1898 Matanuska Valley

VanZyle Knik 420

Original artwork for Alaskan History Magazine ©2019 Jon Van Zyle

Among the great articles in the Nov-Dec, 2019 issue of Alaskan History Magazine is a look back at the Matanuska Valley in 1898. Captain Edwin F. Glenn, Twenty-fifth Infantry, United States Army, was the officer in charge of explorations in southcentral Alaska in 1898. The main task of ‘Military Expedition No. 3,’ under the War Department, was to explore the country north of Cook Inlet in order to discover the most “direct and practicable” route from the coast to the Tanana River by utilizing passes through the Alaska Range.


Knik Arm looking east [NLM/Helen Hegener]

Captain Glenn was charged with collecting and reporting on all information that was considered valuable to the development of the country, so his descriptions of the expedition are a fascinating look at one of the earliest official government incursions into the Cook Inlet and Matanuska regions, and northeast into the Copper River Basin.

Captain Glenn kept a diary of his travels, which is available to download or read free online at the UAA/UPC Consortium Library website. His sometimes blunt and unvarnished writings illuminate the many trials and travails which beset the expedition, but they also give voice to a keen observer of the world – and men – around him.


Knik Arm flats [NLM/Helen Hegener]

“We reached Knik Inlet finally, cast anchor, and waited for the vessel to go aground before attempting to unload. We were deeply impressed with the appearance of everything in this inlet. The weather was much more mild than in the lower part of the inlet, and the season more advanced than at Tyoonok or at Ladds Station by at least three weeks. The trees were in almost full leaf, and the grass a sort of jointed grass resembling the famous blue grass of Kentucky was abundant and at least a foot high. The length of this arm is about 25 miles. Coming in at the head of it were the Matanuska and Knik rivers, the former from the east, the latter from the south. The valley there is quite flat and about 20 miles across. In fact, the valleys of both streams are in full view from just above the trading station.”

W.C. Mendenhall 420 res

Walter C. Mendenhall, USGS

Geologist W. C. Mendenhall, a member of Captain Glenn’s expedition who would go on to a distinguished career (including Director of the USGS from 1930 to 1943), made the first rough geological survey of the Matanuska Valley and the routes followed by Glenn. He mentioned the guide, Mr. Hicks, who had been prospecting in the area for three years, in his highly detailed official report, A Reconnaissance from Resurrection Bay to the Tanana River, Alaska, in 1898 for the Twentieth Annual Report for the USGS, Part VII, Explorations in Alaska in 1898 [Mendenhall’s report begins on page 265]: “Among the prospectors at the head of Cook Inlet but one was found who was acquainted with the Matanuska country. This gentleman, Mr. H. H. Hicks, Captain Glenn was so fortunate as to secure as a guide for the expedition, but neither he nor anyone else could give us any definite idea of the character of the interior beyond the head of the Matanuska.”

NLM 1898 Mat ValleyMendenhall’s explorations covered areas on the western shore of Prince William Sound and a route extending from Resurrection Bay to the head of Turnagain Arm, thence by way of Glacier and Yukla Creeks– the Crow Pass route between Girdwood and Eagle River–to Knik Arm, up the Matanuska Valley to its head, and then northward to the Tanana River. After describing the the Matanuska River’s attributes and tributaries, relative heights and characteristics of the mountains, and vegetation in the Valley, Mendenhall’s report turns to accessibility:


Matanuska Valley from Hatcher Pass [NLM/Helen Hegener]

“The Matanuska Valley is at present reached from Knik, which is the head of navigation on Cook Inlet, and to which vessels of shallow draft can go at high tide. There is a good horse trail from Knik to the upper end of Matanuska Valley, and the character of the ground and of the vegetation is such that this trail could be made into a wagon road at comparatively slight expense. It takes horses from one to two days to reach Moose Creek, depending on the load, and … a day and a half to go from Moose Creek to Chickaloon River.”

“The principal trading and mining centers are Sunrise, Hope, Tyonek, and Knik, and in these camps or the mining regions adjacent to them most of the whites may be found. A few each year penetrate some distance beyond the borders of the well-known districts and reach the interior of the Kenai Peninsula or prospect within the Matanuska Valley. Two small parties this year (1898) succeeded in getting nearly across the Copper River Plateau, and a few hardy traders or prospectors in previous years have reached the interior, but they have left no records.”

Matanuska River NLM 420 res

Matanuska River [NLM/Helen Hegener]

And finally, Mendenhall described the Valley as an access route to interior Alaska: “From the head of Knik Arm the Copper River Plateau and all of the interior accessible from it is reached by way of the Matanuska Valley. For the greater part of the way from Palmer’s store on Knik Arm to Tahneta Pass, at the head of the river, travel is easy. A sharp climb of 1,000 feet after crossing Chickaloon Creek, a little rough work in getting across the canyon of Hicks Creek, and a short steep climb out of the valley of Caribou [Creek], are the principal obstacles. The Tazlina River heads east of this gap, and by following it the Copper will be reached a few miles above the new town of Copper Center. This route has been followed by the Copper River Indians for many years in their annual trading trips to the stores on Cook Inlet.”

Ziegler 2

“The Runaways,” by Alaskan artist Eustace Paul Ziegler

An example of Mendenhall’s fascinating account of their trip: “Our progress over the rolling forested floor of the lower valley  was without more important incident than the occasional retreat of the pack animals overnight and the consequent delay next day, until we came to the ford of Kings Creek on July 29. This stream, like all those on the western slope of the coastal mountains in Alaska, is turbulent, but ordinarily its volume of water is not great; recent rains, however, had raised it to much beyond the normal. Just below the broad and comparatively shallow ford is a reach of swift, wild water, where the stream is confined in a narrow channel, across which a couple of logs had been placed side by side to serve as a footbridge.

Ziegler detail

Pack horses were a favorite subject of Ziegler’s. Detail of “The Goldseekers.”

“Canwell, the ex-cavalryman of the party and an excellent horseman, volunteered to try the ford and mounted the bellmare for the purpose. Everything seemed to be going well until he reached the middle of the channel, when his mount stumbled over a bowlder in the creek bed. She fell far enough for the swift current to catch her pack, and then in an instant was swept off her feet and carried stumbling and struggling into the rapids, Canwell clinging to her and trying to direct her struggles toward the shore. In the swift water she was rolled over and over, now head and pack, now heels, appearing above the muddy current, until man and horse crashed into the footbridge. For an instant it resisted, and then was carried down by the weight. A few yards below Canwell was pulled out, shivering, bruised, and half drowned, but there seemed no hope of saving the old mare. She was rapidly weakening, and even when she regained her feet in the quieter water farther down the stream she could not stand. Fortunately she had on a riding saddle instead of a pack saddle, and the pack finally loosened and came off. Thus relieved of her load, she succeeded in getting ashore, but 200 pounds of our precious provisions were on their way to the Pacific; later we would have given much for them. Further move was out of the question for that day. We spent the afternoon drying out, for some of the pack mules had followed their leader, and nursing our invalids.”

Nov-Dec, 2019 issue, Vol. 1, No. 4, postpaid

The Orr Stage Company, a WPA guidebook to territorial Alaska, the Kink in the FortyMile, the Woodchopper Roadhouse, pioneer Native rights activist Elizabeth Peratrovich, and the 1898 explorations of Capt. Edwin F. Glenn and W. C. Mendenhall through the Matanuska Valley.


Alaskan History Magazine • 1 year subscription

A one year subscription to Alaskan History Magazine is six bimonthly issues, featuring well-researched stories of the people, places and events which shaped the history of Alaska from prehistory to Statehood. Full color, no advertising, 48 pages per issue. Back issues are always available.