In Chugiak’s early days in the late 1940s, people read by light from lanterns fueled by Blazo.
They were connected to the homes of volunteer firefighters by Army surplus field telephones hooked up to wires strung through the woods between homes. One side benefit from the lanterns was that the fuel cans came in wooden crates which could be fashioned into makeshift furniture. A disadvantage associated with the hand-cranked telephones was that the lines were subject to disruption when meandering moose hooked onto the wires and ripped them apart.
Electricity transmission lines from Anchorage’s power plant at Eklutna were strung on poles along the Palmer Highway. Telephone lines of the Signal Corps’ Alaska Communication System linking Alaska’s Interior with Anchorage also hung from those poles. They could not be hooked onto, though, by people living nearby.
With one exception, for several years Chugiak remained in the dark and telephones continued subject to the whims of wandering moose. The exception was bulbs at the Chugiak Coffee Shop owned by Cloyce and Justine Parks. Parks bought a surplus 25-kilowatt gasoline-powered generator at “Wing-D,” the favorite shopping mall for him and his neighbors: the Wing Disposal Yard at Elmendorf Field on Ft. Richardson. With enough electricity to light up his home and business and then some, he installed a neon sign. It was the only beacon to be seen on the 50-mile stretch of highway between the Army post and Palmer.
The Parkses knew that a decade earlier Congress had passed the Rural Electrification Act and that the Palmer colonists had formed an REA cooperative to serve the Valley.
They called a meeting to discuss the subject and invited the 50 families then living in the area north of Ft. Richardson to take part. Before the night was over, the assemblage agreed to petition Matanuska Electric Association to extend its lines southward. MEA concurred and in 1950 began installing poles and stringing lines along the highway and its side roads. Justine Parks was elected to the cooperative’s board of directors. When a substation was built in Birchwood to serve the area, it was named in her honor.
Today, MEA has a total of 58,000 customers. About a third of the utility’s customers are in Chugiak-Eagle River. Its bylaws were amended to require that directors come from designated areas, with one seat assigned to Chugiak-Eagle River. David Glines, a retired brigadier general in the Air National Guard and an Eagle River resident, currently is president of the board.
In 2015 the cooperative’s first generation plant went online with its 171-megawatt gas-fired facility at Eklutna.
Power previously was purchased from Chugach Electric Association until MEA several years ago decided to install its own facility. Designed to operate on natural gas, the plant has the ability to switch to diesel fuel in an emergency. The plant reduces the threat of loss of power due to breaks in lines from distant sources.
Telephone cooperative added in 1957
Formed in 1953 under the REA cooperative umbrella was the Matanuska Telephone Association. It provides a variety of services, including landline telephones, wireless, Internet and cable television. A member-owned cooperative, it has a board of directors consisting of five members. Eagle River resident Nicholas Begich III is a director. Chief executive officer is Michael C. Burke, who joined the cooperative in 2015.
Starting out as a telephone provider, MTA has branched out in the growing communication field, adding to its services to meet demands of customers. Burke told members at his first annual meeting that competition, changing technology and regulations are major challenges for the association.
Struggles are not new for MTA.
One of their first was in extending lines. In the 1970s, they switched from copper to fiber optic cable with the Eagle River frameroom being one of the first equipped with that technology. Fiber optic now, Burke told members, is the way to go and MTA is working to expand that technology.
In the beginning, telephone lines were strung on power poles. Homes were connected in “party lines” where four were on the same cable. People wanting to make a call had to listen before dialing to make sure the line was not in use. Interruptions were frequent. MTA responded by adding more lines and burying them. When the MTA general manager at that time met with residents to hear complaints, he assured them that the buried lines would improve conditions.
“It’s about time,” Birchwood resident Mattie Boyles exclaimed. “They’ve been dead so long they’re rotten.” Service indeed has improved over the four decades since. Hopefully, the challenges that Burke predicted will be overcome and the member-owned utility will both survive and prosper.
Water first came from creeks, then went into privies
In the beginning, residents depended on local sources for their water supply. Those who could afford to have wells drilled turned to Sam Cotten or Sullivan Water Wells. Most, however, at first filled jugs at handy spots alongside the highway. One such was the creek which flows from the mountains and feeds the Duck Pond at what is now the North Eagle River Interchange on the Old Glenn. A pit on the east side of the road was a handy place to fill containers. Creeks in Chugiak also were good sources and were used to fill fire engines in emergencies.
When Glenn Briggs in 1950 developed subdivisions on the homestead he purchased from Jack Cobol, he tapped into a high-producing aquifer and installed a water system to serve the lots. Not long after, Danny Bell developed a subdivision in the area of Eagle River Loop and Eagle River Road and installed a water system there as well. Smaller community water systems were located in Chugiak.
In 1986 an agreement with the three owners of Lake Eklutna’s water allowed the Municipality of Anchorage to buy water from the lake. The Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility built a treatment plant below the lake and installed a pipeline along Glenn Highway. The pipeline was tapped into as an emergency solution when wells in the Peters Creek area were contaminated by a fuel leak at a service station at Old Glenn and Voyles Blvd.
Getting rid of wastewater initially was taken care of through the use of outdoor “privies.” When indoor plumbing became available—and could be afforded—that feature brought on-site disposal systems known as cesspools.
Public sewer service was begun in Eagle River after surface land in downtown Eagle River became saturated, rendering on-site systems unusable. Eagle River Elementary, a laundromat, a mobile home park, Eagle River Shopping Center and other facilities faced unsafe conditions. Wastewater was piped to a sewage lagoon built off Artillery Road. Treated water was then discharged into the lower Eagle River. The municipal facility has been upgraded and continues in operation, lauded as one of the finest sewage treatment plants anywhere.
Dumps a nuisance before disposal service arrives
Early Chugiak residents were thrifty and had little trash. What little had to be thrown away was burned or buried in the back yard. Soon, however, people began tossing garbage over the southern bank of Peters Creek. A half mile downstream of the Palmer Highway, the deep ravine was convenient to the road leading to the Birchwood railroad section house. That rat-infested site which attracted bears in summer became untenable. Landfills were opened, one established off Hiland Road. When it was filled and covered, another was set up in Chugiak adjacent to what now is Loretta French Park.
A more permanent landfill south of the Eagle River is now a regional facility, handling solid waste material brought in from Anchorage as well as Chugiak-Eagle River. Methane gas produced by decaying matter is captured and generates electricity. Commercial waste disposal operators provide regular service, with Anchorage Solid Waste covering the city service area and a large private firm serving the remainder of the municipality. Several small refuse firms have started up over the years but all have been absorbed by the larger firm and its predecessors.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com.