The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly chambers were pretty full Friday afternoon. But not for some committee meeting or budget presentation. The Borough’s Land Management division kicked off a series of brown bag lunch events, focused on the history of the Peninsula and what the future could look like. Long-time resident Al Hershberger shared just a few of his many photos of the modern building of the Kenai.
There’s a good chance you’ve seen some of Al Hershberger’s photos before, somewhere. Or maybe heard some of his stories. Every so often, he’ll bring out his laptop and a projector, and share a handful of the many beautiful Kodachromes he took while working on the Alaska Road Commission more than 60 years ago. I’ve heard him speak before, and I’ve seen many of the photographs, but the stories are different, and you’ll learn something new each time. Like, how did Wildwood Station start out? Think back to the late 40’s, and the country we were paying lots of attention to. This was all kind of hush-hush at the time, but the government was looking for the best spots to listen to the Soviets.
“During the winter, later on that year, I happened to be in Hal Thorton’s Terminal Garage, and Captain Nolan came in. So, we chatted for awhile, and I asked him what he was doing. He said ‘I just got back from Kodiak. We are going to build an installation. And it’s going to be either in the Kenai area or a location on Kodiak Island. The decision is up to me. And I’m right now inclined to put it in Kenai because the fishing is better here than at our place in Kodiak.’ That’s why we have Wildwood Station.”
Many of the photos that inspire these stories were taken by Hershberger. But some were taken by others; homesteaders who were new to the Peninsula in the late 40’s and early 50’s or folks who grew up here. Or both.
“That’s Sig Krogstad on the right, with a fire extinguisher in his hand and Jeanne Jackinski on his left. George and Jeanne had just gotten married. George grew up in Ninilchik and Jeanne had never been to Alaska, this was her first trip. They got on the plane in Anchorage and took off, just the two of them and Sig. They got over Point Possession and the cabin started filling up with smoke. They landed at Point Possession on the beach, Sig grabbed the fire extinguisher, put the fire out, George took the picture, then they got back in the airplane and went on. Jeanne today still talks about her first impression of Alaska.”
Hershberger and his contemporaries saw a lot of firsts. The first oil discovered in the late 50’s. The first home in the state hooked up to natural gas. The first television broadcasts out of Anchorage. And also the booms and busts here over the years. Al remembers when things first started picking up, and how quickly it happened.
“Early ’52 is when it really started booming. I had been outside for the winter. The last winter I spent outside as a matter of fact. I went out in ’51 and got my commercial pilot’s license and came back in ’52 and when I came back, Kenai was totally different. In six months’ time, it was…everywhere!”
That growth across the Peninsula is evident in his photos, particularly a series of aerial shots over Soldotna, when the only thing visible around the Kenai River was the bridge and the Sterling Highway. The last photo he presented was from the same vantage in 2008, some six decades later. And while the change in the landscape is drastic, the major focal point of the Kenai River remains.