Togo, was at the lead. Seppala intended to travel the entirety of the circuit himself, but in the wake of his departure, a relay was built that ultimately included 20 drivers and around 150 dogs. Still, Seppala, Togo, and the rest of the dog team drove the longest and most dangerous leg of the relay.
Yet, of Balto, Seppala, and Togo, Balto is the most recognizable name today. Seppala bred, named, raised, and trained Balto but did not race with him. Nor did he pick Balto for his serum run team. Balto was among the leftover dogs used by musher Gunner Kaasen on the last leg of the serum run. When Kaasen entered Nome, Balto was at the lead and thus received an outsized portion of the fame from the journey.
This outcome did not sit well with Seppala. In his 1930 memoir, he described Balto as just a “scrub dog.” He did soften his critique by noting, “I hope I shall never be the man to take away credit from any dog or driver who participated in that run.”
To be clear, Balto was a very good boy, but he was no Togo. As Seppala preferred and treasured Togo during the latter’s life, so would he have preferred a park name that associated him with his most beloved dog, not one of his rejects. As he also said in his memoir about the Balto statue in New York’s Central Park, “I resented the statue to Balto, for if any dog deserved special mention, it was Togo.” In the same way, he would have resented the naming of Balto Seppala Park.
“Balto Not Nome Hero Dog; Seppala Says Husky Named Fox Was Leader of His Team.” New York Times, March 9, 1927.
Beardsley, Nancy. The Park Book: A Brief History of Parks in Anchorage. Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department, 2006.
Chandonnet, Ann. “Saving Our Wilderness. Anchorage Times, June 21, 1986, C-1.
Government Hill: Yesterday and Today. Anchorage: Municipality of Anchorage, Community Development Department, Planning Division, 2012.
Hunter, Don. “Park Named for Fallen Scout Leader.” Anchorage Daily News, January 25, 2006, B-1, B-3.
“Park Work is Assigned.” Anchorage Daily Times, August 7, 1971, 2.
“Persistence Produces Public Park.” Anchorage Times, July 25, 1985, C-1.
Ricker, Elizabeth M. Seppala: Alaskan Dog Driver. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1930.
Van Horn, Walter, and Bruce Parham. “Brown, John Matthew ‘Jack’ and Nellie Shepard.” Cook Inlet Historical Society, Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940, 2014.
“World ‘Plot’ Planned Here.” Anchorage Daily Times, March 16, 1959, 7.