The Iditarod Trail running through Eagle River Valley in the 1890s connected the Seward Peninsula gold fields with those of Turnagain Arm and the year-round seaport at Seward. An Eagle River roadhouse built of logs and perched in the mountains, its traces long since faded away, once provided a warm resting place, eatery and watering hole for mushers.
Faded away, too, are a couple of proposed projects that would have drastically changed the valley forever.
One of those was to flood the valley by building two dams that would create a hydroelectric project. What now is greenspace would have been under water up to the 300-foot elevation line on each side of the wide valley bottom. The other was to put a road through to bypass Anchorage by connecting the Glenn Highway at Eagle River to the Seward Highway at Girdwood.
One of the people who obtained a land withdrawal for the hydroelectric project was Chugiak resident Carl Steeby, project engineer for the tunnel that drew water from the lake to run turbines at the federal power plant at Eklutna. Steeby gained worldwide acclaim within the engineering community for his surveying skill. The tunnel was constructed by tapping the bottom of Lake Eklutna and drilling through the mountain to connect with the power plant far below alongside the highway. Drilling started from both ends, crews working far below the surface of the earth. When the drill bits met at midway, the drill points were only a quarter of an inch apart. And that was without the technology developed in the past half-century.
After completion of the tunnel project Steeby joined with a couple of other individuals to pursue the hydroelectric project. Their plan was to provide electricity at lower cost by having the source closer to the population center. With the population growth that was anticipated, expectations were that the project would be highly profitable. While the projected population increase was to come about, the project was not to materialize.
Lacking connections to major financial players, the local men were unable to gain support for the project.
They did, however, put together a professional presentation complete with extensive technical data—plus an oil painting produced by local artist Kay Love depicting the lake and dams. The illustration was pleasant and appealing, but was not enough to bring the needed millions rushing to be invested.
Even though the project was doomed, for many years thereafter the federal land withdrawal remained in effect. It was enough to stop several attempts to claim homesteads in the lower level of the valley before homesteading came to an end. The huge area remained in limbo for a dozen years until it was claimed by Eklutna, Inc., under its entitlements contained in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
A general interpretation is that under the Act, Native village corporations were entitled to claim land within a 25-mile radius of the village. In cases where land inside that circle was already deeded to other owners, the village could apply for title to any public land which was open or to which title had not been issued. The power withdrawal was available for selection because it was found to be open land.
The State of Alaska had long wanted the tract, which consisted of thousands of acres, for a greenbelt. Negotiations with the village corporation resulted in a trade for two large lots in downtown Anchorage that were owned by the state. The tract now is part of Chugach State Park. The 295,240-acre park, created by legislation signed into law in 1970, is the third-largest state park in the entire United States.
Highway linking Eagle River to Girdwood
It was at about the same time the park was created that the suggestion was made to build a road through the valley.
Proponents felt the road would save time for residents of Chugiak-Eagle River and points to the north who wanted to drive to the Kenai Peninsula. It would parallel the Iditarod Trail, having some historic value, and open up many miles of scenic terrain.
There would be other considerations, it was argued, that would be of benefit. The Seward Highway along Turnagain Arm is narrow, winding, and subject to avalanches and falling rocks. The Eagle River to Girdwood road would provide an alternate route. It also would relieve the need to expand the highway which is hemmed in between a solid rock wall on one side and the Inlet on the other—with railroad tracks in the way as well.
Huge public outcry immediately sprang up, however, with the Sierra Club and other environmental groups arguing that the road would destroy the untouched wilderness. Not only would it be harmful from an ecological standpoint, but it would be extremely expensive to construct, it was claimed.
Objections were strenuous and the idea was soon abandoned.
At the time there was no one from Chugiak-Eagle River serving in the Legislature. Not only that, but there was little support from Anchorage legislators who did not see value in having vehicles bypass the city business district.
Protecting the state park and its wilderness areas remain a concern for many residents.
“The thought of a road going through the valley sends shivers up my spine,”
said Frank Baker, an outdoor enthusiast whose popular columns and pictures appear in the ECHO News. Baker for many years has hiked in the mountains surrounding this community. He has taken thousands of photos of the scenery, including the one accompanying this piece.
While the idea of having a huge lake fronting homes built on the Eagle River Valley hillsides might be appealing to some people, that possibility did not come to pass. Also unlikely to be seen is a road carved through the mountains as a shortcut to the Peninsula. It is destined to remain a challenging cross-country race and hiking route for the adventurous.
If we wish to spend time in idle speculation, we might calculate in our minds the cost of building bridges and tunnels on this side of the mountain as compared to what it might take to widen the Seward Highway. But for those of us who are mere couch potatoes, we can find solace in enjoying Frank Baker’s fantastic photos of the beautiful scenery that is Eagle River Valley. It will remain unspoiled by man.
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.