Taking a cue from the past, parents tired of their teenagers having to be bussed to Anchorage in order to attend classes fought to gain a secondary school here. A similar petition to the Territorial Legislature in 1950 had been successful in getting the first elementary school. The Chugiak Elementary PTA enlisted their counterpart in Eagle River to help launch the concerted effort.
It took little effort to persuade a total of 27 different clubs and organizations to support the idea. They flipped a coin to decide whether their committee would be named Chugiak or Eagle River. By 1962 an elementary school in the southern portion of the community had been added, with Chugiak being the first. Eagle River already was growing faster than was Chugiak.
The coin toss decided that the school should be named Chugiak High School, thus giving their organization the name “Operation Chugiak High School.” More popularly known as OCHS and pronounced “Ox,” the acronym signified the strength and determination that went into the effort.
It was readily apparent that there was plenty of justification for their cause. Marjorie Cochrane, in her history of Chugiak-Eagle River “Between Two Rivers,” quoted Katie Moore’s plight. Her mother, Billie, was instrumental in getting books for the Eagle River Elementary library and was to become the long-serving librarian at the Chugiak-Eagle River branch of the Z J. Loussac municipal library.
Katie complained that she never got to see the sun during the winter. She “boarded the bus at seven in the dark and got home sometime after five,” Cochrane wrote. Students who lived in Peters Creek spent more than three hours on the bus going to and from school. In those days few families had more than one vehicle and, unlike today when the parking lots are packed with students’ cars, it was rare for a teen to have anything other than a bicycle—or in a few cases, a horse.
Even worse than the inconvenience of long bus travel was that youth were being deprived of participation in after-school activities. With no alternate transportation, children could not take part in high school sports, plays, chorus or other extracurricular activities. A great many youngsters in Chugiak-Eagle River had talents that could not be utilized and expanded upon.
Chosen to co-chair OCHS were Ed Willis and Louise Long, both of whom were Eagle River residents.
Willis and Dale Pierson were delegated to travel to Juneau and testify before the Legislature. They asked for a bond issue of $1.2 million to build the school. A site of open land had been found by two other OCHS members, Carl Steeby and Bill Lowe.
Lowe was employed by the Bureau of Land Management and a community-minded Chugiak resident for whom the Fire Lake station of the Chugiak Volunteer Fire Department is named. Steeby, who had one of the first home sites in Birchwood, was the engineer on the federal Eklutna Power Project who oversaw construction of the tunnel connecting Lake Eklutna with the power plant alongside the Palmer Highway.
Willis and Pierson presented documents outlining the benefits of having a high school in Chugiak, a description of the site and its attributes including indications of a high-producing aquifer, and charts showing population growth and school enrollment projections. The data were well-documented and received with commendations from the legislators.
Aware of concerns about finances of the young state and parochial jostling between areas of the state, the OCHS envoys were prepared for questions.
When asked by a Southeast legislator where Chugiak was located, Pierson responded that it was “25 miles north of Palmer.” That apparently registered with Bush legislators who felt Anchorage was receiving too large a share of state revenues.
Willis, by the way, was to be elected as a member of the Greater Anchorage Area Borough Assembly and later as the community’s first member of the Alaska State Senate. Pierson was later to become a member of the Anchorage School Board.
The Legislature voted to put the school bond on the ballot where it passed with a solid majority. Gov. William A. Egan quickly signed off on the project and was present at the ground-breaking.
An account of the 1963 ground-breaking as printed in the Knik Arm Courier was given years later by the Chugiak-Eagle River Historical Society.
According to the story, “approximately 150 persons turned out . . . to attend the official groundbreaking ceremony . . . Special guests attending, besides the governor, architects, and contractors involved in the school’s construction, were representatives of the dept. of Education, the State PTA, Anchorage School District and local representatives including Chugiak High School principal Mr. Cline and Chugiak Elementary principal Mr. Benish. Other guests honored that were involved in this project were Dale Pierson, Al Tanner, Mrs. Leon Hartman, James Ekstedt, Virgil Flint, Mike Alex representing Eklutna Village and Ed Bellringer representing the Knik Arm Courier.”
Gov. Egan was presented by the Chugiak PTA president with a “gold-plated shovel” to use in the ceremonial ground-breaking, the article stated.
Egan appeared at the school’s dedication in October of 1964. Cochrane’s story of the high school’s history said its initial staff was comprised of 22 people and a student body of 286 boys and girls.
It was initially planned that seniors would be allowed to graduate with the classes they had attended in Anchorage but the Class of 1965 unanimously decided it wanted to graduate in their new school. The gymnasium was decorated in the black and aquamarine colors chosen by students. Its mascot was the Mustang and the first school song was “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” President of the Class of 1965 was Sam Cotten, who went on to become a member of the House of Representatives and Alaska Senate. He currently is commissioner of Fish & Game in the administration of Gov. Bill Walker.
The original building had a multi-purpose room that also served as a gymnasium with bleachers on only one side. Designed for a capacity of 400 students, it had a unique open-concept classroom that could be partitioned and used for more than one class. There was initially no playground and just a small parking lot.
Although built by the State of Alaska, before the school opened the borough came into being and the school was turned over to the Anchorage School District.
Feasibility of the OCHS site selection committee’s study was proven when Birchwood Elementary School was built on the parcel’s northern portion.
The high school was added onto numerous times as the population grew, with relocatable classroom buildings a constant supplement between additions. Its enrollment had surpassed 2,000 students when the school district decided to build the community’s second high school at Eagle River.
When a swimming pool was added under a federal grant obtained by Sen. Ernest Gruening (D-Alaska), the school’s water well, as forecast by OCHS, was sufficient to handle that in addition to the needs of both schools. The well has since been replaced by connections to the Municipal water system whose pipeline from Lake Eklutna runs past the property.
Chugiak High School celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 2014.
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.