SEWARD — In many ways, the celebration was typical. July 4 fell on Wednesday a century ago, and Seward was ready, even though rainy weather was expected. Baseball games highlighted the event, although Seward's premier team would play at Cordova. Since the Alaska Railroad was under construction, a crew from Kern Creek – the Turnagain Arm Team – challenged the Seward players left at home. A fundraiser for the local Red Cross, the series would run through Sunday.
Other traditional activities included a men's 220- and 100-yard dash; three 50-yard dashes for boys and girls between 10 and 16; and potato, sack and three-legged races. Boxing matches were scheduled, but a new competition was drawing attention.
(Race times Tuesday: Juniors 9 a.m., women 11 a.m., men 2 p.m.)
A race up Lowell Mountain was only two years old. Back in 1915, people already called it the "mountain marathon," which eventually morphed into a new name for the peak. This "most important annual sporting event," the Seward Gateway wrote in 1917, "will be sure to attract the usual attention and other events." Several girls climbed the marathon mountain to a Forget Me Not patch and descended with handfuls of flowers for decorations.
On the surface, the July 4 celebration looked ordinary. But beneath, the holiday was different. Two months earlier, on April 6, 1917, the U.S. had declared war on Germany. When the war started in 1914, Americans considered it a European struggle and none of their business. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson campaigned to keep America out. That became impossible after Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare followed by an attempt to convince Mexico to join its side, promising to return – upon victory — territories lost during the Mexican War.
In Seward, the holiday began at 6 a.m. with a 21-gun salute. The grand parade started at Adams Street by the bay. Led by a Spirit of '76 drum corps, it proceeded to Third Avenue (now the Seward Highway). Spanish-American War veterans followed. Red Cross members, promoting their fund drive, marched behind as the parade turned left at Third and trooped toward Washington Street. The spectacle turned left at Washington and headed up Broadway (Main Street).
Once on Broadway, the parade stopped for a reading of the Declaration of Independence and patriotic songs. Then everyone took a lunch break.
Short races began at 1 p.m., followed by the baseball games, all in the rain. The Seward Mountain Marathon started at 5 p.m. There was no registration back then – you just showed up.
Before the war, American exceptionalism, progress and patriotism went hand in hand. Popular music reflected the mood. After August 1914, a popular song was "I didn't raise my son to be a soldier." After April 1917, it was "It's Time for Every Boy to be a Soldier." When the war began, some savvy military experts said it would like jumping off a cliff in the dark. The less savvy thought the conflict would be over by Christmas. The first national military draft since the Civil War was underway in the U.S. – unpopular in most locales. This time it was wisely called the Selective Service and local draft boards controlled it rather than the military.
Several runners challenged the Seward mountain, though there's no record of exactly how many. Two young Russian railroad workers took top honors. Tom Hardoff won in 57 minutes, 39 seconds, and Henry Sargo followed. Runners with last names of Madson and Taylor came in third and fourth. Officials recorded only the winning time and just the names of the first four runners to finish.
"Considering the day and the wet course," the Seward Gateway wrote, "better time was made last year when the race was run in 56 over a dry course."
But this year, even revelers flying colorful box kites were chased inside by the rain. Temperatures the next few days were the hottest of the year — 79 degrees on Saturday and 76 on Sunday. Seward won the baseball game in town – "Cotter's Cripples" vs. "Kennedy's Kickers." The local team was probably dubbed "Cripples" because they consisted of players not good enough travel to Cordova.
The day's celebration ended with a costume ball at the Arctic Brotherhood Hall.
War news continued to dominate the Seward Gateway's front pages, and everyone knew that soon Alaska's boys would be "over there" experiencing the rats, lice and muddy trenches of France, some facing screeching machine gun fire or poison gas. Within a year – between the influenza and the war — the casualty lists would highlight newspaper front pages.
Seward's July 4 festivities were a typical celebration on the surface. But beneath the external patriotic fervor, fear and uncertainty ran deep. The United States was now involved in the Great War.
Doug Capra writes from Seward. He is the author of "The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords." He is currently writing a book about the American artist who lived on Fox Island in Resurrection Bay during 1918-1919, called "That Infinite and Unfathomable Thing: Rockwell Kent's Alaska Wilderness."