After the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, the new possession was explored by those curious about its potential for furs, minerals, and settlement.
In what now is Chugiak-Eagle River, the Eklutna Natives remained isolated and mostly undisturbed as they continued to live their lives as they had for many centuries before the United States came into existence.
That began to change at the end of the Nineteenth Century when prospectors found gold at the northern end of nearby Cook Inlet, coupled with other discoveries along the Yukon River. Tens of thousands of people were attracted by the glitter of the golden sands. Opportunity aplenty awaited them at every turn.
Looking to promote their town as the best year-round port giving access to Alaska’s bounty was the Seward Commercial Club. They engaged Jujiro Wada, an experienced musher widely known in Alaska, to guide Alfred Lowell, Dick Butler, and Frank Cotter on an expedition to map a route leading to the Seward Peninsula. That party in 1908 developed what became the Iditarod Trail, traversing Eagle River Valley and which became popular with travelers.
Two or three roadhouses were established along the trail that crossed from Crow Pass to Eagle River.
One of those establishments was owned by Sam Clapper. In his “Nuggets and Beans,” Harold Peckenpaugh noted that meals cost $2 and another $2 paid for a night on blankets spread over wild hay on a pole bunk. It was expensive, but Peckenpaugh noted that “a cabin in the shadows of Mt. McKinley is a long way from civilization.”
The trail was used as a mail route and for hauling freight by dog sled. It also was used to transport gold. Bob Griffis, a mail carrier whose route had been between Kotzebue and Nome, was hired by the Miners and Merchants Bank in Iditarod to take $250,000 worth of gold to Seward. He and two guards arrived there with their three teams on December 17, after 37 days on the trail.
Fire Lake, whose name came from the profusion of fireweed that spread from its shores, attracted John and Elsie Siebenthaler to file on a 161.58-acre homestead that took in the land surrounding the lake. A carpenter, Siebenthaler had been hired by the Navy in 1920 during construction of a coaling station at Chickaloon in the Matanuska Valley. His brother, Frank, and wife Fina four years later filed on an adjoining 158 acres which included what now are known as Psalm and Beach lakes. There they established a mink farm.
Also in 1924, the Bureau of Indian Affairs established the Eklutna Industrial School for orphaned children. Three-story dormitories for boys and girls, shops, a hospital and a gymnasium/warehouse were built for students brought from around the territory. The school was to operate for several years.
Elmer T. Smith of Illinois was a carpenter at the Eklutna school and was appointed by President Warren G. Harding as postmaster of the fourth class post office in 1920.
Sometime in the 1930s, Lars Nyberg filed on 160 acres in what now is downtown Eagle River.
He built a home that much later was moved to make way for the Tesoro gas station at Eagle River Loop and Old Glenn Highway. The yellow exterior frame house still rests a short distance away and was visited by Nyberg’s granddaughter during a nostalgia visit several years ago.
The Nyberg property was bought by Walter Pippel, one of the original Matanuska colonists. Pippel had a falling-out with the colony managers, arguing that the cooperative setup was “communist” because all shared equally in the proceeds of farm sales. Those who were better farmers produced more than those who were inexperienced or who put in less effort, he complained.
Pippel, who came from Minnesota, moved his wife Melva and their children to the Eagle River home built by Nyberg and farmed the area now located within the Business Blvd. loop. They raised a full range of vegetables which were sold to Anchorage stores.
Ken Laughlin filed on 160 acres adjacent to the Siebenhalers at Fire Lake in 1934 and built a cabin there which remained for many years. Laughlin was hired as organist at the Empress Theatre in Anchorage, playing mood music during the silent picture shows. When construction began on the Palmer Highway in 1934, Laughlin opened what became the first “fast food” restaurant in Eagle River. He sold sandwiches and coffee to workers and later to travelers passing by.
Melva Pippel told Marjorie Cochrane, author of “Between Two Rivers,” that residents of Anchorage and Palmer were “very excited to have someplace to go” now that the highway connected the two cities. The road was narrow, rough, and “just the awfullest road,” but was welcome indeed.
In 1938 Jack Cobol filed on a 160-acre homestead a little south of Nyberg’s. A portion of the Iditarod Trail cut across a corner of the property. He later was to sell the homestead to Glenn Briggs, a man who was to become a prominent businessman and leader who contributed much in this community’s development. He will be described in more detail in a future column.
Other than at scattered homesteads and the Eklutna village, few people called this area home.
One exception was the generation plant of Anchorage Light & Power east of the village. A collection of log cabins near the large concrete structure housed the families of employees Frank M. Reed, son of the plant owner, and his wife Maxine; Percy and Florence Bergt and their children; the Charlie Wilsons and their offspring; and Walter and Mary Erickson and their daughter and son.
The power plant drew water from a spillway atop an earthen dam on the Eklutna River, funneled through a 1,900-foot tunnel to drive turbines located in the powerhouse. The dam was well more than 100 feet below the road. Debris frequently clogged the intake and it was necessary to climb down and back up a metal ladder that lacked side rails or surrounding protection. Mary Erickson described it as extremely nerve-wracking when her husband performed that climb under hazardous winter conditions.
Those listed so far include the early settlers who owned homesteads. There also was one squatter.
A character now remembered only as Eagle River John lived in a cabin alongside Eagle River, just above the trestle bridge that supported the railroad tracks across the stream. Manufacture and sale of liquor was illegal during the Prohibition years 1920 to 1933. He distilled the illegal liquid and bottled it in his cabin, then loaded it into his skiff to be floated through the treacherous rapids on the lower stretches of the river to Knik Arm and on to Ship Creek. From there the intoxicating elixir made its way to the speakeasies or homes of his customers.
John’s illicit business career ended when an assailant attempted to make off with the contraband liquor. John shot the intruder, was charged and thereafter took sojourn at McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington State.
This brings us to the second turning point in Alaska’s history—World War II. It was that which marked the founding of Chugiak.