Historic cabin moved for study, protection

Vandals, disrespectful visitors, salty air damaging structure

Posted: Wednesday, August 26, 2009

KENAI - The Watchman's Cabin on the northern side of the Kasilof River's mouth has seen a lot of residents and visitors in the last 120 or so years, and sadly not all of them have been kind to the endangered historic structure.

Joseph Robertia / Peninsula Clarion
Joseph Robertia / Peninsula Clarion

In addition to natural erosion from elements and the briny air, summer campers and fishermen annually squat in the cabin. Others have pulled down boards and logs to use for firewood at their own campsites. Vandals have spray painted the walls with graffiti. And, a few unsavory folks have even used the interior of the building for a latrine.

"It was taking a severe beating. There was just a total lack of respect for our history," said Gary Titus, a historian for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, who was among roughly two dozen volunteers that took part in a cabin raising party recently for the Watchman's Cabin.

It was the first step in moving, restoring and preserving the historically significant structure, which has long sat in a bureaucratic limbo that prevented these actions from happening sooner.

"The technical owner of the land is the Alaska Department of Natural Resources," said Kasilof Regional Historical Association board member Catherine Cassidy, but she added that the property the Watchman's Cabin resides on also has been designated as School Trust land, which does not allow for the property to be identified as park land, which would have aided those interested in preserving the cabin onsite.

"We couldn't get administrative control of the land, and we couldn't restore it on land that wasn't ours, so we did the next best thing," Cassidy said.

Kasilof Regional Historical Association sought to move it, and in July, the Department of Natural Resources' Division of Mining and Water gave permission for the cabin to be transported 5.5 miles to the Kasilof Regional Historical Association museum grounds on Kalifornsky Beach Road in Kasilof, where roughly six other historic structures - in addition to numerous outbuildings and caches - already reside for preservation purposes.

The state will retain ownership of the cabin, but Cassidy said, "There it will be restored and hopefully one day moved back when the land issue is resolved."

Alan Boraas, anthropology professor at Kenai Peninsula College, said he believes in the relevance of preserving the structure for the future to better understand the past of this area.

"This is one of the oldest structures on the Kenai Peninsula," he said, and added that through the Watchman's Cabin historians will be able to tell the tales of the early days of the commercial fishing on the peninsula, as well as the story of the Industrial Revolution spreading north.

Boraas said in 1882, the second cannery in Alaska was built at the mouth of the Kasilof River, forever changing the cultural landscape of Cook Inlet by reallocating salmon resources into the hands of Outside interests.

The Watchman's Cabin's came shortly thereafter. The exact date is unknown, but it was believed to have between 1882 and the late 1890s.

"During the summer months the structure served as the residence for the cannery's superintendent, one of the earliest of which was Harry M. Weatherbee," Boraas said.

Weatherbee was probably the most important person on the peninsula during that time period, since he would have been in charge of hiring and firing people, and largely been responsible for maintaining law and order.

The Watchman's Cabin reflects this power, since for the period it was built it was nothing short of a mansion. With a later addition, the total structure is 33-feet wide by 35-feet long, and has two stories and seven rooms. There are several large windows to let sunlight in throughout the day, which was uncommon during a time when it was difficult to heat buildings, and evidence indicates wallpaper - another extravagance for the era - covered the interior.

Weatherbee was a photographer and made many photographs of the structure and area during this time, many of which currently are on display in the Walter Ward Building at Kenai Peninsula College. After Weatherbee vacated the building, it was used to house the winter watchmen who were hired to live there and ensure that the owner's investments were protected from vandals and thieves.

The cannery was closed during the Great Depression, and the house saw its last occupant a couple decades later.

"Odman Kooly is believed to be the last watchman, and he lived there into the '50s," Boraas said.

The Watchman's Cabin also tells more than the cultural history of the area, it also can give historians insight into what ethnicity built the structure, according to Titus.

"A real craftsman built this," he said, and explained the reason is a very unique type of notching to the logs of the original structure.

"It's a step-and-latch notch from Bohemia. It's the only one I know of on the Kenai Peninsula. A dovetail - which is more of a Finnish-Swedish notch - is much more common in this area," Titus added.

As to when it was built, samples will be taken from the logs for dendrochronology, which will give a more exact date for when the trees were cut into logs for construction of the structure, Titus said.

The strong construction will allow the main cabin to be moved as is in October, but the newer addition to the cabin will come off, after each log and board is systematically cataloged, in case it too is restored.

"We're still debating that," Titus said.

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