Part of a pursuit weekly series on Alaskan history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about the history of Anchorage or Alaska or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Every park in Anchorage, all 223 of them, was named for a reason. Most have been named for admirable reasons, to remember notable residents or to reflect the environment. Then there’s Balto Seppala Park, which is said to have irritated its namesake – Seppala, not the dog. A few weeks ago I came up with the backstory of 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 isn’t included here, rest assured it will be featured in the future.
Brown’s Point Park is on the southwest corner of the Government Hill neighborhood of Anchorage, on the edge of the cliff. Visitors can peek between the trees in the park and see the Knik Arm, harbor, train stations, and downtown Anchorage. Due to its scenic views, the immediate area was a resident and tourist destination long before it became an official park in the late 1950s. The park’s “totem” is an old 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 were married in Cordova in 1912 and soon moved to the mouth of Ship Creek. The following year they built a cabin on the plains of the creek. When the Alaska Engineering Commission arrived to build the Alaska Railroad in 1915, the Browns lost their prime location along the creek, but soon claimed a farm on Green Lake north of the city. After proving themselves they moved back to town but kept the farm during 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. Also, we thought that once the war was over, we could buy back our land. However, this never became possible.
Jack worked for the railroad and Nellie did a bit of everything, including running a restaurant for a time. They were local celebrities, friends with all the important people, and a consistent quoting machine for any curious visitor or reporter. Thus, the park was named in their honor while they were still alive, a rare achievement. Jack died in 1972 and Nellie followed him in 1978.
At the end of the small road leading to the small 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 about neighborhood concerns in his last week.
As the memorial notes, Hall “walked this path many times with the dog Pal by his side.” A sidewalk has been installed with the inlaid footprints of a man and a dog. Today you can follow these steps like Stu and Pal have done so many times before.
Longtime residents may remember 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 city assembly, among many other 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 note to the Assembly, “Were it not for his individual labor and 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 property. He often reminded her to save a park, but the time never seemed right. A park never seemed like a pressing issue until she saw an item on a nearby lot up for auction. This land, which became Ruth Arcand Park, was then state land known as Section 16 and intended for private development. She immediately began her campaign to preserve the land as a park.
She wrote letters, spoke at countless meetings, organized tours, garnered community support, ran organizations on her whim, formed coalitions, and cajoled every lawmaker at her fingertips. In 1971, she told the Anchorage Daily Times, “It’s one of the finest lots left in the Anchorage area. It has all the natural vegetation and ground cover native to this area and should be preserved.
In 1983, his 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 he had worked harder or longer than Arcand. Thus, in 1985, the new park bears his name, somewhat to his dismay. She told The Times: “I will be embarrassed every time I see my name on the sign. Merely saving the earth is reward enough. But it’s an honor. »
The land at Tikishla Park, north of Chester Creek in Airport Heights, was purchased as a partnership between local residents and the city in the 1970s. Development began in 1983 and the first land in game was inaugurated in 1985. ‘Tikishla’ is a mutilated version of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina ‘ghedishla’, which means a black bear.
Michael J Shibe Park, south of Raspberry Road and east of Jewel Lake Road, was originally called Gladys Wood Park in honor of 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 accident in 2005 during the National Scouts Jamboree. On January 24, 2006, the Anchorage Assembly voted to rename the park after Shibe. As the nearby school still bore his name, Wood’s family did not object to the new name of the park.
Then there’s Balto Seppala Park, tucked 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 its owner, musher Leonhard Seppala. By the time the park was established, Seppala had been dead for over a decade, but his lack of involvement is apparent from the name alone.
Seppala was already a well-known sled dog racer and breeder when a severe diphtheria epidemic hit Nome in 1925. While adults are susceptible, children are most at risk of infection and the only physician in the city had run out of the necessary serum. Isolated as Nome was by geography and winter, residents faced the dire possibility of seeing their children suffocate to death as infected tissue swelled and blocked their airways.
Dog sleds were the only viable means of transportation over long distances. And Seppala set off promptly for Nenana, where a cargo of serum awaited him. His favorite and most reliable dog, Togo, was in the lead. Seppala intended to run the entire circuit himself, but following his departure a relay was built which eventually included 20 riders and around 150 dogs. Still, Seppala, Togo and the rest of the dog team rode the longest and most dangerous leg of the relay.
Yet of Balto, Seppala and Togo, Balto is the most recognizable name today. Seppala raised, named, bred and trained Balto but did not race with him. He also didn’t choose Balto for his serum racing team. Balto was among the remaining dogs used by musher Gunner Kaasen in the final leg of the Serum Race. When Kaasen entered Nome, Balto was in the lead and thus received an inordinate share of the fame of the journey.
This result did not sit well with Seppala. In his 1930 memoirs, he describes Balto as a mere “brushing dog”. He softened his criticism, noting, “I hope I’m never the man to take credit away from any dog or handler who’s been in this race.”
To be clear, Balto was a very good boy, but it wasn’t Togo. As Seppala favored and cherished Togo during the latter’s lifetime, he would have preferred a park name that associated him with his most beloved dog, not one of his offspring. As he also said in his memoir about the Balto statue in New York’s Central Park, “I resented the Balto statue, because if any dog deserved special mention, it was Togo.” Similarly, he would have been unhappy to name the park Balto Seppala.
“Balto Not Nome Hero Dog; Seppala says Husky named Fox was the leader of his team. New York Times, March 9, 1927.
Beardsley, Nancy. The Park Book: A Brief History of Parks in Anchorage. Anchorage Department of Parks and Recreation, 2006.
Chandonet, Ann. “Saving Our Wilderness. Anchorage Times, June 21, 1986, C-1.
Government Hill: Then and Now. Anchorage: City 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 a public park.” Anchorage Times, July 25, 1985, C-1.
Ricker, Elizabeth M. Seppala: Alaskan dog handler. Boston: Small, 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.
“The global ‘conspiracy’ planned here.” Anchorage Daily Times, March 16, 1959, 7.