Last week we looked at a dozen or so families who moved to the wilderness area north of Ft. Richardson and took out Chugiak, home sites or business sites.
The land had been surveyed by the Bureau of Land Management and made available for settlement. To gain a title, the claimants were required to build a habitable dwelling, live on the land for six months, and show proof. Considering the hardships involved, anyone thinking of this as “free” land was badly mistaken. The acreage was dearly earned.
The people who settled that land were ordinary folks, coming from all parts of the country, having varying backgrounds with an assortment of skills, education, and beliefs. One thing they had in common, though, was the determination to make things work. This writer many times has said that there was more common sense here per acre than anyplace else on earth. He calls it The Center of the Universe and insists that the capital letters are warranted.
In February of 1947, a community-wide meeting was called to seek ways to improve the lives of the settlers. Alaska was still a Territory. This was an unincorporated area, with no local government powers. There was no school, no utilities, no fire protection, and one highway patrol officer who came from Anchorage, 20 miles away. The gravel “highway” had been put through a decade earlier, linking Anchorage and Palmer. It was used to take produce to market from the farms of the Matanuska colonists who came in 1936. A round trip still was a day-long affair.
If the description “primitive” needed a definition, no better one could be found than the hodgepodge of structures that had sprung up 20 miles from downtown Anchorage.
Nearly everyone showed up to take part in the lively discussion being conducted at the Parkses’ Chugiak Coffee Shop.
Chugiak name chosen
One of the first things to be decided was what to call themselves. An identity was sorely needed. Some of the names that were offered recognized existing businesses—Parksville, Moosehorn, Williwaw, New Knik, Nanook, Inlet Park and Rocky Rim.
The winning name was proposed by Henning “Johnny” Johnson, who said the Eklutna Natives should be recognized with the name Chugiak. That, he said, was the original name meaning “Place of Many Places” and had been corrupted by early explorers into “Chugach.” This writer has never fact-checked that statement, considering that Johnson’s explanation to be good enough. The decision was made and the Chugiak Community Club came into being that very night.
Fire protection was also at the top of the list of needs. A wildfire had swept through Birchwood some years before and its effect was still evident. Related to that important need was a way to communicate. Telephone lines ran along the highway, but those belonged to the Signal Corps’ Alaska Communication System and had no local connections.
Those two needs were resolved by the people present. Jim McDowell was assigned the task of looking for fire-fighting equipment for use by volunteer fire-fighters. A committee was formed to obtain surplus Army field telephones to be placed in homes. Wire was strung through the trees to link them for use in emergencies. The committee was frequently called upon thereafter to follow the meandering lines to find where a moose had cleared the obstructing wires from its path. Once the break was located the wires were twisted together to get the phones working again—until the next time.
A volunteer fire department was established to respond with an old fire engine that often would not start. Extinguishers, shovels, rakes, axes, hoses, pumps and other items that could be used to battle flames were scrounged and carried by the volunteers in their private vehicles.
Beyond the settlers’ capability was establishing a school. According to a survey of the families, there were 28 children of school age—but no school closer than Palmer to the north or Anchorage to the south. A bus, known as “the stage,” ran early in the morning to Anchorage and returned about 5 o’clock in the evening.
Children gain a school
The newly formed organization quickly gathered signatures to a petition asking officials to establish a school. That request was answered and in October of 1951 Chugiak Territorial School opened. Designed for 45 students, 66 showed up for classes. Paul Swanson was named as school agent and scrambled for additional space. He brought in surplus Quonset huts and placed them on the property across the highway from his store, adjacent to the frame school building. Making room for new students was a constant struggle as the community’s population continued to swell.
By the time the school opened, Chugiak also was electrified. Residents had been rebuffed when Anchorage officials turned down a request to hook onto the lines passing through from Eklutna. They were told that they should annex to the city if they wanted service. Instead, they turned to Matanuska Electric Association in Palmer and were welcomed into the cooperative.
Telephones came before the end of the decade, also provided from our neighbors to the north. Matanuska Telephone Association extended service in 1959. Its directory that year was a one-sheet affair, with a cover and two and a half pages of numbers printed in type of a readable size.
With a name, fire protection, electricity, telephones, businesses and by that time two schools and two post offices, Chugiak was becoming a burgeoning town.
Next week we will take a look at the businesses that supplied needs of early residents.