All About the Upper Kenai: History of a Beautiful Land

The Upper Kenai is rich in beauty, and in history. Read about the land you plan on visiting before you even get there. From the gold rush to native heritage, there is a lot you can learn, and your newfound knowledge will come in handy if you land a guest services job with us.

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  • Fisheries were thriving here before Alaska was even a state.
    Settlers were hustling to build fish camps in the Upper Kenai since the early 1800s, building fish traps and canneries. The first European visitors were Russians, who tried to convert Native Alaskans to the Russian Orthodox faith.

    From 1836 to 1839, a smallpox epidemic killed half of the native Dena’ina population in the area.

    Commercial fishing in the area boomed during World War II as government rations limited protein to citizens. Fishing was so intense during that time that fisheries had begun to steadily decline as early as the late 1940s.

    Athabaskan and Alutiiq Native groups had lived in the Kenai Peninsula for thousands of years, but the first European visitors to stay did so because they discovered gold. Although early Russians discovered the gold, they proved more interested in the fur trade.

    Much of the Kenai gold rush was based on bluff.
    The earliest gold discovery was in 1848—and was not made up. But rumors of how much gold lay in the upper peninsula were greatly exaggerated, leaving many prospectors out of luck.

    The Kenai was still central to attracting settlers through mining, fishing and fur trading. But as important as fishing and fur trading were, historians hold it was the value of gold mining that formed the basis for pressing the government to support infrastructure in the area.

    The Kenai Peninsula has only produced less than 140,000 ounces of placer gold in the last 100 years, hard rock mines producing a bit more.

    Native cultures of the Kenai have a long, rich history passed down by word of mouth. Today archeologists are finding corroborating evidence in ancient settlement sites and dwellings. One tradition was to leave tools, food and firewood behind in a dwelling called barabaras, in case someone were to take shelter there.

    The origins of the name “Kenai” aren’t completely clear. The U.S. Geological Survey holds that it probably came from the Russian word Kenayskaya, which they used for the Cook Inlet. But some think it might be descended from a Dena’ina word meaning an open meadow, or flat area without trees.

    Though not the largest salmon fishery itself, the Kenai fisheries are famous for the size of its king salmon—often record breakers.

    The Upper Kenai is worth visiting even just for recreation, but a little knowledge of its history will deepen your enjoyment if you stay or work at the Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge. Whether you’re into fishing or native culture, knowing a bit of the place’s story will make your experience just that much deeper. Want to learn more while you’re here? Explore the local museum and log cabin homestead at Cooper Landing.