ALASKA Chugiak history is rich in good ol' common sense

Once, I had a chance to brag about Chugiak-Eagle River to a captive audience. The Sleeping Lady Chapter of the National Society of Daughters of the American Revolution was hosting the group's statewide convention in Eagle River. Chapter Regent Julie Rouse gave me the opportunity to tell how our area got here from there.

Eklutna was a main camp for the Tanaina Indians, who inhabited Upper Cook Inlet long before the village was established on this side of Knik Arm. The log church seen by today's village tour visitors is more than 100 years old. The gold rush brought the first settlers here. Discovery of gold at Indian and Sunrise added commerce to a trail that linked Kenai with the Interior and extended to Nome. That route gets lots of attention each winter when the Iditarod Sled Dog Race is run.

Modern-day mushers who start the race in Anchorage don't come near the original Iditarod Trail until they approach Checkpoint No. 1 at the VFW Post in Eagle River. Early-century travelers crossed the mountains and traversed Eagle River Valley, bypassing today's Anchorage, as they mushed to Knik and then on to Iditarod, Flat and Nome.

When the railroad was built in 1916, tracks were pushed through the woods north of Anchorage. Before that time, there were only a handful of cabins used by trappers. And one moonshiner.

Eagle River John, whose last name is lost to history, had a still at his place next to the Eagle River. He hauled his product to Anchorage by boat. Eagle River John became an ex-resident when he was taken Outside to a new home, one with bars on the windows. It seems he shot a marauder who was attempting to make off with his still.

Although Knik was the major settlement in the early part of the century, Eklutna soon surpassed it in size. A boarding school operated there in the1930s, teaching children from villages around Alaska.

Anchorage by then was established. Its demand for electricity was met by a hydroelectric plant operated by water spilling over a dam on the Eklutna River. The shell of the abandoned power plant can still be seen a short distance from the Glenn Highway, just north of Eklutna Lodge. Traces of the employees' homes can also be found. Among those who lived there were the parents of MarkAir owner Neil Bergt and of my bride, for whom nearby Lake Barbara is named. Frank Reed, now a retired banker, was employed there.

Development of Chugiak began in earnest after World War II. A gravel road stretched from Anchorage to Eklutna and later was extended to Palmer. It was not until the late 1940s that it was connected to the outside world.

Residents gathered in 1947 and chose the name Chugiak for the community that extended from Fort Richardson's boundaries north to Goat Creek. They declared that "Chugiak" is the proper way to pronounce the name of the mountains that surround us. According to those pioneers, the name means "place of many places." I haven't verified that translation, mind you, and pass it along merely as a matter of information.

Three years later, 50 families met and petitioned Matanuska Electric Association to provide power to the area. Not long afterward, they asked the telephone company to follow suit. After a negative response, people took things in their own hands and strung Army surplus field telephone wire through the woods. They spent more time tromping through the brush repairing lines broken by moose than they ever did talking on them.

Impetus for the telephone system was the need for people to be able to reach the volunteer fire department, which was the nucleus of community activity.

In 1954, residents put on a spring carnival over the Memorial Day Weekend. It was a big success. Anchorage Times publisher Bob Atwood wrote an editorial with glowing descriptions of what had been done as a result of "cohesiveness" of the community. They had put Chugiak on the map, he declared.
That cohesiveness soon evaporated. The fire department demanded proceeds from the carnival gate to purchase new equipment. An audit then disclosed that only $2,150 was left of the carnival's $28,000 gross. Arguments followed for months.

By that time, the area to the south was growing rapidly and soon surpassed Chugiak in size. A separate volunteer fire department was formed and Eagle River took on an identity of its own. Today, most people in Anchorage refer to the whole area as Eagle River, something that riles Chugiak old-timers.

This has always been a do-it-yourself community. Until the late 1960s, banks didn't make construction loans here. When people had an extra dollar, they bought another 2x4. In most cases, they built well. I've always been impressed by the abilities of my neighbors. I long ago learned there is more common sense per capita in Chugiak than anywhere else. And they don't take a back seat to anybody.