You probably know that at the top of the maps an Alaska land projection is the northernmost point on the North American continent.
But did you realize that the 49th State also boasts both the westernmost and easternmost points?
Amatignak Island, an uninhabited spot at the very tip of the Aleutian Chain, sits across the International Date Line. Had the line not been arbitrarily changed to keep the entire Chain with the rest of Alaska, it would be nearly the farthest east instead of farthest west. Oh, and the treeless island just also happens to be the southernmost point in Alaska.
That trivia tidbit comes from Donald J. Orth’s Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, a U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper published in 1971. It is available in a lengthy file found online.
From it, for example, one can learn that Amatignak Island is six miles long, part of the Delarof group. Its Aleut name was reported around 1792 by Commodore Joseph Billings, an Englishman who sailed with Capt. James Cook. He was commissioned by Russian Czarina Catherine the Great to head an expedition to explore the North Pacific waters. A century later, Imperial Russian Navy Capt. Lutke reported the island’s name spelled a little differently, saying it meant “wood chip.”
A big percentage of Alaska’s place names are Russian, assigned by traders working for the commercial company that controlled the czar’s possession on this side of the Bering Sea.
Another huge part are renditions of names that were applied by the aboriginal Aleut, Eskimo and Indian inhabitants.
If you look up Eagle River, you find there are two Alaskan streams of that name, one in Southeast Alaska and the other in the community we call home. In the entire world, there apparently are three other communities with that name: Eagle River, Michigan; Eagle River, Wisconsin; and Eagle River, Ontario, Canada. Eagle is the English translation of the name the Eklutnans gave to the river—Yuklahilta, or sometimes Yuklahina. It came, of course, from the majestic white-crowned raptor that has been adopted as the United States’ national emblem. Once prevalent, they almost disappeared from our area during the latter half of the Twentieth Century, but returned in the 1980s.
If you look up Chugiak, you find there is the only one listed—anywhere. That could be different 50 years after Orth put his dictionary out, but we’ll quit while we’re ahead. Not many communities can boast of being the only one in the world with a particular name. That, by the way, is what “unique” means—the only one of its kind. Contrary to current usage, it cannot be “more unique” or “very unique.”
When settlers arrived here in force following World War II, the 50 or so families gathered in 1947 to select a name for the community that was growing between Milepost 11 at Eagle River and Goat Creek at Mile 42 of the Palmer Highway. Several names were suggested, the majority based on the surname of the suggester. The name proposed by “Johnny” Johnson was the one that was chosen. He said newcomers had corrupted the Native name for the mountain range, Chugiak, to Chugach.
This writer has never wanted to investigate Johnson’s account, accepting his version at face value since it sounded as good as any other.
However, according to Orth’s dictionary, “the Eskimo tribal name recorded by the Russians and written by them ‘Chugatz’ and ‘Tchougatskoi’” was applied to the range. In 1898, Capt. William Ralph Abercrombie spelled the name “Chugach” in his report on the Army expedition he led to explore routes in Southcentral Alaska.
Our own Peters Creek, which flows from Ptarmigan Valley, was named in 1906 by cartographers of the U.S. Geological Society. Another of that name is located northwest of Palmer, named in 1917 also by USGS. A third is in the Dutch Hills, southwest of Talkeetna. A fourth, also known as Pete’s Creek, is in the Sunrise area on the Kenai Peninsula and was named in 1915. The Peters Creek in the Petersville area north of Palmer was active during the Gold Rush and continues to be mined on a small scale. The local Peters Creek was prospected in years past and some gold was found but not in commercial quantities.
Meadow turns out to be a popular name for streams throughout Alaska. The one that flows into Eagle River was named in 1960. The earliest listing for Meadow Creek shown in Orth’s book is a stream near Healy, named in 1913. A year later a stream near Big Lake was given that name. One in the Kuskokwim Mountains was named in 1924. Another in the Talkeetna Mountains was named in 1931 while another that flows into Kenai Lake was named in 1951. Also named in 1951 is a Peters Creek that flows into Roaring Bear Lake near Stevens, a village on the Yukon flats. A stream on Kodiak Island was given that name in 1952 and one on Chichagof Island was listed in 1955.
In keeping with Alaska’s mining history, the name Gold Creek—in many variations such as Coarse Gold, Goldbug and Golden—is by far the most popular geographic appellation. Almost a full three-column page in the Place Names Dictionary is devoted to that name. Bonanza, Eldorado and Quartz are other popular choices used by optimistic prospectors.
Orth where possible told the reason for various names. Meadow, for example, was given in areas where wide grassy spaces bordered the stream.
One local place name discovered in Orth’s book has a warm place in the heart of this writer. A small round body of water off Eklutna Road was given its name by soldiers mapping the area in the spring of 1940. It was near Easter and a young girl whose father worked at the Eklutna Power Plant shared her colored eggs with the GI mapping crew. They asked her name and applied it to that particular lake. Orth’s book lists Barbara Lake as being 700 feet in diameter, located 13 miles south of Palmer and east of Lake Eklutna Road. It first appeared on USGS records in 1951, the same year Barbara Erickson changed her last name to Jordan.
As a side note, at the time when Ft. Richardson was being constructed Lake Eklutna was right at the face of Eklutna Glacier. The Army established a glacier training facility’s parking lot in the flat area left by the receding ice field and built the road leading to it. One could park there and walk right up to and touch the glacier that towered above the road and the lake surface. The lake surface was at the level of the current parking lot that now is part of Chugach State Park. Tapping the lake for the 1954 government-built power plant and Anchorage’s public water supply lowered the lake to its present position.
Whether Donald J. Orth ever set foot in Alaska is unknown, but it is apparent he spent a great deal of time researching the names of our streams, mountains, cities, villages, bays, inlets, glaciers and seas.
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. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.