Unlike other countries who came north largely to chart and explore the vast new territory, the Russians came to Alaska to explore and to establish firm claim to the land by building permanent settlements. Grigor Shelikhov, a Siberian merchant, built the first Russian settlement on Kodiak in 1784. Shelikhov hired Alexander Baranov and in 1792 ordered the building of ships in the new colony. Baranov entered the inlet he chose for the shipbuilding site on Easter Sunday, 1793 and named it "Voskrensenskaya Gavan," - Resurrection Bay. Storehouses, living quarters, and a palisade were constructed somewhere in the Bay area. The PHOENIX, the first Russian ship built in what was to become America, was launched in August, 1794. (Barry I: 17-19) No confirmed artifacts from this historic shipbuilding site in Resurrection Bay have been found to date.
A small party of the United States Geological Society (USGS) which was exploring Alaska from Cook Inlet northward to discover a route from tidewater to the Tanana River, landed at Resurrection Bay on May 30, 1898. It was lead by Lt. H.G. Learnard. Also in the party were Mr. Bagg and Walter C. Mendenhall of the USGS. One of the routes to the Turnagain Arm gold fields at Sunrise and Hope, founded in 1895, began at the head of Resurrection Bay.
Several results of this 1898-1899 exploration were significant for Seward's future. This party mapped the trail from Resurrection Bay to Turnagain Arm and the Crow Creek to Eagle River route. The reports influenced the development of the railroad route from Resurrection Bay to the head of Turnagain Arm and along the north side of the Arm, and also lead to the establishment of the Iditarod dog team trail.
Although the founding of Seward is dated from the August 28, 1903 landing party headed by the Ballaine brothers, the founders of the Alaska Central Railway, there were early settlers prior to 1903. Mail and supplies for the gold fields in the Hope-Sunrise area were landed here as early as the 1890's. Later this included Nome and Iditarod.
Frank Lowell and his family settled on Resurrection Bay in 1884. Mrs. Lowell, who was of Russian and Native extraction, and several children and their spouses, had homes in what became part of the original townsite. Frank Lowell decamped to Kodiak and remarried prior to the coming of the Ballaines and the railroad. Nothing of Lowell homesite remains, but sites such as Lowell Point, Lowell Canyon, Lowell Glacier, Mt. Alice and Mt. Eva commemorate their place in Seward's history.
Seward's footprint was determined by a survey drawn up by C. M. Anderson, Civil Engineer, and signed by Frank Ballaine on behalf of his brother John Ballaine, founder of the Alaska Central Railway. The plan laid out city blocks divided by wide streets and bisected by alleys as neatly and precisely as a railroad surveyor could make them.
The original townsite proceeded from the waterfront to seven lots beyond Monroe Street and from First Avenue at the foot of Mount Marathon and Bear Mountain to the sea. There were 40 blocks and 1211 lots (some were truncated by the curve of the shoreline.) Each lot within this townsite was 30' wide by 100' long. The street bordering the south side of town was named Railway Avenue and each of the other east-west streets were named for the first Presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. The North/South avenues were named First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh (now Ballaine Blvd).
Frank Ballaine dedicated the streets and avenues to public use, reserving the right to construct and operate railways, telegraph and telephone lines, gas and water mains, and tunnels or other excavations on the streets. The plat was recorded on June 7, 1905 and with a few exceptions continues to this day. (Barry 1986)
By the time the plat was recorded, Seward's earliest settlers, many of whom had arrived on the steamer SANTA ANA in 1903, had built a thriving town. Millionaire's Row, a series of larger homes on Third Avenue, were built and occupied by Alaska Central Railway officials by 1905. Many of these early homes and apartments such as the Ballaine House, Hale House, Cameron House, Holland House, Winter, Stewart and Williams Houses and Harborview Apartments still stand in Seward today.
Home Brew Alley, a collection of small houses on lower Second Avenue, housed several of the early settlers. This area fell victim to urban renewal after the 1964 earthquake and there are no extant buildings from this unique area of town.
With the exception of Anchorage, which also began as a railroad terminus, Seward is unique in Alaska for its conformation and compact downtown business section. In many ways Seward resembles small railroad towns in the rest of the United States rather than its sister cities in Alaska which often have meandering streets and spread out business sections.