Mother Gold, Father Railroad – The Birth of Wasilla
A history of Wasilla, Alaska
by Skip Coghlan
Long long ago, the great Copper River Basin ice field covered land where the Copper and Matanuska Rivers now flow, shaping mountains and valleys as its glaciers paused, advanced, and retreated. The Matanuska Glacier reached 4000 feet at its greatest depth, scraping off the upper exposures of the gold bearing strata in the Talkeetna Mountains, taking the top off Bald Mountain, and depositing placer gold in streams like Willow Creek.
W. J. Morris and L. H. Herndon staked the first placer gold claims on Willow Creek at the mouth of Grubstake Gulch in 1897, followed by Orville George “O.G.” Herning representing the Klondike and Boston Gold Mining and Manufacturing Company. His group purchased existing, and staked additional, claims. Initially, access to Grubstake Gulch was very inconvenient. The miners had to boat up the Susitna River, then haul their freight supplies and mining equipment over land up Willow Creek. The miners needed a better and more direct trail to the claims. Herning laid out a winter trail due north from the town of Knik, past the east edge of Big Lake and around the west toe of Bald Mountain. This route crossed low lands with many lakes, streams, and muskegs left by the retreating glacier—too wet for summer travel, but great for freighting with horses and sleds in the winter. Later, he also found a better summer route.
Profits weren’t what the Klondike and Boston Company expected, so in 1904 they sold their Willow Creek claims to Herning who continued operating them, even though he also saw the limited potential for placer mining. The future of Knik looked good however, with about 150 natives and 40 European-Americans in residence and growing prospector traffic. Herning purchased the vacant Alaska Commercial Company store and opened his own Knik Trading Company.
With the placer gold playing out, prospectors began looking for the mother lode—the hard rock, gold bearing quartz. Robert Hatcher staked the first gold quartz claim above Fishhook Creek in 1906, which developed into the Alaska Free Gold Mining Company. Between 1897 and 1914, placer gold valued at $30,000 was recovered in the Willow Creek area. By 1914, the lode mines had already produced gold valued at $596,634 and they were just getting started.
Developing and operating gold bearing quartz mines required ever heavier equipment and still better access for hauling freight. In 1908, J. S. Carle, the manager of the Alaska Gold Quartz Mining Company, in partnership with other mine operators, cut another trail, just south of Lake Lucile, continuing east, then north between Lake Lucile and Wasilla Lake and on north up the Little Susitna River. The Alaska Road Commission, in 1912, upgraded the entire 33-mile Carle Wagon Road from Knik to Fishhook Creek to an all-weather, well graded road with sturdy bridges.
With the development of the Willow Creek District mines and added business from traffic on the Iditarod Trail, Knik was booming. The village population grew to about 500 people. A new two-room school was added, and businesses expanded. The years I914 and 1915 were Knik’s golden years. However, the railroad was coming … and with it, significant changes.
At the turn of the century, a group of Seattle businessmen invested $30 million to construct the Alaska Central Railroad (ACR) from Seward to Fairbanks. The route was laid out and construction began. The ACR completed only 54 miles of track in six years and went bankrupt. In 1909, the ACR was reorganized as the Alaska Northern Railway Company (ANR). Another 21 miles of track were completed, but by 1912 ANR also went bankrupt. Two years later the U.S. Congress authorized $35 million to construct 1,000 miles of railroad to connect one or more Pacific ports of Alaska to navigable rivers in the interior. President Wilson appointed a three-man Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC) and they immediately went to work.
Throughout 1914, field crews reconnoitered alternative routes and after the reports came in the president announced the selection of the Seward to Fairbanks route, the same plan begun by the ACR and the ANR. The AEC purchased materials and equipment to construct a dock and headquarters near Ship Creek, laid out a townsite on the bluff above the rail yard, and in 1915 Anchorage was born. In 1916, the line was completed to Matanuska, the location for the spur to the Chickaloon coal fields. The Matanuska townsite was laid out and lots auctioned off.
Knik folks understood what was happening and in 1916 about half had moved to Anchorage for jobs and to start businesses. Another third of its residents headed to the new town of Matanuska for the new coal field development and other opportunities. The few people remaining, most directly involved with supporting the Willow Creek District mines, set their eyes on the proposed townsite where the railroad would cross the Carle Wagon Road, on the high ground between Wasilla Lake and Lake Lucile. This would become the freight transfer site between the railroad and the mines. It would also be the support center for homesteaders beginning to move into the area.
In late 1916, as clearing began through this new “Wassila” section of the railroad, a tent camp sprang up along the right-of-way. The camp included businesses to support the railroad crews, contractors cutting ties and telegraph poles, and workers doing the clearing and grading. Businesses included Mrs. Small’s tent roadhouse, the Kidd’s eating place, Clark Davis’s soft drink and card room, Howard W. Wilmoth’s tent hardware store, and Herning’s temporary store building and future warehouse. On February 20, 1917, the US Postal Service assigned Wilmoth as postmaster of “Wassila.” By March, the right-of-way was cleared; by May, track was laid through the intersection with the Carle Wagon Road.
The AEC asked the General Land Office to design, survey and stake the Wasilla townsite, US Survey 1175. The townsite included 34 acres on the moraine separating Wasilla Lake and Lake Lucile, with 126 lots, a school reserve, a municipal reserve, and a park reserve. The railroad cleared the main street and dug a community well on the municipal reserve. Up until the townsite plat was completed, the railroad and local folks had referred to this area as “Wassila.” However, the plat was titled “Wasilla,” and so it was and is today.
About 9 a.m. on the morning of June 20, 1917, the crowd began to gather, and the railroad crew set up a table and chart-board on a flat car. Having already auctioned lots in Anchorage and Matanuska, the auctioneers pretty much had the process down to a routine. At 10 a.m., the caller banged the table and announced the first lot. By the end of the day 49 lots had been sold for $5,645, the price per lot ranging from $25 to $280. Only nine of the names shown on the 1917 auction records appear three years later on the 1920 census: Herning, Shough, Hartman, Wilmoth, Zink, Nelson, Tryck, Swanson and Spaulding. These folks proceeded with the development of Wasilla, and their names appear often in the early years.
By the end of 1918, the Hernings had moved their Knik Trading Co. into a newly constructed, two-story building on the northeast corner of Wasilla Street (now the Parks Highway) and Main Street. This building has since been restored, after being moved to the northwest corner of Herning Avenue and Boundary Street. The Hernings later built a home on the lot behind the store which has also been restored and now stands in the Wasilla Historic Park. The Hartmans constructed a two-story log roadhouse just north of Hernings. The Wilmoths constructed a two-story hardware store/Post Office/residence across the street from Hernings. Harry Shough constructed a small log cabin on Main Street that became the first Wasilla Library in 1942. George Zink constructed a small white home that stood for many years just across Knik Street from the school. Fred Nelson built a log home and barn next to Zink where he lived until he passed away in 1963. The Trycks dismantled their home in Knik and rebuilt it on the northwest corner of Wasilla Avenue and Knik Street adjacent to the school reserve. Gus Swanson also dismantled his log home in Knik and rebuilt next to Trycks, also backing on the school reserve. Dr. Spaulding built a small log cabin that stood on the southeast corner of Swanson Avenue and Main Street. By 1918, the AEC had also completed the depot which still stands today along the tracks.
The new Wasilla town folks were primarily supporting mining development and operations, while nearby homesteaders focused on surviving, clearing their land, and developing farms. There was no town or area government to facilitate working together. Although the townsite was laid out and auctioned off by the railroad, it wasn’t a railroad town in the sense of a “company town.” Even with the lack of a governing body or central organizer, the community came together to give top priority to obtaining a school. The Wasilla families petitioned the Clerk of the Court’s office in Valdez to have the Territory establish a school district, providing funds for a one-room school building and a teacher. In October 1917, bids were opened for the school’s construction, and by mid-November the building was complete. Out back was a coal shed with boy’s and girl’s outhouses on either side. Lighting was provided by gas lanterns and a bucket of water was brought from the town well each day. Orah Dee Clark, the first teacher, arrived on November 24, and on November 26 the school opened with nine students, grades one through eight, attending. This school building has been restored and stands in the Wasilla Historic Park.
In just one year, the new residents completed their homes, businesses and a school to serve the Willow Creek District mines, homesteaders and other local folks. Thus was born the new town of Wasilla.
Adapted from the Wasilla Centennial History 1917-2017: “Wasilla, A Great Place Among the Lakes.”
If you enjoy Alaska History, “Wasilla, A Great Place Among The Lakes: The Centennial History 1917 – 2017” by Skip Coghlan is a book you will want to own. This well-researched book is laid out in three sections: a narrative history, a pictorial history, and early family biographies. You can find the book at many local bookstores and businesses or online at alaskabooksandcalendars.com.
Also check out :: “The Trading Post – History of a Colony Project Building” | This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of Last Frontier Magazine.