The history of Alaska is fraught with schemes for populating the state, from the first Russian attempts at colonization in the 1700’s to the outlandish 1960‘s plan to build a domed city near Point Mackenzie, named John F. Kennedy City. That plan was researched by Julia O’Malley for her Anchorage Daily News column in February, 2010. She dug through the basement archives of the old Anchorage Daily Times and reported:
“On the last page of a dusty binder, I came across a clipping the size of a matchbox: ‘Alaska Town is Re-Named JFK City.’ It was date-stamped December, 26, 1963. The town had previously been called Bay City.
“In a proclamation on the name change, Mayor George Mor stated: ‘John Fitzgerald Kennedy City is a new and frontier city which will rise as a great city …’ the article said.
“The population was 30.”
There is no such place on the map today.
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The 1935 Matanuska Colony Project was an audacious plan to move 200 hard-hit farm families from the drought-stricken upper midwest to new homes and farms in Alaska, then an only barely-settled frontier land. Farming in Alaska had been proven feasible by the U.S. government’s agricultural experiment stations, the first of which was opened in 1898 in Sitka, which was at that time the capital of Alaska, by Dr. Charles Christian Georgeson.
Georgeson had been tasked with investigating Alaska’s agricultural potential, and his work in opening several agricultural stations around the state marked the beginning of a substantial federal investment in Alaska.
Soon after the Sitka station, Georgeson oversaw the Kodiak Station opening, followed by another at Kenai in 1899. The following year, 1900, Georgeson toured other areas of Alaska and opened more experiment stations, including Rampart Station in the Yukon Valley and the Copper Center Station in the Copper River Basin in 1902. Each of these stations was tasked with exploring the agricultural potential of their region.
In 1902 the town of Fairbanks was established in the Tanana Valley, and in 1906 an experiment station was opened on a 1,400 acre site outside Fairbanks. The Tanana Valley became Alaska’s first prominent agricultural area as farmers grew grain, hay, and vegetables, raised cattle and produced milk; the Tanana Valley was the center of agricultural production in Alaska until 1935, when the Matanuska Colony Project took shape.
Unfortunately, finding the funds to operate the experiment stations was a constant struggle and the Kenai and Copper River Stations both closed in 1908. The Rampart Station closed in 1925 after many years of successfully growing cereal crops. In 1931 the Sitka and Kodiak stations closed and all of the remaining experiment station facilities were transferred from federal ownership to the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines at Fairbanks, renamed the University of Alaska.
Georgeson had opened a new experiment station in the Matanuska Valley in 1915 to help promote agriculture in the area at the same time the Alaska Engineering Commission was established to build a railroad from Seward to Fairbanks. The railroad was, in large part, intended to help agricultural development by making it easier to transport goods to market, and representatives of the Alaska Railroad worked to promote agriculture and attract new settlers to both the Tanana and Matanuska Valleys.The Matanuska Valley had long been a favored land to the indigenous peoples, providing abundant rivers, creeks, and lakes for various types of fishing; forests, meadows, highlands and smaller Valleys for plentiful game and foraging of favorite foods and materials for clothing and shelters.
Framed on three sides by the towering Chugach and Talkeetna mountain ranges, the fourth side is open to the west and bounded along its southern edge by the tidal Knik Arm and glacial Knik River. The mighty Matanuska River enters the northeastern corner of the Valley and empties into Knik Arm in close proximity to the Knik River.
A trading station was established on the Matanuska River by early entrepreneur George Palmer, sometime between 1894 to 1898, to take advantage of the trails between the Cook Inlet region and the Copper River area. According to Wikipedia: “The indigenous Dena’ina-Athabascan name for the river is Ch’atanhtnu, based on the root -tanh ‘trail extends out’, meaning literally ‘trail comes out river’.”
In her small book titled Old Times on Upper Cook’s Inlet (The Book Cache, Anchorage, 1967), Valley author Louise Potter describes the early trails through the Valley: “…the Indians must have marked walking trails through the Upper Inlet country well before 1898 and, after that time, prospectors brushed-out trail after trail, both winter and summer, leading from the coast to the coal and gold mines. Many of these trails were later widened for the use of dog teams and for saddle and pack horses and sleds. Eventually, some even became the government mail routes and, today, are busy roads.”
Louise Potter continues, “A map of the Inlet area, copyrighted in 1899, shows eight such ‘Trails Used by Natives…’” and she describes the one which probably led to the name “trail comes out river”: “A summer trail from old Knik up the Matanuska River, passing ‘Palmer’s Upper House’ (store) and King’s House to Millich Creek and, via Hick’s Creek, Trail Lake, and Nulchuck Tyon Village, to the Copper River (pretty much the route of the present Glenn Highway).”In October of 1914, an Alaskan pioneer of Swedish descent named John August Springer filed for homestead rights to 320 acres of benchland located on the north bank of a sweeping bend in the Matanuska River, with a commanding view of Pioneer Peak and the Knik River Valley to the south and east, and the Chugach Range to the northeast. Springer built a log cabin and a few other buildings, and cleared and proved up on his land, receiving the patent in 1920. Fifteen years later, in 1935, he sold a portion of his homestead to the United States government for $7.50 an acre, and his land became part of the Matanuska Colony Project.
According to Louise Potter in Old Times on Upper Cook’s Inlet, John Springer was one of 132 people who were listed in the March 6, 1915 issue of the Knik News as having homesteads in the area. In describing early efforts by the pioneers, Potter explained the beginnings of agriculture in the Matanuska Valley:“Before the coming of the railroad when pack horses were commonly used to haul freight from the waterfronts to the mines and when the railroad survey parties’ horses were being wintered at Knik and Tyonook, it was necessary to do something about horse feed. At Knik, for instance, fields were cleared for oats by 1904. The large area along the sea from Knik to Cottonwood and east became known as Hayflat as a result of the quantities of wild hay which were cut there. There were also several farms near the mouth of Ship Creek as early as 1911, St. Clair’s and Whitney’s among them.”
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In his 1968 book, The Colorful Matanuska Valley, Don L. Irwin, former superintendent of the Matanuska Experiment Station and General Manager of the Matanuska Colony Project, defined four distinct eras in the history of the Matanuska Valley. “First, the era of Russian and English voyages, discoveries, and exploration.” This began with Alaska’s discovery in 1741 by Danish Captain Commander Vitus Bering, at the time serving the Russian Navy, and continued through 1844 with the first mapping of the Valley by Russian Captain Mate Molekoff. During the same era English Captains James Cook and George Vancouver were sailing the same waters; Captain Vancouver sailed to the head of Cook Inlet and explored the Matanuska Valley, but there is no record that he mapped his explorations.
The second era in Valley history, according to Irwin, was the beginning of development, which “might very properly be called the Prospector’s and Trader’s Era.” The town of Knik grew and prospered with the many gold mines on Willow Creek, while coal fields north and east of the Valley were mapped by the U.S. Geological Survey, and the new Alaska Road Commission stayed busy opening the land to homesteaders.
This was the heyday of entrepreneurial traders like George Palmer, the first white resident of the Valley according to the 1880 census, whose trading station on the Matanuska River was established to take advantage of the trails between Cook Inlet and the Copper River area. Palmer would later open a mercantile store at Knik.
Orville G. Herning was another early businessman; in 1905 he built the Knik Trading Company, operating it in Knik until 1917, when he saw the wisdom of moving his business to the new railhead in Wasilla.
That railroad marked what Don Irwin identified as the third era, a time of change in the Valley as the town of Knik dissolved into history’s archives and the new town of Wasilla received a post office and a U.S. Deputy Commissioner’s office which was tasked with the recording of marriages and mining claims.
Palmer, which was then known as Warton because the postal system would not accept the name Palmer, was only a railroad siding on the branch line to the Jonesville coal mines at Sutton and Chickaloon. There was a freight warehouse and a post office, and a handful of nearby homesteaders, including the aforementioned homesteader John August Springer. Irwin described the situation in 1934:
“There was no highway from the Valley into Anchorage. The Glenn Highway had not yet been surveyed. Train service was the only means of travel out of the Valley. There were no regular church services in the Matanuska Valley from 1918 to 1935. The volume of produce raised by the farmers was too small to interest the Anchorage merchants. The U.S. Agricultural Experiment Station at Matanuska began operation in 1915. A steel bridge was constructed across the Matanuska River near Palmer in 1934. The nearest physician, hospital facility and U.S. Deputy Marshal were at Anchorage. The economy of the Valley seemed to be marking time.”
Irwin’s fourth era was, of course, that which followed the 1935 Matanuska Colony Project. With the influx of 203 families – and the attendant financial resources provided by the Federal Government – the changes came swiftly. Roads were improved, extended, and eventually paved; bridges spanned the rivers, and freight and passenger trains established schedules. Schools and libraries were built; retail stores, supply services and other businesses were developed; cooperative electric and telephone systems took shape, and a network of churches arose, with many different faiths represented.
There have since been other significant eras which helped to mold the Valley, such as the building of the trans-Alaska pipeline and the influx of new settlers and businesses which came with those boom times, but the historic importance of the Matanuska Colony remains evident.
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Today the Alaska State Fair utilizes several original Colony buildings for administration and exhibit purposes, including a beautifully preserved Colony barn, one of over 60 remaining Colony barns in the Valley. These photogenic historic landmarks can be found in many different states of repair, from well-restored and still functional to collapsed and decaying slowly into the ground. Almost all were built from the same blueprint designed by David R. Williams, and their three-sided log first floors topped by a broad gambrel roofline with a bell-cast lower pitch make them easy to identify.
Seventeen structures have been identified within the National Register of Historic Sites’ Matanuska Colony Historic District, including several Colony farms, a number of original Colony homes, the Matanuska Colony Community Center, the Palmer Train Depot, and others.The Colony House museum in Palmer, originally the home of Colonists Oscar and Irene Beylund on tract number 94, north of Palmer, reflects an average Colonist family’s home, restored to its 1936 -1945 appearance. Administered by the Palmer Historical Society, the living room is features furniture from the 1930′s and 40′s era, including some original to the home. The bright cheerful kitchen includes many unique items utilized by Colony housewives, and throughout the home can be found old books, games and photos which were donated by families of the original colonists. Perhaps most significantly, the town of Palmer still reflects the planning of government architect David R. Williams, whose unique design for the aforementioned Matanuska Colony Community Center still functions as the town’s core, with three sides of an open central area anchored by buildings which were originally the large three-story school (now the Matanuska-Susitna Borough offices), the teacher’s dormitory (now the Colony Inn), and the trading center (now a restaurant). The grassy park, now featuring historic signs telling of the town’s Colony heritage, is a favorite gathering place. Nearby is the ship’s bell from the U.S. Army Transport Ship St. Mihiel, which transported the first group of colonists from Minnesota to Alaska, and a set of brass plaques with the names of the Colonist families. The inscription on the first plaque reads:
“50th Anniversary. Matanuska Valley Colony Project. Honoring the 202 families from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota who braved the migratory transition from the depression-torn years of strife and struggle to the promised lands of the fertile Matanuska Valley, and in their endeavor, with faith, hope, and courage, created a new life filled with challenging goals, bringing to Alaska the permanency of residency, the maturity of agricultural development and the true reality that Alaska held the future for the generations to come. Their sacrifices and hardships, together with their gallant leadership has brought greatness to Alaska. May their generations never die. 1935-1985.”