The Map
All Articles
Resource Timeline
The Vision
Nuts & Bolts


John W. Godwin and his Glacier in Resurrection Bay

by Doug Capra © 2015, reproduced with permission.

““…as every ethnographer eventually comes to appreciate, geographical landscapes are never culturally vacant. Filled to brimming with past and present significance, the trick is to try to fathom (and here, really, is where the ethnographic challenge lies) what is it that a particular landscape may be called upon to ‘say,’ and what, through the saying, it may be called upon to ‘do.’” (p.102)
-Keith H. Basso in “Speaking with Names”: Language and Landscape among the Western Apache.” Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 3, No. 2 (May 1988), 99-130.

He rarely favored his private office, especially for business meetings -- although by 1900 he was a prominent businessman in Seattle and one of the leading Democratic politicians in Washington State. During campaign season, he usually got into “the thick of the fight,” the Yakima’s Ranch and Range noted.

“His favorite place of doing business,” they observed “is perched on an apple box in front of the store. Here he oversees receipts and shipments…” His enterprise was a wholesale fruit and vegetable consignment store in the midst of Seattle’s business district. Sitting atop his apple box, he “jollied” (entertained) and bargained with the Italian farmers and spoke pidgin English with the Chinese gardeners.

“Here he meets his political henchmen,” the Ranch and Range wrote, “and during campaign times from his seat on the apple box he about runs the whole city Democratic campaign.” He was a power broker in the Pacific Northwest with many interests, including some in Alaska.

That’s why John E. Ballaine – when he organized the Alaska Central Railway (ACR) and selected Resurrection Bay as its starting point – made Godwin a trustee on its Board of Directors. From his apple box perch he had created other companies like the Alaska Fisheries Union, a salmon cannery and packing enterprise, and the Ballard Light Company. He was a man with business and political connections, a man who could get things done, and a man who could raise money. And in 1902, the ACR was busy selling stock with large ads placed in newspapers across the country. To help with credibility, the promotion included short bios of the company’s trustees, including J.W. Godwin.

“Although he has a pretty busy time of it,” the Yakima newspaper noted of Godwin, he was always “wearing a smile and ready to swap jokes.”

Across from Seward behind the ship dry dock and up Fourth of July Creek, you’ll find a glacier named after him. As you leave the Seward boat harbor and head out into Resurrection Bay, it’s the first glacier you encounter – often pointed out to visitors on boat tours.

Naming anything makes a cultural statement. It is an activity of actual and/or symbolic possession. The name of Godwin Glacier tells us more about the purchase, possession and resource development of Alaska than it tells us about Godwin himself. It mattered little whether the Sugpiaq or the Athabascan or the Russians or the Lowells had named the landscape around Resurrection Bay. What mattered was getting the necessary capital to move a railroad over 400 miles north toward the coal and gold fields. To do that, corporate promoters needed those with power and influence. And if it took honoring a business partner by naming a portion of the landscape after him – then that’s what would be done.

But it wasn’t the glacier they named after him – that came later.

Donald J. Orth’s Dictionary of Alaska Place Names says the glacier was named by U.S. Grant in 1910 after the stream that drains it which used to be named Godwin River (Sometimes misspelled as Goodwin River in sources).

U.S. Grant and D.F. Higgins, from Northwestern University, on summer contracts with the USGS, worked in the Prince William Sound area from about 1905 through 1912 studying geology and glaciers. They published several bulletins. One of their assignments was to rename places with common names. They traveled through Resurrection Bay and what is now Kenai Fjords National Park mapping, photographing and changing place names. Once Godwin Glacier appeared on the USGS maps, the name became embedded in the local landscape.

John Ballaine’s surveyors most likely named the river we now call Fourth of July Creek for Godwin during their work to determine where to begin his railroad. We first see Godwin River renamed Fourth of July Creek in 1910 on one of Dr. David. H. Sleem’s maps. Few in Seward knew Godwin, and to my knowledge he never visited Alaska. By 1910 the name meant little to the town’s settlers. Sleem may have named it Fourth of July Creek because July 4th gatherings were sometimes celebrated there, perhaps because at that time of year the party could last all night due to the amount of daylight. Sleem was a physician and cartographer involved in many activities in early Seward. His detailed and colorful maps are extremely valuable.

John E. Ballaine incorporated the Alaska Central Railway Company on March 30, 1902 under the laws of Washington State. The project mission was to survey a route and “possibly build a railway line from the southern coast of Alaska to the interior of the country.” They hoped to reach the Tanana or Yukon River. Their goal was to reach the coal fields in the Matanuska-Susitna area. In addition to himself and Godwin, Ballaine appointed six other members on his Alaska Central Railway Board of Trustees.

John W. Godwin was born on August 23, 1860 on a farm at what is now Bloxom, Virginia in Accomac County, one of thirteen children of O.W. and Elizabeth (Bloxom) Godwin. A farmer, his father had fought for the Confederacy in a Virginia company during the Civil War. Young Godwin was educated in the local common schools and worked with his father at farming until he was twenty years old. He then went to work for two years as a general store clerk at Modest Town, Virginia. His next job, at a fruit and produce house in Philadelphia, attracted his interest and gained him the experience he needed to open his own business a few years later. It was also in Philadelphia that he probably met his future wife.

Not long after gaining knowledge in the commission business in Philadelphia, he soon struck out on his own in partnership with his brother G.W. Godwin -- at 305 King Street in Wilmington, Delaware J.W. Godwin & Company: Fruit and Produce Commission Merchants purchased from farmers and hunters and distributed berries, peaches, apples, potatoes, butter, eggs, poultry, feathers, hides, game, fish tallow, dried fruits, hay, beans, peas, and nuts. Five years later he sold out to his brother.

In 1890, the year following the great Seattle fire, Godwin moved to that city where for thirteen years he established successful fruit and produce commission company. For the first four years, he had no competition. Between 1898 and 1902, his business doubled and was increasing twenty percent yearly. His trade covered Washington, British Columbia and Alaska. He also imported bananas from Central America and distributed them throughout his territory.

“His block on First Avenue {Seattle} is a brick one,” according to Representative Citizens, “sixty by one hundred and twenty feet, which was built for stores and is thus occupied on the first floor. The upper floors were used as a hotel. Clarence Bagley’s History of Seattle notes that Godwin had a wide circle of friends and enjoyed the “warm regard of all he has come in contact.” In 1903 he sold out to J.B. Powers & Co., perhaps because his business interests turned more toward Alaska.

John and Frank Ballaine also lived in Seattle and no doubt associated with Godwin in business and probably socially. The Ballaines were planning a railroad from some tidewater port in Alaska into the interior and needed money to hire surveyors to determine the best port to begin their enterprise. By 1902 they had organized the ACR and were soliciting investors.

Building a railroad in Alaska required considerable capital. To raise that capital the Ballaines required the help of wealthy and influential people who had both business and political connections. J.W. Godwin was a perfect choice. He was a member of many powerful organizations – the St. John’s Lodge, A.F. & A.M (Ancient Free and Accepted Masons), a past master; the Seattle Commandery, K.T. (Knights Templar); the Mystic Shrine; the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks; the Seattle Chamber of Commerce; and the Arctic Club. Godwin owned much property in Seattle and was a well-respected member of the community.

The Ballaine surveyors had determined that Passage Canal (now Whittier) had too many glaciers blocking the route; Valdez, had too many right of way issues; the silt and freeze up of Cook Inlet made Ship Creek unfavorable; Cordova and other areas presented different problems. Only Resurrection Bay -- a deep, ice-free port with a trail system north that was becoming known as the Seward to Nome Winter Trail also had a small but active settlement. This route would allow the Ballaines to tap the resources of the Kenai Peninsula as the rails headed north toward valuable coal country.

After accepting his position as trustee of the ACR, in February 1902 Godwin married Ella Dickinson in Philadelphia where she lived. The couple returned to Seattle. The 1910 census shows the couple living with Ella’s mother, Hannah Dickinson. Another member of the ACR Board of Trustees was G.W. Dickinson, superintendent and general manager of the Northern Pacific Railway between 1889 and 1897. It’s probable Ella’s family was related to him. In addition, another trustee, Elmer E. Caine (after whom Caines Head is named – Should it be Caine’s Head?), owner and general manager of the Pacific Clipper Steamship Company, built a steamship in 1890 called the G.A. Dickinson. It could be coincidence, but it’s also possible there were some interesting family connections among members of the ACR’s trustees.

In addition to his business interests, Godwin also represented a powerful influence within the Seattle Democratic Party between 1896 and 1907. He was not only a delegate to county and state conventions, but also to the Democratic National Convention in 1900 when populist William Jennings Bryan received his second nomination for President.

In 1902 he got the nomination to run for mayor of Seattle. “Mr. Godwin swept the primaries like a cyclone,” The Seattle Republican noted, “and it is conservatively estimated that there will not be eighteen delegates in the convention against him.” Local Republicans readily admitted his political power and charisma.

“The Republican wishes to announce right here that J.W. Godwin, who is one of Seattle’s leading and most influential business men, is going to make one of the hardest fights for mayor that any Democratic nominee has ever done in Seattle, and if he is not crowned with…success…it will be because his Republican opponent will be more popular than he, and this is saying a good deal.”

The party newspaper warned local Republicans: “The man who has been as successful in business enterprises as has been J.W. Godwin would certainly make an ideal mayor for any city, and the Republicans of Seattle had better look well to their laurels in nominating a candidate for mayor or they will find that Mr. Godwin will sweep the field at the polls…”

The newspaper was concerned because the Seattle’s Republican Party was badly divided and the Democrats were united around Godwin. They expected the Republican nominee to confront the “hardest tussle for his money that has ever before been given in this city.” Godwin lost that March 4, 1902 election in a close race. In 1904 he tried for a councilman’s seat in the Fourth Ward and lost again by a small margin. The Republican Party had a tight hold on Seattle politics.

In 1909 Godwin established another fruit and produce store in Seattle with A.E. Winamaker. He sold out his interests in that enterprise in 1914 and retired. According to Bagley’s history, by that time Godwin owned much stock in the Dexter Horton National Bank and owned quite a bit of Seattle property. Bagley noted that “his extensive and judicious investments” assured him “a most gratifying annual income.”

As far as I can determine, Godwin never ventured to Alaska to see his river and glacier or get to know the town across the bay. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t take long for Seward locals to lose any personal connection with that name. Just like us today, they couldn’t attach the glacier to a face and a real human being.

Godwin Glacier reminds us today of the important role Seattle has played in Alaska history, and how capital for resource development in Alaska was so dependent upon outside sources as it is even today.

John W. Godwin died in Seattle on August 4, 1928. Thirteen years later, on July 13, his wife Ella died. There was no notice of his death in the Seward Gateway.

Doug Capra, who arrived in Alaska over 50 years ago, lives in Seward and is the author of The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords. He has written the foreword for several books, including a 1996 edition (Wesleyan University Press) of American artist Rockwell Kent’s Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska (1920). Capra has written a play about Kent, and another about Nellie Neal Lawing, (a.k.a.) Alaska Nellie. He has also published poetry, essays, plays, and many articles about Alaska history. A draft of his book about Rockwell Kent can be found at A draft of another of his books – The Last Homesteaders – can be found at where it was published in 37 installments between early June 2021 and February 2022. It's the true story of a young couple -- John and Ginger Davidson -- who represent the back-to-the landers who came to Alaska in the late 1960s and 1970s when the Open-to-Entry land program was available. In 1977 they and their three-year-old son were lost as sea as they left Seward in their 20-foot vessel to return to their homesite at Driftwood Bay in Day Harbor, about 25 miles from Seward.


The following newspapers contained useful information: The Seattle Republican. Jan. 24, Feb. 21, 1902. Ranch and Range (Yakima, WA). July 12, 1900; May 1 & 8, June 5, July 3, 1902; Peninsula Enterprise (Accomac, VA). Nov. 23, 1889. The Minnesota Farmer. June 1, 1902. The Bismarck Tribune (Bismarck, ND). Oct. 11 &16, 1902. The Saint Paul Globe (Saint Paul, MN). Aug. 31, Sept. 21, 1902. The Minneapolis Journal (Minneapolis, MN). Aug. 22, 1903. I have found little information about Godwin in the Seward Gateway.

U.S. Census records between 1880 and 1930 were helpful, as were Washington State Select Death Certificates, 1907-1960. Both are available online. Information from Godwin’s estate can be found at

Godwin’s photos and biographical information is available from Men of the Pacific Coast: Containing portraits and biographies of the professional, financial and businessmen of California, Oregon and Washington 1902-1903. Pacific Art Company, 1903 More information can also be found in A Volume of Memoirs and Gelealogy of Representative Citizens of the City of Seattle and County of King Including Many of Those Who Have Passed Away. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1903.

The history of the Alaska Central and the Alaska Northern Railways and the Ballaines involvement in those enterprises – especially all the legal battles -- is extremely complicated. One summary can be found online in James Wickersham’s Alaska Reports: Containing Decisions of the District Judges of Alaska Territory from January 1, 1914 to January 1, 1918. Volume 5, published In St. Paul, MN by the West Publishing Company in 1918. It’s important to consider, however, that Wickersham represented the Ballaines in some of those legal fights.

John E. Ballaine became extremely bitter in response to the court cases described in the above volume as you can see from the title of his version of events in the following manuscript. Although he maintained considerable stock, Ballaine sold out control of the ACR early on and later claimed those in charge misspent and squandered the construction money. See Alaska Central – Alaska Northern Railway: Review of It’s History, the Wrecking of the Property Under the Frost Management the Receivership and Dishonest Reorganization – Mystery of the Employment as Agent by the Canadian Owners of O.G.Laberee Swindling and Grafting Operations for Many Years Are Known to Them and His Amazing Larceny in Connection With Alaska Coal Lands. Seattle, Washington, March 31, 1911.

As always, the first volume of Mary Barry’s history of Seward provided valuable contexts – although she provides little information about John. W. Godwin.