THE HISTORY OF KNIK, ALASKA
FROM BOOM TOWN TO GHOST TOWN
by Coleen Mielke
There has been a Tanaina/Dena'ina population in the Cook Inlet area for a millennium or more. The Knik Indians were a semi nomadic people who lived in small seasonal hunting and fishing camps during the summer months and semi permanent camps in the winter. As a matter of fact, between 1850 and 1880, Russian Orthodox Communion Registers refer to Indians living in "the Knik's" because there were literally five Knik camps and each one had its own communion register.
journal of Russian American (RAC) agent Vladimir Stafeev (of Tyonek) kept
a missionary journal that offers a rare look into the daily life of the Cook
Inlet Dena'ina. He mentions visiting the villages of Aleksandrovsk, Seldovia,
Ninilchik, Kustatan, Tyonek, Knik and Susitna (once a winter) where he held
religious services and tried to convert non-believers. He also performed marriages,
funerals, baptisms and encouraged the Indians to maintain a moral path.
There are very few first hand accounts of life in Knik pre 1900. One story that is fairly well documented is the story of the Alaska Commercial Co. store that sat near the mouth of the Knik River pre 1898. That year, an ice dam at Lake George (Knik Glacier) broke and sent walls of ice and water down the river, covering the valley below, destroying three Indian villages and killing many. The ACC store was washed off of its foundation and floated intact (and full of merchandise) out into the Knik Arm and eventually to the mud flats between the Little Susitna River and the Susitna River.
Another source of early Knik information, comes from the Alaska Commercial Company sales agent journals which were started in 1885, after an ACC agent (George Holt) was murdered by a Copper River Indian in Knik. See my story about that murder at:
brought thousands of prospectors to south central Alaska in the
late 1890’s. For a fee of $40, large steamers and schooners transported
miners from Seattle to the deep waters of Tyonek; a 4½ day
voyage. Tyonek was a hive of activity in the spring of 1898, with hopeful
prospectors of every age and nationality trying to build a boat. From
Tyonek, men sailed to the tiny outpost of Knik Station, a rough 75 miles
At Knik, the men left their homemade boats and followed the old Dena’ina walking trails that radiated out into gold country. Traveling on foot, snow shoe, or by dog team, prospectors “brushed out” and widened the old trails as they went.
At the turn of the century, Knik was the biggest re-supply stop for prospectors traveling overland from Seward to the Willow Creek, Susitna, Yentna, Chulitna, McKinley, Gold Creek, Flat and Iditarod gold strike areas. It provided essential goods such as boots, shoes, rain gear, guns, ammunition, hardware, furs, groceries, coffee, tobacco, dried fish for dog teams and most importantly, mail from home.
Prospectors purchased furs, sleds, snow shoes, moose meat
at 5¢ a pound, salmon at 25¢ each, moccasins, fur robes from
the local Dena'ina. They also hired them to harvest logs,
whip saw lumber, cut fire wood, tend gardens, pack freight to the mines,
unload boat freight and transport passengers between Knik to Tyonek
via sail boat and bidarka's.
Before the first official post office opened at Knik in 1904, mail arrived about once a month (in the summer) by boat. In the winter, the boats couldn't get to Knik, so Dena'ina "mail runners" were hired to retrieve mail from the town of Sunrise which meant a 12 day round trip on foot/sled about twice a winter (weather permitting).
Prospectors were not the only early customers in Knik. The Eklutna and Matanuska Dena’ina as well as the Copper River Ahtna came to Knik to trade furs for tea, sugar and gunpowder. By 1913, with a winter population of about 500, Knik was the largest settlement on Cook Inlet.
Knik residents lived a subsistence life style. By ax and hand saw, they fell trees to build their homes; they cut firewood and harvested beach coal from Point Campbell and Tyonek for heat; they ate moose, bear, salmon, sheep, trout, ducks, geese, rabbit, beaver and ptarmigan. They fed their dogs dried fish, fed their horses wild hay and got their water from Knik Lake. While working their gold mines at Hatcher Pass, prospectors also ate arctic ground squirrels (which they called parky squirrels). Their journals had humorous recipe titles such as parky stew, fried parky, parky pot pie, parky and dumplings, boiled parky and parky and beans.
of Cook Inlet from 1898 to 1914 (pre Anchorage) depended on large
ocean going steamers and schooners to bring freight, passengers
and mail from Seattle and San Francisco, to the deep waters of Cook
Inlet. As early as 1876, those large ocean going vessels docked at Tyonek,
where there was an Alaska Commercial Co. store and an actual post office
after 1897. Later, the ships docked at Knik Harbor (the Ship Creek area).
That is how Anchorage originally got its name, by shortening of the original
place name of Knik-Anchorage, which meant it was the main place to "anchor".
By the early 1903, Over 23 privately owned launches, sail boats, tugs and scows transported freight and passengers from the larger ships anchored at Knik Harbor to the small towns of Hope, Sunrise, Seldovia, Tyonek and Knik Station; by 1915, there were nearly 100 boats. Lightering freight was a thriving industry on Cook Inlet for both Caucasian and Indian freighters.
early years, freight, destined for Knik, was simply left on the Knik
mud flats and later picked up by its owner, which resulted in inevitable
losses. In 1907-1908, two wharfs were built at Knik which allowed
freight and passengers to off-load at Knik in the summer when the weather
and tides were right. The wharfs were anchored to the shore and supported,
on the other end, by large log cribs full of rocks. In the winters,
tidal ice movement played havoc with these docks and they were in a constant
state of repair and rebuild.
Knik Wharf with ice in background
Cook Inlet travel was perilous for early residents. In 1904, on what was supposed to be a quick sailing trip from Knik to the town of Hope, O.G. Herning wrote in his journal: "Left Knik 8:45 PM for trip to Hope to buy blasting powder, in sailboat. Rainy at Fire Islands lower spit, no wind until Knik Harbor. Bucked tide halfway along Fire Island. Left island 4 AM, wind was out of Turnagain Arm so anchored off island. PM, made camp on island, hard work to get boat out of surf. Next day - big wind and surf, couldn't leave island. Next day – left Fire Island with fair wind. Wind came out of Turnagain Arm, tide rips quite bad, had to put in at island on right side of mouth of Turnagain Arm in Chickaloon Bay. Next day – arrived at Hope. Three days later – left Hope for island in Chickaloon Bay. Tide rough so didn't go to Fire Island. Next day – Left Chickaloon Bay, wind came up strong, seas rolled choppy, had to cross mouth of Turnagain Arm to get lee. One time, gunnels went under. Made it to Pt. Campbell, waited seven hours for tide then got up to upper end of Knik Harbor. Waited for tide until 9 PM. Arrived back at Knik at 1:30”. Herning’s “quick trip” took ten days.
were an integral part of life at Knik. Used for transportation, moving
freight, pulling ground scrapers and hay mowers, plowing fields,
hauling lumber and water, the horses received great care and were
hired by the hour in addition to their drivers. In 1906, the United
States Geological Service came to Knik to survey the area. When they
left that fall, the U.S.G.S. sold their 14 pack horses to eager buyers
in Knik. The horses were then sent to Homer for a safe "winter-over",
because food there was plentiful and the climate was warmer.
the winter of 1908, the Bartholf brothers brought the first sawmill
to Knik by schooner. Destined for the Willow Creek Mining District, it
took seven weeks in sub-zero weather to move the mill (with a team of
horses) from Knik to Willow Creek.
the Federal Government opened a trail, for mail delivery from Seward to Nome,
it was called the Iditarod Trail and it was used mainly by men traveling
to and from gold country. The Iditarod trail, which went right
through Knik, brought money and employment to the town. By 1912,
Knik had a Post Office, three hotels, a bakery, four stores, a pool
hall, two saloons, a Turkish bath, a church, two cafe’s, a candy shop,
a barbershop, a doctor, a blacksmith, a tin shop, a boat shop, an assay
office, a dog kennel, a laundry and a jail. December 12, 1912 the Knik
school opened for the first time, with 17 students. In 1915, Knik residents
purchased a printing press, delivered by schooner from San Francisco,
and published the Cook Inlet Pioneer newspaper.
not the only export from Knik. The Dena’ina harvested and sold fish, moose
meat and furs, made hundreds of pairs of snow shoes and picked hundreds
of barrels of cranberries which were then shipped from Knik to Seattle by
Knik store merchants.
who later figured prominently in Alaska's history, patronized
Knik before Anchorage was built in 1915: Romig, Lathrop, Herning, Palmer,
Glenn, Dowling, Hatcher, Blodgett, Bartlett, Leopold David, Caswell,
Girdwood, Kincaid, Nagley, Whitney and Sutton, just to name a few.
Many Dena’ina notables also traded in Knik: Chief Stephan, Chief Nicolai, Chief Nakeeta, Chief Pete of Tyonek, Goosmar, Affinassa, Alex, Simeon, Esi, Theodore, Vasilla, Ephim, Evan and many others.
Crime was seldom an issue in Knik. There were occasional hunting, claim jumping, and brawling incidents, but they were mostly alcohol related and quickly defused. Home brew, or "white mule" as it was called, was a constant problem and was equally prevalent in the non-Native and Native populations. By 1911, prostitutes discovered Knik. "Sporting girls", as they were called, used Knik as their home base while they traveled frequently to nearby Susitna Station to "ply their trade" with prospectors. They were generally well tolerated by the mostly male population of Knik.
10, 1912, four Iditarod dog teams, carrying 2,900 pounds of gold
bullion arrived at Knik. The news fueled gold fever even further.
The Iditarod trail was lined with prospectors heading north and
dog teams pulling sleds of gold south. While most gold totals didn't
match the 1912 load, there were other memorable amounts of gold that
came through Knik. In 1916, Iditarod gold teams arrived with 3,400
lb. of gold; it was hauled in by several teams and 46 dogs.
about 1906, Knik was hearing rumors that the Alaska Central Railroad, which
started at Seward and ended at mile 72 (Kern Creek), was going to be extended,
possibly to Fairbanks, but by 1909 the company was bankrupt and expansion
of the railroad stopped.
Alaska was a Territory and Congress passed the Organic Act which resulted
in plans to extend the railroad from Kern Creek to the Matanuska Susitna
Valley with a branch going to the Matanuska coal fields.
immediately, teams of surveyors and clearing crews descended on Knik,
building barns for horse teams, a storage building and a mess hall. All
of this activity and the "promise" of jobs fueled more growth for Knik,
but in 1914, the railroad built a headquarters at Ship Creek. In January
of 1916, tracks were completed between Anchorage and Peters Creek. Two months
later, they reached Eklutna and the railroad right of way was cleared to
the next railroad construction camp called Wasilla. Knik, which was at its
population peak that year, could now see that the new railroad route would
began moving from Knik to the Ship Creek tent city, but since Ship Creek
(future Anchorage) had no infrastructure, its early residents continued
to purchase necessities from Knik.
On May 2,1917, the railroad tracks reached Wasilla which was 15 miles closer to the Willow Creek Mines (than Knik) and quickly became transportation central for the freight that gold miners and homesteaders required.
Accepting the inevitable, in the summer of 1917, Knik residents started dismantling their buildings and shipping them to the new town of Anchorage, by boat, or to the new town of Wasilla, by horse and wagon. Only a few old timers and one general store remained in Knik after 1917; six months later, the store burned to the ground and was never rebuilt.
100 years after Knik’s demise, the area is mainly residential
with only two surviving original buildings. The old pool hall is now
the Knik Museum, a two story treasure trove of Alaskana artifacts. The
other building is a small empty cabin that sits nearby. The boomtown
of Knik is truly a forgotten community, rich in (nearly) forgotten history.
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