By Clark Fair
Alaskans may be accustomed to the idea of fireworks on Independence Day, but about 30 years ago, Miles Dean got more bang for his buck than he bargained for.
The problem began in June 1978, when John Swanson decided to install propane in his cabin, called the Cliff House, on Tustumena Lake. Swanson, the owner of Peninsula Building Supply, who in 1960 had become the new city of Kenai’s first mayor, wanted gas-powered lights and a gas-powered cook stove in his place. But after the installation, something was wrong.
According to his son-in-law, David Letzring of Kasilof, Dave Donald went up on the lake in late June and discovered a leak in the system. Donald turned off the valve on the propane tanks and returned to Kenai to notify Swanson. A short time later, Letzring himself went up on the lake with Swanson’s son, Ron, and they, too, found the system in need of repair.
“We went in there, and yeah, you could smell the propane,” said Letzring. “We turned it off. And I told John about it, too. John says, ‘I’ll go up there and fix it up.’
“This was June-something, and Dean went up there on the Fourth of July. And he goes in and turns the gas on and lights the lights, and he built a fire in the woodstove. And then he got in his boat and went over to Clear Creek to fish.
“And the Cliff House ceased to exist. The metal roof was almost to the glacial flat. Pieces of the place were in the lake. It was all over. There was nothing left. It blew up. It was just like a little bomb.”
A piece of Kenai Peninsula history that may have dated back as far as 1910 vanished in the destruction.
Both Gary Titus, a historian for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and George Pollard, who has lived in the Tustumena area since the late 1930s, agree that the original builder of the Cliff House was August “Gust” Ness. The first historical mention of the structure can be found in a 1921 entry in the diary of big-game guide Andrew Berg, who lived on Tustumena Lake in the early 1900s.
Ness selected an ideal location for his log structure: near the back end of Devils Bay, on a small point of sandy land just below a set of cliffs that inspired the name and provided shelter from glacial winds. Protected also by a stand of spruce along the northern and eastern sides, the cabin was a haven from nearly all bad weather. According to Pollard, it was vulnerable only to a strong wind out of the southwest.
The cabin door faced roughly west toward the cliffs, near the entry of a trail to Tustumena Glacier. The picture window faced in a southerly direction, and Pollard remembers that he could sit at the table by the window and watch bears feeding on Clear Creek less than a quarter mile away.
By the 1960s a steep metal roof with a long gable over the front porch provided protection from the rain and easily shed the snow. Loads of sand were dumped as insulation in the open, empty space between roof and ceiling boards. Letzring remembers that after a night in the Cliff House, he needed to brush off his sleeping bag because sand continually sifted through the boards.
By the 1970s, the southern exterior wall was draped with several sets of moose antlers. The eastern wall, too, featured an array of trophies, including at least two bear hides.
When Ness died of a heart attack in 1937, the cabin passed into the possession of Tony Johansen, whom Titus, Pollard and Letzring believe was either Ness’ nephew or his son. According to “Alaska’s No. 1 Guide,” by Titus and Catherine Cassidy, Johansen, via his mother’s first marriage, was the son of Mary Ness. The book also states that when Mary wed Gust in about 1924, she was known as Mary Demidoff Johansen, suggesting that perhaps in this union Gust became Tony’s stepfather.
Tony hung onto the Cliff House until 1951, the year Swanson reported purchasing the cabin, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service records. According to “Once Upon the Kenai,” Swanson moved to Kenai in 1952, but he was in Kodiak for many years, and later in Anchorage, prior to the move and may have made the purchase then.
The Cliff House was considered Swanson’s property for most of three decades. At the time of the explosion, no one was living permanently on the lake any longer. When Tustumena Lake passed from being part of the Chugach National Forest to part of the Kenai National Moose Range in 1941, federal officials allowed individuals living on the lake to stay in homes on unpatented land until their deaths. No new cabins were allowed on refuge land, however, and many of the old cabins either deteriorated badly or became the temporary facilities for hunters traveling up into the hills for big game.
Gold miner Joe Secora was the last of the numerous old-timers who once could be found living year-round on the lake, and his death in a plane crash in 1972 signaled an end to an era.
But the obliteration of the Cliff House was not the end of this particular story, at least according to Letzring. He said Swanson came to him in August 1978 and told him he had unwritten permission from the refuge to rebuild the cabin.
“He says we can rebuild it, but we gotta get it done right now, this year,” Letzring said.
Titus is skeptical of Swanson’s claim. To allow a single instance of building or rebuilding a private cabin on the refuge, he said, is to “open a can of worms.”
“I don’t think so,” Titus said. “If that would have been done, it would have been illegal because that was federal land. If you give one person permission to do that, you’d have to give everyone permission.”
When Bob Richey, who was the assistant manager of the moose range at the time, learned recently of Swanson’s claim, he said, “I have never heard that. I can’t believe that is likely, and I think I would remember.”
Whether Swanson truly had permission to rebuild, plans to do so moved forward, Letzring said. Swanson and a handful of his friends — most notably George Calvin and Chuck Raymond of Kasilof — began gathering materials and storing them in Raymond’s Quonset hut on the Tustumena Lake road. Letzring said they were waiting for winter snow and freezeup so they could use snowmachines to haul in the materials over the ice.
And then the best-laid plans went awry. Late that year, Swanson was diagnosed with liver cancer and traveled Outside for treatment. Without his leadership, Letzring said, the heart went out of the rebuilding effort.
“The spark plug wasn’t there,” he said.
Swanson died in 1982, and to this day the small sandy point remains devoid of a cabin, which is how the federal government plans to keep it. According to Richey, who said he spent many nights at the Cliff House in his 26 years with USFWS, the greatest loss in the destruction of the cabin was not the structure itself, but the log book inside that was also destroyed. That book, he said, contained a wealth of names and histories that can never be fully recovered.
The fireworks on that particular Fourth of July were something to remember.