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Kenai Peninsula

History

For millennia, Dena'ina Indians made the Kenai Peninsula their home, as did Alutiiqs in the south and Chugaches in the east. They largely subsisted as many modern residents do: by pulling fish from the area's bountiful waterways. In 1741 Vitus Bering, a Dane sailing for the Russians, was the first European to lay eyes on the peninsula; in 1778, British explorer Captain James Cook sailed up the inlet that would bear his name, landing north of the present-day city of Kenai and claiming the area for England. Despite that, the first white settlement on the peninsula was Russian, which was St Nicholas Redoubt, founded at the mouth of the Kenai River as a fur trading post in 1791. Orthodox missionaries arrived soon thereafter, and many of the local Alaska Natives were converted to that faith.

When Alaska came under American rule in 1867 the US established Fort Kenay near where the redoubt had stood. The sur- rounding settlement endured as a commercial fishing village until 1957, when the nearby Swanson River became the site of the state's first major oil strike. Kenai has been an oil town ever since.

To the south, Homer was founded, and picked up its name, when Homer Pennock, an adventurer from Michigan, landed on the Spit with a crew of gold-seekers in 1896, convinced that Kachemak Bay was the key to their riches. It wasn't, and Pennock was soon lured to the Klondike, where he also failed to find gold. Three years later, however, the Cook Inlet Coal Field Company established the first of a succession of coalmines in the area. It was fishing, though, that would come to dominate the town's economy for most of the 1900s.

Seward, meanwhile, got its start in 1903, when settlers arrived plotting construction of a northbound rail line. Once the Alaska Railroad was completed two decades later, this ice-free port would become the most important shipping terminal on the Kenai Peninsula. The city also served as the southern terminus of the 1200-mile Iditarod National Historic Trail to Nome, long a major dogsled thoroughfare via the Interior and Bush. In WWII the town got another boost when the US Army built Fort McGilvray at Caines Head, just south of town.

The 1964 Good Friday Earthquake hit Seward hard. After the earth finally stopped churning, oil tanks exploded and tsunamis rolled through, ravaging the town. With the bridges, railroad and boat harbor gone, Seward was suddenly cut off from the rest of the state. Homer suffered too: the quake dropped the Spit by 6ft and leveled most of the buildings. It took six years and almost $7 million to rebuild.

Since then tourism has boomed on the Kenai Peninsula, turning the region into Alaska's premier playground for visitors and locals, and becoming a key engine of the region's economy.