Thursday, April 27, 2017

Knik, Alaska: Little survives of early Cook Inlet commercial center





About 14 miles southwest of Wasilla on the western shore of Cook Inlet’s Knik Arm lies the hamlet of Knik. Its history may be most linked with the 1910 Iditarod Gold Rush and the Iditarod Trail, however, Knik’s recorded history dates back to about 1880.

Knik was originally the site of a Dena’ina Athabascan Indian village. According to exhibits at the Knik Museum (operated by the Wasilla Knik Historical Society), one of the first American traders in the area was George W. Palmer. He established a trading post along the eastern shore of Knik Arm at a Dena’ina village called “Old” Knik (now known as Eklutna). In the 1880s he moved his business across the inlet to “New” Knik. U.S. Census records indicate 46 Athabascan Indians lived at the village in 1880.

Palmer’s move to New Knik proved fortuitous. Gold was discovered along Cook Inlet’s Turnagain Arm in the early 1890s, and the 1896 Cook Inlet Gold Rush brought an influx of prospectors to the region. Those fortune hunters fanned out over the countryside in search of gold, including to the Talkeetna Mountains north of Knik, and to the base of the Alaska Range to the north and west.

The Alaska Commercial Company soon moved to Knik. By 1905 the community found itself the commercial center for the Upper Cook Inlet, supplying goods to trappers and homesteaders, to miners in the Willow Creek Mining District, to government exploration parties and other adventurers.
Knik did not actually have an ideal location to be a commercial center. Because of Cook Inlet’s high tides and Knik’s lack of a good anchorage, freight was unloaded onto skiffs at Fire Island (near present-day Anchorage) and lightered to Knik. Docks were eventually built out across the mud flats into Knik Arm so deep-draft vessels could unload at Knik.

The town’s fortunes were lifted considerably with the discovery of gold in the winter of 1908-1909 in the Iditarod area, 375 miles to the northwest on the far side of the Alaska Range. The first stampeders into the area were from the Fairbanks area—miners taking the first steamers headed downriver in spring. They were joined by other gold seekers, many who journeyed north out of Knik, and soon the towns of Iditarod and Flat, both with more than 2,000 residents, sprang up.

A 2011 Alaska Geographic Association publication about the Iditarod Trail states that more than 65 tons of gold were mined in the Iditarod region. Most of that gold was transported by dog team through Knik. Photographs from that period show convoys of dog teams being used to haul gold—sometimes carrying more than a ton of gold in one shipment.

By 1915 the town had about 500 residents. The 1985 book, Knik, Matanuska, Susitna: a visual history of the valleys, states that the town boasted four stores, four hotels, three saloons, a movie house, barbershop, pool hall, U.S. Commissioner’s office and jail.

Prosperity was not to last, though. The federal government’s decision to route the Alaska Railroad through the Susitna Valley brought ruin to Knik. Railroad tracks reached Wasilla by 1917. Businesses relocated either to Wasilla or Anchorage, and Knik quickly withered away.

Most of Knik’s buildings disappeared — moved or scavenged for building materials. Knik Hall, shown in the drawing, is one of only two remaining buildings. Originally the Fulton-Hirshey Pool and Billiard Hall, it was constructed in 1910, and was later used as a roadhouse. It was donated as a historic site by Lois Bjorn Birdsall and rehabilitated in 1967 by the Wasilla Knik Centennial Committee. It is now operated as a museum by the Wasilla Knik Historical Society.

Sources:

  • Conversation with Diane Williams, docent at Knik Museum
  • Exhibits at Knik Museum
  •  “Iditarod Historic Trail.” Alaska Geographic Association. 2011

  • Knik, Matanuska, Susitna: a visual history of the valleys. Matanuska-Sustina Borough. 1985

  • “Knik Site – National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” William Hanable. U.S. Park Service. 1973

  • “Town of Knik epitomized mining boom-bust cycle.” Laurel Downing Bill. in Senior Voice. Vol. 31, No. 7, July 2008