The Jesse Lee Home for Children is the second of three child welfare institutions in Alaska to bear the name. The first was established at Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands in 1890. The home was moved to Seward on Resurrection Bay in 1926. Following damage to the home in the 1964 earthquake, the Jesse Lee Home was relocated to its present location in Anchorage in 1965.
Agnes Soule was a territorial teacher assigned by Sheldon Jackson, territorial education superintendent, to work in Unalaska. Through correspondence with her father, a Methodist bishop in Maine, she organized funding for a two-building orphanage. Bishop Soule recommended the name Jesse Lee to honor a pioneer Methodist preacher of the colonial northeastern United States.
In the late teens and early 1920s, several factors lead to the closing of the Unalaska Home. The pandemic Spanish influenza wiped out entire Alaska Native coastal villages during 1918-1919. The Unalaska facility was filled to overflowing. The home was old and in serious need of repair. In addition, transportation of children and supplies had become very unreliable and expensive.
Seward was elected largely because it was Alaska’s largest port and transportation point. It was believed that the costs of supplying the facility would be lower because of the regularly scheduled freight and passenger links with Seattle.
The home appears to have averaged 120 children. Although some accounts indicate this number was much higher in the early years, enrollment records have not been located. Some children were not orphans, but were placed in the home because their parents were in the tuberculosis sanitariums in several locations around the state. Most children came from the Aleutian Islands (Aleuts) or the Seward Peninsula (Inupiaqs) but children from all races and regions were represented.
In March of 1964, a massive earthquake rocked Southcentral Alaska causing widespread damage. Goode Hall, the largest Jesse Lee building, was heavily damaged and later condemned and demolished. The Methodist Church decided to close the Seward building and re-open a new home in Anchorage.
In 1966, the Methodist church deeded the Jesse Lee Home to the city of Seward, who eventually sold the property to private owners. Today, after being abandoned for nearly 40 years, the property is again owned by the City of Seward.