The earliest enterprises in the Matanuska Valley were focused in the Talkeetna Mountains, in the form of gold mining in the Willow Creek Mining District, and the development of coal fields near Chickaloon and Sutton. In Old Times on Upper Cook’s Inlet, Louise Potter described the progress of early gold mining:
“The Willow Creek District off the Big Susitna River, which later proved to be the center for so many of the Inlet’s successful mines, had but four men working claims during the early spring of 1898: ‘Doc’ Herndon, Billy Morris, E. Brainerd, and Capt. Albert Andrews. However, by the middle of May, 1898, 300 prospectors were reported to be camping on the beach at Tyoonok. These, plus others who came later that season and the next, not only swelled the numbers working in the Willow Creek District but were scattered throughout the creeks of the whole Upper Inlet region…”
Gold prospecting in the Matanuska Valley reached its peak in 1919, although an increase in the value of gold a dozen years later spiked activity between 1933 and the beginning of World War II.
Local Athabascans had told early prospectors and fur trappers about the coal fields in the hills above the Matanuska River, and in 1898 Captain Glenn’s Army exploration party found a vein of good quality coal that measured four feet across near the Chickaloon River. Fifteen years later, in 1913, interest in the coal fields was driven by the U.S. Navy seeking a source of coal for refueling the Pacific Fleet without needing to return to the United States.
The USS Maryland conducted tests on 1,100 tons of bituminous coal from Chickaloon and found it had good burning properties and would be acceptable fuel for ships, and in the years following a thriving community developed, the town of Chickaloon, which had homes, a school, stores, a power plant, dormitories, and a mess hall.
In 1919, more than 4,000 tons of coal were mined. Two years later, the Navy began building a million-dollar coal-washing station at nearby Sutton. All of the coal that Chickaloon mines produced over the next few years was for Navy use, and not even the government railroad could burn the coal from Chickaloon.
Around the same time the Navy was planning to enlarge the mines, California oil was found to be more economical than coal, and ship engines were converted to burn oil instead of coal. Not long after, the Navy ordered the mine shut down.
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Providing food for the early gold and coal mine workers spurred clearing and planting of the first farmsteads in the Valley. The rich soil and moderate climate were conducive to many crops, as shown in photos of early farms. In Matanuska Valley Memoir, Bulletin #18 from the Alaska Experiment Station, July, 1955, authors Hugh A. Johnson and Keith L. Stanton describe early farming development: “Agriculture in the Valley came into its own in 1915. Most of the 150 settlers filing for homesteads came intending to farm. Some cleared enough land to put in a crop the next year. Settlement was concentrated in the vicinity of Knik, across the Hay Flats and up the Matanuska River with a few homesteads spotted along the trails leading to Fishhook Creek. The greatest influx of settlers occurred in 1916 and 1917. By the end of that period nearly all the available land had been homesteaded–a fact not commonly known.”
The chief outfitting point for the Matanuska and Susitna Valley gold mines was Knik, the largest town and the main port on the Inlet, reported to have a population of 250 people in 1914. In Matanuska Valley Memoir Johnson and Stanton wrote about the town’s growth:
“The two years 1914 and 1915 were Knik’s golden years. The town was small but, because of its importance as a transportation center, it boasted four general merchandise stores, two hotels, two transfer companies, two combination bakery-restaurants, one law office, one billiard hall, one bar, one candy shop, one barber shop, one contracting firm, one newspaper, three qualified doctors and two dentists. A U.S. Comissioner also resided in Knik, but there was no deputy marshall. The marshall for the third district resided in Valdez.”
Johnson and Stanton added that while the Valley lacked law enforcement officers, it was “singularly free of crime. There is no record that a miners’ meeting for law enforcement was ever held in the Matanuska Valley.”
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In Old Times on Upper Cook’s Inlet, Louise Potter printed a list of 132 people who had homesteads near Knik in 1915, noting, “That such a list is possible at all is apt to come as a surprise to many who have been encouraged to believe that 1935, the date the ’Colonists’ arrived in the Matanuska Valley, marks the beginning of the history of agriculture in the Upper Inlet Region…”
In fact, George Palmer had been experimenting with the seeds he received from the Sitka Agricultural Experiment Station since 1900, when he wrote the following letter to Prof. C.C. Georgeson detailing his efforts at Knik:
Your favor of July 17 just reached me. When you learn that the nearest postoffice (i.e. Sunrise) is about 80 miles from here, and that I have to go in a small sailing boat, in perhaps the most dangerous water on the coast for small boats, you may know that I take a trip only when necessary; so my mails are few and far between. I have received no seeds yet, and it is hardly likely that another mail will reach me this fall, as navigation will soon close for the winter.
In regard to the seeds I planted last spring, will state that my knowledge of gardening is very limited, but have had very fair success so far. I have less than an acre in cultivation.
Parsnips are the finest and largest I ever saw, and the first I have heard of raised in the vicinity.
Turnips grow to an enormous size, and of fine flavor. (Captain Glenn took a sample of my turnips last year to Washington.) This year my seeds were bad in some way, as most of them went to seed. I don’t know the reason why.
The Scotch Kale is a perfect success here. Two men who came here from where it is raised extensively say it was the finest they ever saw.
Cabbage is small, but heading fast at present. They have heads about the size of a pineapple cheese, and are of a fine flavor.
Rutabagas are large and fine; have just taken mine into the root house. I had some so big that three filled a 30-pound candy pail.
Lettuce, peas, radishes, cauliflower, and potatoes are a success.
I made a failure of cucumbers, tomatoes, spinach, and parsley, and a partial failure of onions, but I think they could be grown from seed.
The natives above raised some potatoes, turnips, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, parsnips and radishes. They are very anxious to learn. I am a very poor teacher, as I must learn myself before I can teach others. Instructions about planting should go with all the seeds you send out. Some of the failures were due to my inexperience.
Yours, truly, G.W. Palmer.
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By 1906, farmers Henry McKinnon and Hiram Mitchell were both producing large gardens near Knik and selling their surplus produce to the miners and villagers. Others settled in the area near present-day Palmer, including pioneer farmers John A. Springer, Adam Werner, W.J. Bogard, M.D. Snodgrass, John Bugge, Jake Metz, Swan Youngquist, Ira Miller, A.J. Swanson, Max Sherrod, and many more. By 1915, there were enough farms in the Valley to support the formation of the Matanuska Farmer’s Association, as described in the April 10, 1915 issue of the Valley’s first newspaper, the Knik News:
“As indicating the enthusiasm with which the homesteaders are entering into the matter, fifty-three settlers attended the second meeting of the Matanuska Farmer’s Association, held Sunday last at the home of George Nylen. The meeting proved a fine success as it brought the homesteaders together for a discussion of things of mutual aid and benefit…”
It was the Colonists’ good fortune to land in a dramatically beautiful Valley which already had a rich and vibrant history, and they contributed hard work and dreams of a better future to help build it into a dynamic and vibrant place. But Alaska had been advertised and promoted to farmers for many years before the Colonists headed north.
In an article for the Pacific Northwest Quarterly, October, 1978, which was later reprinted in the anthology Interpreting Alaska’s History, James R. Shortridge wrote about the many government and private efforts to promote Alaska as an agricultural Promised Land: “…almost every promoter lauded the long summer days and their amazing effect on vegetable quality and size. One enthusiast called the tropical sun ‘too intense’ for best plant growth whereas ‘the slanted light of the higher latitudes is always soft and delicate, stimulating growth and not retarding it.’ According to some, these magical conditions impart to Alaskan produce ‘such superior flavor that when a person has once eaten the vegetables grown in Alaska, other vegetables are insipid and tasteless.’”
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Johnson and Stanton’s Matanuska Valley Memoir goes into detail about the early agricultural developments in the Valley, and explains how the history unfolded: “When the 1917 season rolled around approximately 400 settlers prepared to plant a larger crop than ever before. The Matanuska Farmer’s Association’s building was ready for use in Matanuska Junction; construction on the railroad was proceeding at a rapid rate. The Alaska Road Commission had completed a new road from the Little Susitna Valley through Wasilla to Knik. Other plans called for constructing a network of roads to replace trails then in use.
“Prosperity seemed certain as the farmers took to the fields those first days of May 1917. But with the entry of the U.S. into World War I, Alaska was left in a state of almost complete stagnation. The war profoundly affected the Matanuska Valley.
“Alaska’s manpower answered the call to duty with characteristic enthusiasm. Men left undeveloped farms, unfinished construction, partially developed mines and industries. Railroad construction suffered immediately from lack of funds, scarcity of materials and lack of manpower. When the harvest was completed in September of 1917, the market had shrunk and a ruinous surplus of potatoes and vegetables resulted. The potato crop for 1917 was estimated at 1,300 tons. There still remained 600 tons of unmarketed potatoes in the spring of 1918. These were lost because there was no livestock to eat them.
“Because of this unsold surplus, many farmers failed. Swan Youngquist was reported to be the only farmer who made money in 1917. He sold directly to Anchorage residents. The Farmer’s Association was dissolved in 1918 and its debts were assumed by several men in the Valley, among them F.F. Winchester and Al Waters. Farming was too undeveloped and lacked reserve capital to survive these adversities. By 1920 less than 200 settlers remained in the Valley. Not until the Colonists arrived in 1935 did agriculture again move ahead.”
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Despite this dismal picture, there were encouraging developments in the Valley’s agricultural scene, starting with the building of the Matanuska Experiment Station in 1918. Once again Johnson and Stanton give a very detailed report in Matanuska Valley Memoir:
“M.D. Snodgrass, on the Alaska Engineering Commission’s recommendation, chose section 15, township 17 north, range 1 east of the Seward Meridian, which originally consisted of 240 acres as the location for the Matanuska Experimental Farm. Section 14 adjoining the 240 acres was later set aside for the station, making a total of 880 acres to be developed for experimental purposes. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 1918, $10,000 was appropriated for the station and work was begun under the direction of F.E. Rader on April 1, 1917.
“The first three years were spent in clearing land and erecting buildings. As soon as land was cleared, Rader began testing varieties of potatoes and grains. He also maintained a garden and nursery. Some machinery was placed on the farm.”
The somewhat dry report goes on and on, detailing the Experimental Farm’s testing of varieties of crops and grains, the participation of the farmers in the testing, problems confronting the homesteaders, individual stories of several successful farmers, and how the high freight costs and finding suitable markets was handled.
In 1920 the Experimental Farm began working with cattle, starting with five milking Shorthorns, then adding six Galloways from Kodiak and Holsteins which were cross-bred with the Galloways to develop a strain of dual-purpose cattle who could withstand rigorous Alaskan winters while being suitable for both beef and dairy production.
Also introduced by the Experimental Farm in 1920 was a flock of 16 Cotswold sheep: “This introduction interested several farmers in the sheep enterprise and they bought most of their foundation stock from the Station flock. By 1930 three farmers owned 221 sheep. W. Bogard, whose homestead was on the north shore of Finger Lake, owned the largest flock.”
By the late 1920’s several farmers had developed small dairy herds, and a cooperative arrangement between the Alaska Agricultural Stations and the Alaska Railroad resulted in the construction of a creamery at Curry, which meant a new market for the milk produced in the Matanuska Valley. While the remote community at mile 248 of the Alaska Railroad may have seemed like an odd choice for the creamery, its grand hotel was a popular and respected stop, and Curry included cottages, a train depot, a bakery, the railroad shops and bunkhouses, and a large commercial laundry; all of the laundry for the Alaska Railroad and the hospitals at Nenana and Anchorage went through the huge facility at Curry.
The opulent Curry Hotel was described in Ken Marsh’s 2003 book, Lavish Silence: A pictorial chronicle of vanished Curry, Alaska (Trapper Creek Museum Sluice Box Productions, Trapper Creek, Alaska 2003): “The Curry Hotel, first opened in 1923, boasted amenities in a wilderness setting seldom seen even in large stateside establishments during this time. Tennis courts, a golf course, a swimming pool, a footbridge spanning the rolling width of the Susitna River and a winter ski lift, all helped make Curry world famous. Nothing was lacking for human enjoyment and comfort.”
Marsh described the creamery as well: “Another Curry-based enterprise was operated for the benefit of farmers to encourage dairy farming along the Alaska Railroad. A creamery that turned out 1,434 pounds of butter in July and August of 1932, also made ice cream, table cream, buttermilk, cottage cheese and sweet milk. The dairy products were used at the Curry Hotel, in the Alaska Railroad dining cars, and Base Hospital at Anchorage. Other merchants purchase surplus products. The churns of the creamery were later moved to the Experiment Station at Matanuska since most of the cream came from that area as time went by.”
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While the completion of the 500-mile Alaska Railroad in 1923 promised to bring new opportunities for prosperity and economic growth, Alaska was still reeling from the effects of World War 1. Men who joined the Army or went Outside to take high-paying industrial jobs often did not return to Alaska, as the post-war prosperity in the rest of the United States was simply too satisfying.
Alaska’s economy was in limbo, as described in these excerpts from chapter 11 of Don Irwin’s book, The Colorful Matanuska Valley, detailing the conditions in 1935:
“There were approximately 100 miles of graded road in the Valley in the spring of 1935. Not more than 20 miles was gravel surfaced and none of it was paved. There was no road from the Valley into Anchorage. No highway had been planned between the Valley and the Richardson Highway which runs from Valdez to Fairbanks.”
The Alaska Highway, from Dawson Creek, British Columbia to Delta Junction, Alaska, would not be built for another eight years. There were no roads entering or leaving Alaska.
“Practically the only employment available to settlers in the Valley was maintenance work on the Alaska Railroad track and grade construction work with the Alaska Road Commission. A number of men were employed regularly in the gold and coal mines in the Valley and on Willow Creek.”
“Both passenger and freight trains ran on the Seward to Fairbanks main line as often as the Alaska Steamship Company’s boats arrived in Seward from Seattle. Usually this was on a weekly schedule during the summer months and approximately every two to three weeks during the winter months.”
The passenger train took two days for the trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks, with an overnight stop at the Alaska Railroad’s Curry Hotel.
“The only scheduled airline running into Anchorage in 1935 was the Star Airline operating a Ford-trimotor plane scheduling one round trip to Fairbanks each day. To fly from Anchorage to Seattle, it was necessary to go from Anchorage to Fairbanks on the Star Airline. Connections could then be made with Pan American Airways, which ran one round-trip flight per week from Seattle to Ketchikan, Juneau, Fairbanks, Nome, and return to Seattle by the same route.”
Wasilla, with a population of around 100 and a general store, a roadhouse, two schools, a liquor store and a post office, was the largest town in the Valley. The town of Matanuska was half as large as Wasilla, with a general store, a hotel and a liquor store. Both towns had community centers where dances, meetings, and other events were held. There was no doctor, and no hospital facility in the Valley.
Knik had become a ghost town with the coming of the railroad, and according to Don Irwin, Palmer was comprised of one married couple and three elderly bachelors.
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