Since this column’s topic is history, it will start with Chugiak-Eagle River’s beginning. Let’s consider how we came from when there was nothing but ice, rocks, plants and animals.
The first inhabitants were descendants of nomadic people who migrated across a land bridge from western Eurasia to North America. Those people settled on the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea coast. Their successors explored to the south and east in search of fish and game. Other ancient people traveled from this continent’s southern locations, looking to expand their means of sustenance.
Becoming prominent in Southcentral Alaska was the Athabaskan tribe, its people ranging from Prince William Sound and the Pacific Coast to the upper reaches of the Matanuska, Susitna and Knik rivers.
Native settlements grew along the shores of Cook Inlet where fish and game were plentiful. We learn from Marjorie Cochrane’s history of Chugiak-Eagle River, “Between Two Rivers,” that a stone lamp, pottery and a copper pin dating back ten centuries have been unearthed by archaeologists on the western side of Knik Arm. By 1650 Tanaina (now known as Dena’ina) Indians were settling in Upper Cook Inlet, more than a century before that waterway was explored by the man whose name it was still to be given.
The Dena’ina had major settlements on both shores of Knik Arm (Nuti in their tongue), one at Eklutna and the other at Knik.
During the 1700s, Russian explorers claimed the western coast of North America, including land from California to Alaska, and took possession of what they called Russian America. In 1741, a Russian expedition under command of Danish explorer Vitus Bering sighted the Alaska mainland. Forty-three years later, Gregory Shelekhov founded a colony on Kodiak Island. In 1799 Aleksandr Baranov established the Russian-America Company and was granted by the czar a trading monopoly over Alaska.
The Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries to Alaska to establish schools and churches. One of those churches was at Eklutna. A log church, thought to have been built about 1830 at Knik before being taken apart and moved to Eklutna in 1870, was named in honor of St. Nicholas. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the oldest standing structure in the Anchorage area.
Midway through the 1800s, Russia encountered financial difficulties resulting from a difficult war and insufficient monetary return from its vastly expanded empire. Envoys approached United States Secretary of State William Seward and offered to sell the area that was to become Alaska. A treaty was ratified in April of 1867 and the United States became the owner of 149,908 million acres of land at a cost of $7.2 million—two cents per acre.
After the purchase, the Army sent several expeditions to the new possession to explore and map the vast area. Some leaders of those expeditions are memorialized by highways or towns named for them. Among them are Captain Edwin F. Glenn, Lt. Henry T. Allen and Capt. Miles Richardson. Glenn was in command of an expedition that explored the Cook Inlet area. In one instance, his men were in danger of starving until found by a group of Natives who provided them with food. In return, Glenn was revered as a medicine man because of his successful treatment of some ill and injured people.
During the gold rush at the end of the Nineteenth Century, the Cook Inlet area was flooded with prospectors. Mining camps sprang up at Bird Creek, Hope, and Sunrise. A transportation route, now known as the Iditarod Trail, connected the Seward Peninsula with the fresh water port at Seward. That trail traversed Eagle River Valley, linking with Girdwood through Crow Pass. Knik became a major settlement marking a resting point for travelers and in the summer served as a port for steamers bringing supplies for the miners.
20th Century makes big impact
It was the early part of the Twentieth Century that marked a turning point eventually establishing this area as the most populated portion of Alaska.
In 1914 Congress authorized the construction of 470 miles of railroad between Seward and Fairbanks. Coal deposits in the Matanuska Valley were a highly desired asset and had been the impetus for three attempts by commercial interests to build a railroad. One of those had extended track from the seaport to the edge of Knik Arm. The government took over that project, making the Ship Creek anchorage its base of operations. Ships brought supplies up Cook Inlet, unloading them at the landing at the mouth of the creek. A route was selected and right-of-way established through the Matanuska coal fields to Fairbanks, at that time Alaska’s largest city.
Many of the miners who had been attracted to Nome and Turnagain Arm decided to obtain and settle on homesteads. Those were located close to the shores and were cleared for farming.
During the late 1930s, war clouds rose over Europe when Nazi Germany invaded surrounding countries. The United States was recovering from the Great Depression that had begun in 1929 and set to rebuilding its defense system. A military reservation was created outside the new city of Anchorage, buying out several of the homesteads on what was to become Fort Richardson. Construction of the installation brought a major influx of workers, with the Anchorage area fast becoming the most populated part of the territory.
At the time, Alaskans remained isolated from the Lower 48 states, with transportation limited to water-borne vessels. World War II changed that. The United States was drawn into the war when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. Japanese forces invaded the Aleutian Islands in June of 1942. The Alcan Highway was rushed to completion over the next year, providing a road link from the Outside to Alaska. Airfields were set up throughout the territory to service Lend-Lease aircraft being flown from American factories to Russian fields to aid our ally in the fight. The population swelled as more workers were brought in.
When victory was declared in 1945, the importance of Alaska’s top-of-the-world location was realized and defense of the nation continued as a major impetus. Relations with our Russian neighbor had soured and the large nation to the west was a threat. Alaska military installations were enlarged and expanded. The highway was improved and commercial airplane connections were made. Propeller-driven DC2 passenger aircraft could make the flight from Anchorage to Seattle in just 12 hours with a favorable tail wind.
1947 settlers establish Chugiak
Post-war opening of travel allowed more people to come to Alaska, adding to the number of military members and civilian workers employed here. In 1946, several families obtained home sites north of Fort Richardson. Federal land was surveyed and the Bureau of Land Management opened tracts for settlement. Those were eagerly taken up by the workers and returning service members.
In February of 1947, more than 50 families from the area between Fort Richardson and Goat Creek on the Palmer Highway gathered to make decisions about how to better their lives. Fire protection was a major concern. Utilities were needed. There were no schools other than in Anchorage or Palmer. There was not even a name for the burgeoning community.
At the February meeting, the name Chugiak was chosen for the area represented. After many proposals for names mostly recognizing owners of local business establishments, “Johnny” Johnson offered the winner. He presented the argument that Chugiak was the original Athabascan name for the mountains that bordered the community, one which had been corrupted to “Chugach.” Adopting Chugiak as the name, he argued, would correct the error. His reasoning prevailed and Chugiak became the official name. This writer has never attempted to fact-check Johnson’s argument, believing the version as passed down here is better than any that might be discovered.
For a time, this area Alaska’s fifth-largest
Chugiak-Eagle River’s growth has been phenomenal. In 1971 it was the fifth-largest community in Alaska. From only a few families in 1947, the population has now expanded to around 35,000. The Eagle River portion has become the larger, representing two-thirds of the total. That could change with the development of huge tracts of vacant land in the northern section.
Under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act passed by Congress and signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1971, the descendants of aboriginal residents became the largest private land-holders in Alaska. The Eklutna Village members received 90,000 acres of land within Anchorage and tens of thousands more in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. The corporation formed under ANCSA, Eklutna, Inc., controls that land and has developed several subdivisions. Its leaders have chosen a conservative approach to development and set high standards for land use. Its most recent subdivision project is Powder Ridge stretching from the North Eagle River intersection to South Birchwood Loop. It is proposing to build a large commercial development at the North Eagle River intersection with Old Glenn Highway.
The first school, Chugiak Territorial School, opened in 1951. Designed for 50 students, there were 75 waiting on opening day. Today there are six elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools provided by the public school system and several private schools, as well as a Chugiak-Eagle River campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Residents petitioned Matanuska Electric Association in 1950, asking the cooperative to extend power to Chugiak after the City of Anchorage refused to allow connection to their lines passing through from the Eklutna power plant. MEA continues to serve Chugiak-Eagle River. Telephone service was extended by the Matanuska Telephone Association cooperative in 1957, with their dial instruments replacing Army surplus field telephones wires strung through the woods between houses.
Chugiak-Eagle River was absorbed into the Greater Anchorage Area Borough in 1964 under the Mandatory Borough Act. It had a brief fling at independence when the Alaska Legislature passed an act authorizing an election to secede from the GAAB and form a separate borough. The Chugiak-Eagle River Borough was to assume powers on July 1, 1975, but on April 15 of that year the legislation authorizing the election was declared by the Alaska Supreme Court to be unconstitutional. Despite heavy opposition from Chugiak-Eagle River, the GAAB and three cities within its boundaries were unified into the Municipality of Anchorage in 1975. Under the municipal charter, two seats on the 11-member municipal assembly are held by residents of Chugiak-Eagle River. Geographically, it takes up approximately one-half of the municipal land area.
Next week we will look at some of the pioneers who helped bring us from then to now.