Area History

Matanuska-Susitna, Wasilla & Palmer

Our Matanuska-Susitna Valleys lie in the heart of Southcentral Alaska, less than one hour from Anchorage, encompassing more than 23,000 square miles of rolling low land, mountains, glaciers, lakes, rivers and streams. Communities located within the Matanuska-Susitna Borough include Wasilla, Palmer, Big Lake, Houston, Sutton, Willow, Trapper Creek, Talkeetna and Skwentna. The current population of the Borough is estimated at 90,000. The majority of residents are located in the "core area" surrounding the cities of Wasilla and Palmer.

Weather

  • Mild, coastal climate with a mean Winter temp of 13°F and a mean Summer temp of 58°F.

Daylight

  • December: 5 Hours
  • June: 19 Hours

Two of the most majestic mountain ranges in Alaska surround the area. The glacier-clad Chugach Range marks the southern limit of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the towering Alaska Range with Mt. McKinley stretches to the northwest. Between these two ranges is the Talkeetna Range, reaching 100 miles north to south and 70 miles east to west.

Today the Talkeetna Mountains hold many small glaciers. These mountains are truly one of the most interesting mountain ranges in Alaska with many historical trails, mines and fossil beds.

The Talkeetna Mountains are mostly Mesozoic era, thick sedimentary
limestone, shale and sandstone which contain some Triassic fossils
(155 to 185 million years).

During Jurassic times countless volcanoes were active, evidenced by ash and lava. In the western Talkeetnas, a single Mesozoic granite intrusion covers 1,400 square miles. In the Jurassic age this range was tilted, uplifted and eroded, then late in Jurassic partly submerged, depositing several hundred feet of conglomerate and more than a 1,000 feet of fine sediment. By early Cretaceous the Talkeetna range was above sea level and large amounts of sediments were deposited in the broad valley and swamps, later becoming peat and coal.

Our Valley rivers and towns have unusual distinctive names, many derived from local Indian languages. The Matanuska Valley was named in 1898 by Lt. Mendenhall while he was exploring the Matanuska River regions under the command of Captain E.F. Glenn, U.S. Army. Highway 1, the Glenn Highway, was named after Captain Glenn.

Alaska History and Natural Science Books are available through Alaskana Books, 564 S. Denali St. Palmer, AK 1-888-354-9483 or www.alaskanabookshop.com

The Susitna River stretches from the Susitna Glacier to Cook Inlet. "Susitna River", named by the Tanaina Indians, means "sandy river". The river appears to have been first explored in 1834 by a Creole Indian named Malakor. The 1890 census reported that Susitna Village on the east bank of the Susitna River had 146 Kenai Indians and 27 houses.

Knik, a Tanaina Indian Village, was located at the mouth of the Knik River. Capt. Tebenbou reported that "Kinik" is an Eskimo name which means "fire" (ignig). Originally in the 1880 census the population was 46. In 1890 the population increased to 160 and in 1900 the total number of Indians living in the area was about 250. The Knik obtained subsistence by hunting, trapping and bartering. The present village called "Knik" developed around a trading post called "Palmer's Store" in 1903. The Knik Glacier heads on Mount Marcus Baker, trends west 30 miles to its terminus near the head of the Knik River, 20 miles southeast of the City of Palmer.

Wasilla Creek was used by local miners. In 1906, T.G. Gerdine and R. H. Sargent of the U.S. Geological Survey, reported "Wassilla Creek" was named for "Wassilla, a chief of Knik Indians". "Wassilla" is apparently derived from the Russian surname "Vasileu" meaning "Basil". The City of Wasilla was later established as a trading center and railroad station.

Palmer was established as a railroad station on the Matanuska Branch of the Alaska Railroad around 1916, named after George Palmer who traded in the Knik Arm area in the 1800s. Today, the City of Palmer is the seat for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough government.

Sutton was established in 1918 as a railroad station. The area has rich coal deposits and was the site for the Jonesville Coal Mine.

The Talkeetna River was named by Tanaina Indians. In 1898 it was reported by G.H. Eldridge and Robert Muldrow, U.S. Geological Survey, that "Talkeetna" was a Tanaina word for "river of plenty". The town of Talkeetna was established in 1916 as a railroad station and now serves as the jumping off point for climbers headed to Mt. McKinley.

Knik Area History

Courtesy Fran Seager-Boss, Archeologist

Knik was a place where many natives gathered annually for their yearly supply of fish taken from spawning runs. Some time in the late 1800’s a Russian Orthodox Church was constructed at Knik. A man named George Palmer opened a mercantile store at Knik in 1887 for trappers. It was not long before prospectors streamed into the country, luring merchants, freighters, and businesses associated with the Gold Rush.

Independence Mine - Hatcher Pass

Willow Creek, a tributary of the Susitna River, attracted numerous prospectors to the region. By 1906, hard rock, quartz mining was discovered in the same region. Although trails lead to placer mines, hard rock mining prompted a need for more durable roads. Quartz miners pooled their resources for construction of the Carle Wagon road from Knik, to what is now known as Independence Mine and Hatcher Pass. Numerous frozen winter trails also radiated out from Knik to various placer gold mines, the most famous of which lead to the Iditarod-Innoko district. During long arctic winters the Gold Rush town of Nome, had no route connecting it to open waters. Accommodating a need for winter access to coastal waters, the Iditarod trail was extended to Nome, thereby connecting Knik to numerous inner gold mining towns across an 1100 mile route (today the trail is famous for the annual Iditarod dog mushing race). On the heels of the gold rush, Knik continued to attract families and entrepreneurs eager to participate in the biggest event of the late nineteenth century.

Knik grew from one mercantile outfit in 1887, to encompassing by 1914, additional outfitters, hotels, saloons, family housing, pool hall, a school and a newspaper. As early as 1898-1899 miners working the tributaries of the Susitna River were wintering at Knik. By 1906 there were approximately 150 natives and 40 Euro-Americans living at Knik. An additional supply store was opened and operated by O.G. Herning, a former prospector. The region’s native Dean’ina played a vital role in the community. They served as guides and freighters; owned and operated their own boats for lighterage; they mushed between Sunrise and Knik as mail carriers; and generally held positions associated with building the townsite and mines such as: cutting timbers, making house logs and chopping firewood. Others harvested and smoked fish and hunted game animals, bartering and/or selling their catch for Euro-American goods. Their wives and extended families made and sold moccasins, mitts, fur robes and trinkets.

Shipments of gold often traveled through Knik en route to Seward, or were off loaded onto lighters bussing passengers and freight to and from larger steam vessels anchored at the mouth of Knik Arm. Supplies traveling north included timber, and furnishings in addition to machinery and equipment necessary for placer, hydraulic mining and stamping machines used in quartz mining. In addition to running a mercantile store, O.G. Herning operated a mill to supply timberless areas with much needed building materials and milled lumber. As a prospector and Knik supplier, he also kept a diary throughout his life. Notations from his journal illustrate importance of the townsite as a distribution center. He noted, during one week in November 1911, 120 mushers passed through Knik. On January 10, 1912, "four dog teams arrived in Knik after 33 days on the trail from Iditarod, with 2600 pounds of gold." On December 31, 1916, he recorded one of the last runs to mush through Knik "the Iditarod team came in to Knik with 3400 pounds of gold hauled by 46 dogs."

Through government promotions, and in anticipation of railroad construction farmers in 1915, started to arrive in Knik. Filing on homestead, they settled in and around Knik while others spread north of Knik Arm. Knik’s population swelled to approximately 500 people (not including miners wintering over) and commerce was booming as townspeople looked forward to a comfortable future.

Construction of the Alaska Railroad spelled doom to Knik’s prosperity. The small community which had strongly supported construction of a rail line, realized in 1916, the railroad was bypassing their settlement, and sealing their fate. Rails, assorted equipment and workers offloaded at Knik’s anchorage near Ship Creek, creating a new townsite over night. Later known as Anchorage, the new townsite became the focal point of rail construction in south central Alaska. The railroad eventually connected Seward, an open sea port, to Fairbanks some 470 miles away, with a 38 mile spur to the Matanuska coal mines. Wasilla became a new commercial center for the Willow Creek mines. Cutting their losses, Knik’s business community moved to new railroad townsites, some proprietors even relocated their buildings. On the heels of commercial flight, many Knik natives moved to Eklutna, a village on the east side of Knik Arm. Most of Knik’s remaining native families in 1918, succumbed to the influenza epidemic that struck the Tanaina population of Upper Cook Inlet.

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