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Before taking an unexpected break 90 years ago, Mount Marathon was a showcase for Native teens

  • Author: Doug Capra
  • Updated: July 1
  • Published June 30

Brothers Ephraim, left, and Inikenti Kalmakoff at the Jesse Lee Home sometime in the 1920s. Both earned victories in the Mount Marathon Race, and Ephraim held the race record for nearly 30 years. (Courtesy of Jacqueline B. Pels)

One of Alaska’s biggest sporting events, Mount Marathon won’t happen this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. First held in 1915, the famous Seward race has been canceled on 13 previous occasions, most recently in 1942 because of World War II. This two-part story looks at the 1931 race, the last before a seven-year gap between races from 1932-38. Part two will be published Wednesday.

Teenaged Willie Kanyak liked to rock the boat, and in 1931 he rocked the Mount Marathon Race with a surprise win in what turned out to be, for unknown reasons, the last race until 1939.

Months before, visions of victory were unlikely.

The sky over Seward sparkled with an outstanding “Ku-eu-it,” or northern lights display, on the night of Dec. 4, 1929, but it did little to soothe the boys and girls with mumps at the Jesse Lee Home.

The residential newspaper — the Kueuit — was named after the aurora, and in 1929 it reported on the outbreak:

“The mumps are with us yet. Every little boy in C Dormitory has had them now except Nicolai Tutiakoff. The B boys have nearly all succumbed, also a number of A boys. It is slowly going the rounds of Goode Hall. And the nurses are kept busy making soups, Jell-o, custards and ice cream. Willie Kanyak hopes for the time he may chew again.”

The next year, 16-year-old Willie played basketball for the Jesse Lee Home, a residence for Alaska Native children who were either orphaned or in need of care. It opened in 1887 in Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands and moved to Seward in 1925.

Willie’s teammates included Ephraim Kalmakoff, Benny Benson, Andy Peterson, William Lyons and Alec Conn. In 1928, Benny had won the territorial contest to design Alaska’s flag. If that wasn’t honor enough for the home, that same year, Ephraim not only won Seward’s famous Mount Marathon Race, he broke the record with a time of 52 minutes, 35 seconds. Andy Peterson came in second.

Ephraim Kalmakoff at Race Point on Mount Marathon, circa 1930. The photo is from the scrapbook of Edith Neese, a teacher at Seward's Jesse Lee Home from 1930-34. (Doug Capra collection)
At left, a September 1925 special issue of the magazine published by the Woman’s Home Mission, the group that operated the Jesse Lee Home. At right, a page from the Sept. 1930 issue of the Kueuit, the newspaper put out by the home's children. (Courtesy of Jacqueline B. Pels)

In 1929, Ephraim won for a second time, Benny came in second and William Lyons was third. In 1930, Ephraim won again, becoming the first runner to win three years in a row (Ephraim’s exact age is unknown. Records indicate he was between 14 and 16 years old the year he broke the race record). Alec Conn placed second and Lyons third.

The Jesse Lee Home boys were dominating the Mount Marathon Race. By 1931, Willie Kanyak may have figured it was his turn. His school had a reputation to maintain.

Like many teenage boys, Kanyak had a touch of mischief in his soul. A few summers before, the local Shriners agreed to take some children from the home on a train ride to Kenai Lake for boat rides. The home’s staff gathered the children and some snacks and walked to the lake.

Rosabelle Groth recalled: “Mr. Hatten (Rev. Charles Hatten, head of the Jesse Lee Home) assigned me to a boat and one of the big boys rowed for us, but one mischievous boy named Willie Kanyak began rocking the boat … There must have been 10 kids in that boat with me.”

By the spring of 1931, Willie was a robust 17-year-old in great physical shape, and he decided to challenge the mountain. Ephraim and Alec were going to run too, so he didn’t expect to win. But maybe he would surprise them all. Willie liked to rock the boat.

The Jesse Lee Home in Seward, circa 1927. The boys’ dormitory is at left and the girls dormitory is at far right. The school is in the middle. (Doug Capra collection)

Seward planned a special two-day celebration for the 1931 Fourth of July, with the Mount Marathon Race as the main event, but held on the 3rd. On June 30, the Seward Gateway announced it would not publish on the holiday and joked about the dangers of a two-day event: “A two-day holiday looks bad for any printing plant because the question arises, will the crew be able to return to their duties Monday.”

With two big dances scheduled, the newspaper was rightly concerned. Organizers planned a big parade with decorated bicycles, doll buggies and wagons and awards for best costumes. Gus Manthy had a 12-piece band ready to go and its first number would be “They’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Home Town Tonight.” The American Legion sold small American flags for 25 cents.

There would bicycle, scooter, potato and three-legged races; pie eating, apple diving and nail-driving contests. There would be 100-yard and 50-yard dashes for both boys and girls and two baseball games. The Seward Giants would play both the Moose Pass Terriers and the crew of the Geodetic Survey steamer U.S.S. Discoverer.

The Alaska Railroad sold round-trip tickets from any points for reduced rates, and Seward hoped to attract visitors from all along the rail belt. Celebrations would begin the evening of July 3 with a Jitney Dance. “Jitney” was slang for a nickel, and these dances were often fundraisers, with couples buying five-cent tickets for each dance.

At the center of it all was the Mount Marathon Race, which was about to go on an unexpected and unexplained seven-year hiatus.

Doug Capra lives in Seward with his wife, Cindy. He’s the author of “The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords.” This story is a revision of one that ran in the July 1, 2015 issue of the Seward Journal. Capra used many sources to compile this story, but he wants to especially thank Jacquelin Pels, whose second volume of the history of the Jesse Lee Home was most helpful.


Seward Library-Museum Archives; Seward Gateway archives; Jacqueline B. Pels history of the Jesse Lee Home, “Family After All: Alaska Jesse Lee Home (Seward, 1925-1965);” Sept. 199 Alaska Sportsman “all you have to do is run up that mountain,” by Frances B. Currier; 1952 Seward Seaport Record article by Justin Jay Stauter; and the author’s personal files and research.

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