THE HISTORY OF KNIK, ALASKA
story is the private property of the author, Coleen Mielke,
please do not re-produce it, in whole or in part, without her written permission.
As the crow flies, Knik lies 17½ miles northwest of Anchorage on the west bank of the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet. By more conventional travel, Knik is located about 14 miles south of Wasilla on the Knik Goose Bay Road. Today, it is a quiet, gentle area with few reminders of the boomtown it once was.
Gold fever brought hundreds of prospectors to south central Alaska in the late 1890’s. For a fee of $40, large steamers and schooners transported men from Seattle to the deep waters of Tyonek… a 4½ day voyage. In the spring of 1898, Tyonek was a hive of activity with hopeful prospectors of every age and nationality. The beach looked like a shipyard, with men building every imaginable water craft from wagon box boats to steam scows. Their boats had to be strong enough to carry men, supplies and prospecting outfits to the tiny outpost known as Knik Station, a rough 75 mile trip up Cook Inlet. From there, the prospectors left their boats and followed the network of old Dena’ina walking trails that radiated from Knik and north into gold country. Traveling on foot, snow shoe, horse, or by dog team, they “brushed out” and widened the old trails as they went.
In 1898, Knik consisted of one small trading post owned by the Alaska Commercial Company (with George Palmer as agent) and approximately 100 Dena’ina living in the surrounding area. However, the lure of gold would soon change the sleepy settlement into a jumping Alaska boom town.
Knik was the last re-supply stop for hundreds of prospectors traveling overland to the Willow Creek, Susitna, Yentna, Chulitna, McKinley, Gold Creek, Flat and Iditarod gold strike areas. Prospectors relied on this stop for dry goods, boots, shoes, rain gear, guns, ammunition, hardware, furs, groceries, coffee, tobacco, dried fish for dog teams, oats and hay for horses and mail from home.
Prospectors also relied heavily on the Knik Dena’ina. In the late 1890’s, there were no maps available for Cook Inlet or the Matanuska and Knik Rivers, so the Dena’ina were hired to guide the prospectors into those areas. The Dena’ina also sold furs, sleds, moose meat at 5¢ a pound, salmon at 25¢ each, moccasins, fur robes and beach coal. They were hired to harvest logs, whip saw lumber, cut fire wood, tend gardens, pack freight to the mines, handle boat freight, and transport passengers from Knik to Tyonek via sail boat and bidarka. The Dena’ina were also trusted mail runners. Before a Post Office was established at Knik, in 1904, winter mail was hand carried from Sunrise, a 12 day round trip on foot.
While many prospectors left Alaska during the winter months, a permanent population began to grow at Knik. In 1905, a second general store, owned by Orville Herning, opened. 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 1914, with a winter population of about 500, Knik was the largest town on Cook Inlet.
Knik residents lived a subsistence life style. By ax and hand saw, they fell trees to build their homes; cut firewood and harvested beach coal from Point Campbell and Tyonek for heat; 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. Prospectors discovered an abundance of Arctic Ground Squirrels in Hatcher Pass (which they called parky squirrels). Their journals showed imaginative menus of parky stew, fried parky, parky pot pie, parky and dumplings, boiled parky and parky and beans.
The growth of Cook Inlet from 1898 to 1914 (pre-Anchorage) depended on large ocean going steamers and schooners to bring freight and passengers, from Seattle and San Francisco, to what was locally known as Knik Harbor or Knik-anchorage (the Ship Creek area). The large boats offloaded freight and passengers onto local launches, sail boats, tugs and scows for the towns of Hope, Sunrise, Seldovia, Tyonek and Knik. Lightering freight was an active industry with more than 75 boats operating in Cook Inlet.
Freight, destined for Knik was left on the Knik mud flats which resulted in obvious losses. In 1907-1908, two wharfs were built which allowed deep draft boats to bring freight and passengers directly into Knik. The wharfs were anchored into inlet mud on the shore end and supported, on the other end, by large log cribs full of rocks. Tidal ice movement played havoc with these wharfs and they were in a constant state of repair and rebuild.
Cook Inlet travel was perilous for early residents. In 1904, on what was supposed to be a quick sailing trip to the town of Hope, O.G. Herning wrote in his journal, “left Knik 8:45 P.M. for trip to Hope (for powder) in sailboat. Rainy at Fire Islands lower spit, no wind until Knik Harbor. Bucked tide halfway along Fire Island. Left island 4 A.M., wind out of Turnagain Arm so anchored off island. P.M., 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 P.M. Arrived back at Knik at 1:30”. Herning’s “quick trip” took ten days.
The winter of 1908, the Bartholf Bros. brought the first sawmill to Knik. Destined for the mining district, it took seven weeks in sub-zero weather to move the mill to Willow Creek with a team of horses. Horses 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 paid 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 the winter months where food was plentiful and the climate warmer.
In 1911, the Federal Government opened a trail, for mail delivery, from Seward to Nome, it was called the Iditarod Trail. This trail was heavily traveled by men traveling into gold country. Knik was the last supply post on the trail before it pushed into the Interior. The Iditarod trail brought money and employment to Knik. By 1912, Knik had a Post Office, three hotels, a bakery, four stores, pool hall, two saloons, a Turkish bath, church, two cafe’s, candy shop, barbershop, doctor, blacksmith, tin shop, boat shop, assay office, dog kennels, 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. Gold was not the only export from Knik. The Dena’ina harvested furs, made hundreds of pairs of snow shoes and picked barrels of cranberries which were shipped from Knik to Seattle by Knik store merchants. Knik was booming.
Many people, who later figured prominently in Alaska's history, patronized Knik before 1916: 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. They were generally well tolerated in the, mostly male, population of Knik.
On January 10, 1912, four Iditarod dog teams, carrying 2,600 pounds of gold bullion arrived at Knik. The news fueled gold fever. 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, an Iditarod gold team arrived with 3,400 lbs. of gold hauled by 46 dogs.
of 1916, the railroad tracks were completed from Anchorage to Peters Creek.
Two months later, the tracks reached Eklutna and the right of way had been
cleared to a new railroad construction camp called Wasilla. The town of Knik,
at its peak that year, was beginning to recognize that the route of the new
railroad was signaling the end of Knik’s boom. May 2, 1917, the railroad
tracks reached Wasilla. Wasilla was fifteen miles closer, than Knik, to the
Willow Creek Mines and quickly became
transportation central for the freight gold miners and homesteaders, alike, required.
Accepting the inevitable, the summer of 1917, Knik residents started dismantling their homes and businesses and moved them to the new town of Anchorage, by boat, or to the new town of Wasilla, by horse wagon. Only a few old timers and one general store remained in Knik after 1917… six months later the only general store burned to the ground and was never rebuilt.
Today, ninety years after Knik’s demise, the area is mostly residential with only two surviving historic buildings. The original 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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