Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Education one of first priorities of fledgling town of Wasilla

Old Wasilla schoolhouse as it looks today.

Before the Federal government began construction of the Alaska Railroad in 1914, there were only scattered homesteads in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys. However, even before the Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC), the federal agency tasked with building the railroad, had cleared a right-of-way (R-O-W) through the area, settlers began staking homesteads along the proposed route.

Evangeline Atwood, in her book, We Shall be Remembered, relates that 400 people had filed for homesteads in the Susitna and Matanuska valleys by 1916. Less than half that number proved up on their homesteads, but that still left a good number of residents to support the nascent communities that would develop.

The railroad R-O-W reached Mile 15 of the Carle Wagon road between Knik and Hatcher Pass in 1916, and the AEC built Wasilla construction camp (named for the nearby lake and creek) there. On May 2, 1917 tracks reached the site, and on June 20th, the AEC held a land auction at which 50 townsite lots were sold.

Wasilla residents eagerly began building up the new community. One of their first actions was petitioning the Territory to establish a school district. National Register of Historic Places documents state that a school board election was held on August 2nd.

By October the school board had developed plans for a school building, and requested construction funds from the Territory. After receiving $3,100.00, the school board hired O.J. Meehan to build a schoolhouse near the corner of East Herning Avenue and North Knik Street (the site of the current city hall).

Building materials were purchased in Anchorage, and by the first week of November the school building was “under cover.” A community dance was held in the new building on November 16th to celebrate its completion. The first class was held on November 26, 1917, roughly four months after the Wasilla school district was organized.

The school quickly became the town’s community center, a function it fulfilled until the Wasilla Community Hall was constructed in 1931. The town’s first church held services there on Sundays while the school held classes during the week.

In 1934 a larger school was built adjacent to the original school building. The new school was ready just in time for the 1935 arrival of 202 families from northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan as part of the Matanuska Colony, a New Deal agricultural resettlement project.

The Matanuska Colony was based in Palmer, 13 miles to the east. However, until a new school facility could be built in Palmer, some of the project children attended school at Wasilla. Students also attended school at Matanuska (a town at the junction of the Alaska Railroad’s main line and its Matanuska line north to the Chickaloon coal mines), or were home-schooled.

My wife’s grandparents came to Alaska with the colony, and her grandfather, Neil Miller, taught school at Wasilla until completion of the Palmer school. He also drove the school bus between Palmer and Wasilla. After a summer of constant use ferrying colonists and workers, the bus was recalcitrant. Neil often spent as much time under the bus as in it, and his wife, Margaret, referred to herself as a “bus widow.”

With students from both Wasilla and Palmer, Wasilla’s new school building quickly exceeded capacity and the old school was pressed into service as an additional classroom. After the new school building was enlarged, the original school building became a church and later used for storage.

In the 1970s, the building was moved three blocks to the Wasilla Historical Park on East Swanson Avenue.  The school is a one room 22’ x 36’ wood frame building with ship-lap siding and a gabled roof. It is thought the original roof was covered with rolled roofing, but it now has corrugated metal roofing.

The schoolhouse originally had a bell atop the roof. The bell was later moved to the second school building and eventually put in storage. It has now been returned to the first schoolhouse, but since the building’s roof will no longer support it, the bell sits beside the schoolhouse.


  • A Creek, a Hill, and a Forty: the first year of the Matanuska Colony. Margaret Miller and Ray Bonnell. Unpublished manuscript.
  •  Conversation with Bethany Buckingham Follett, curator of Wasilla Museum
  •  “The Birth of Wasilla.” Coleen Mielke. from Mielke’s website, “Matanuska-Susitna Valley, researching our South Central Alaska roots.” 2014
  •  “Wasilla Elementary School, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Dorothy G. Page. National Park Service. 1979
  •  We Shall be Remembered. Evangeline Atwood. Alaska Methodist University Press. 1966

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Backyard fireweed- Fairbanks, 7-29-2017

Milk vetch may be taking over Fairbanks, but fireweed can still be found in abundance if you know where to look. This fireweed is in  a backyard along Second Street in Graehl.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Swirly clouds swinging over Fairbanks tonight - 7-20-17

Interesting clouds I saw while at the Georgeson Botanical Garden tonight. These ripply, swirly clouds were at the leading edge of storm clouds moving into the area. They only lasted a few minutes.

Misty, moisty morning along Chena River in Fairbanks - 7-20-2017

Looking northeast towards Birch Hill from the William Ranson Wood pedestrian bridge in downtown Fairbanks. I took this photo in a slight drizzle at about 6:00 AM.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Monkshood in our front yard - Fairbanks, Alaska, July 2017

 Mixed in with the highbush cranberries in our front yard are a few native monkshood plants. Just one plant appeared a few years ago--don't know where the seeds came from. There are now two or three plants, tenaciously clinging to existence among the cranberries and associated duff.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Chistochina area has brief but rich gold rush history

This historic cabin is one of the few remnants of the Chistochiona Trading Post, which burned down in 1999

Gold was discovered along the Chistochina River in late 1898 by argonauts originally headed for the Klondike gold fields via the Valdez Glacier Trail.

Between 4,000 and 5000 gold seekers attempted the treacherous trail over the Valdez and Klutina glaciers and down the Klutina River to Copper Center in the Copper River Basin. Only a fraction succeeded. Many who did were ill-equipped to proceed, losing most of their supplies to the glacier crossing or along the tumultuous Klutina River.

Few gold seekers had the will to continue on to the Klondike, and only a handful completed the trip. Others returned to Valdez. The rest fanned out across the region in search of new opportunities.

George Hazelet and his party were a few of the fortunate ‘98ers who made it to Copper Center. Befriended by an Ahtna Athabascan guide, they became the first prospectors along the Chistochina River. In early winter of 1898-99 they struck paydirt on the Chisna River, near the Chistochina’s headwaters.

The Upper Chistochina is inhospitable to placer mining‚ with no road access, inclement weather, brief summers and undependable water supplies. Emil Goulet mined in the area during the 1930s and wrote in his book, Rugged Years on the Alaska Frontier, that snowpack had to be excavated before mining could commence, that being wet and cold was the normal state of being during the mining season, and that miners could expect snowstorms any time after Sept. 1.

Copper Center was 100 miles south of the Upper Chistochina mines. The hamlet of Chistochina, near the confluence of the Chistochina and Copper Rivers, grew into the closest community. A 1902 U.S. Geological Survey map of the area does not indicate any settlement there, but does show the Valdez-Eagle Trail along the north bank of the Copper River just south of Chistochina’s present location, and the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS) lines about two miles to the north.

According to National Register of Historic Places documents, Ahtna Athabascan Indians, who had previously utilized a seasonal fish camp in the vicinity, established a permanent village at Chistochina in 1903 (The area's population is predominantly Ahtna, and the Chistochina Native village is still in existence. The village is governed by the Cheesh'na Tribal Council.)

Also in 1903, a Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraphy System (WAMCATS) telegraph station was constructed nearby. Wireless telegraphy replaced WAMCATS landlines by the 1920s, and one of the first sections of line to close was the one from Gulkana to Eagle. That section, including Chistochina’s telegraph station, was abandoned in 1911.

Chistochina probably would have remained a tiny Native village had it not been for a new gold mine opening during the 1920s at Nabesna, 70 miles to the east. To reach Nabesna, the Alaska Road Commission (ARC), beginning in 1926, upgraded the trail from Gakona to Slana into a wagon road, and in 1933 began work on a road from Slana to Nabesna. By 1932, the ARC, which was also responsible for civilian airfield construction in Alaska, had built a landing strip at Chistochina. This strip was used by Bush pilots, including Bob Reeves, to fly supplies into Chistochina, Nabesna and Chisana gold camps.

Chistochina is about mid-way between Gakona and Slana and was a convenient stopping point for freighters headed to Nabesna. Sometime in the mid-1920s or early 1930s (sources differ), Chistochina Trading Post was established. Over time, the trading post morphed into a roadhouse — comprised of a long 1½-story log structure with numerous additions that housed cafĂ©, bar, and bunkhouse, plus outbuildings.

Unfortunately, the trading post burned to the ground in November 1999. A new establishment, the Red Eagle Lodge, replaced it. The cabin shown in the drawing, now used for guest housing, was one of the trading post’s outbuildings. According to the Red Eagle Lodge’s owners, Richard and Judy Dennis, the 18-foot by 20-foot log cabin, with dove-tailed corners and simple gable roof, still retains its original cabin logs and front-porch decking. It is one of the oldest structures on the site.

  • “Chistochina Trading Post – National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.” Deborah A. Smith & Joan M. Antonson. National Park Service. 1997
  • Conversation with Richard Dennis, co-owner of Red Eagle Lodge
  • Rugged Years on the Alaska Frontier. Emil Oliver Goulet. Dorrance & Company. 1949
  • “Topographic reconnaissance map of the Central Copper River Region, Alaska.” T.G. Gerdine. U.S. Geological Service. 1902