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The Old Jesse Lee Home for Children

Seward, Alaska The cold, snowy forest regions of Alaska do not seem particularly hospitable to human life. With permafrost below the ground and dense trees blocking the sunlight, one might be surprised to find, nestled outside a city like Seward, an abandoned orphanage. Crossing onto the property, there’s an instant melancholy, a feeling of loss and pain. It is obvious that these buildings have not been occupied in many years. But then a sound, a giggling child, is heard across the main yard. It is joined by other voices, more than could easily be hidden around a corner. Soon those giggles are replaced by shouts of joy and the whipping sound of jump-ropes hitting the dirt. It isn’t the cold Alaskan air that raises the hair on the arms or the nape of the neck. It’s a cold chill that starts from the inside and works its way outward as you realize, whether you can see them or not, you are not alone.

There are many incidences that can cause a haunting. Horrific deaths, strong emotions, or simply lost souls tend to leave impressions on things in the physical world. Some hauntings are mere echoes, remnants of those who passed through any given place. Still others are souls that are greedy for more life than their fair share. Finally, there are those who were taken too soon, cut short in life before it really got under way. Unable to understand what has happened to them, the children simply stay. Many children, it seems, still walk the grounds of the old Jesse Lee Home for Children in Seward, Alaska.

History:
The Jesse Lee Home for Children actually originated in 1890 in the Unalaska region. The Women’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church opened the doors to the building as a school for educating young natives. The school, run out of their home by Professor John Tuck and his wife, soon began taking in unfortunates in the desolate area. Because of the area and the difficulties encountered by settlers, they began to help disadvantaged children, orphans, and children from broken homes. Many of them came to live in the orphanage as a result of the influenza epidemics that were rampant across the land claiming both their parents. Legend tells that the name, Jesse Lee, was actually that of a beloved traveling preacher. The school was named for him because of his love for the children and his unwavering generosity toward them. Because of difficulties getting supplies to the school, it was moved in 1925 to Seward, where it flourished. With more than seventy children and a staff of ten adults, the home was an important area of learning and care for the children.

In 1927 the home gained notoriety through one of its students, a thirteen-year-old boy named Benny Benson. Benson entered a contest to design Alaska’s state flag and won. On August 9 of that year, the Jesse Lee Home was honored to be the first location to have his flag officially raised. Over the years there have been several notable alumni of the Jesse Lee Home, artists, composers, and the like, with all of them giving credit for their successes to the care and support and nurturing they received at the orphanage. During World War II the home served as temporary barracks for soldiers.

In 1964, on Good Friday, tragedy struck the school in the form of natural disaster. An earthquake, one of the worst seen in Alaska at the time, rocked the land and toppled some of the walls of the dormitories. More than a dozen children were killed. With much of the school damaged or destroyed, the Alaskan government decided to move the school once again to its current home in Anchorage. The old buildings, however, were simply left standing, an eerie reminder of the lives tragically lost.

Ghosts:
Visitors to the site of the old Jesse Lee School have reported numerous strange phenomena. From the moment one sets foot on the grassy lawn, there is a feeling of sadness that cannot be ignored. There have been dozens of reports from tourists and conservationists alike of the sounds of giggling children coming from behind every corner. When a person goes to investigate, the sources of the giggles are nowhere to be found. Additionally, several have claimed to hear the sounds of balls bouncing, jump-ropes whipping against the sidewalks. There have even been reports of running footsteps that speed past the living, followed by shouts of joy as if there are several children engaged in a spirited game of tag.

Present Day:
The site of the historic Jesse Lee Home is in a terrible state. Many of the original buildings are simply falling down, victims of decay and neglect. While it is possible to visit the site, it is not advisable to get close to several of the buildings.

A movement has started among those who once lived in the home to have it preserved. They are currently seeking funds to have the buildings stabilized and, eventually, renovated so they may serve as a museum and provide insight into the historic importance of the Jesse Lee Home and its residents. In 1995, it was listed in the National Registry of Historic Places for the critical role it played in serving the health care and educational needs of children orphaned during a wave of devastating epidemics.

Whether the buildings survive or not, the legacy of the Jesse Lee Home is evident even today. When the home was moved to Anchorage, it slowly changed into the Alaska Children’s Services, who still provide comfort and education to children state-wide. The organization still gives credit to its humble beginnings in Unalaska, and continues to thrive in the spirit of the original school.

Best Times:
While the buildings are falling and it seems that time is running out for the haunted Jesse Lee Home of Seward, this may not be the case. Through several groups and government entities, the buildings left standing may gain a new lease on life. Soon, they are to be reopened as a museum and a testament to a bygone age.

See you in two weeks!

- Scott A. Johnson

Original artwork by Bill "Splat" Johnson

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