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THE HISTORY OF KNIK, ALASKA
FROM BOOM TOWN TO GHOST TOWN

 
by Coleen Mielke

2017

coleen_mielke@hotmail.com

 

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As the crow flies, the present day location for "Old Knik" is 17½ miles northwest of Anchorage on the west bank of Knik Arm of Cook Inlet. By more conventional travel, it's located about 14 miles south of Wasilla on the Knik Goose Bay Road. Today, it is a quiet, gentle, residential area with few reminders of the booming gold town it was between 1898 and 1917.


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.

The 1885-1886 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.

Stafeev's journal described Knik Station (todays Knik) as having an Alaska Commercial Company (ACC) trading post, one Caucasian trading agent, one Dena'ina interpreter, a handful of Indian residents and only three permanent buildings.

In about 1888, Russian missionary, Father Mitropol'skii, helped the Indians build a chapel at "Old Knik" (Knik Station). Ten years later, when gold prospectors flooded the area, the Indians decided to move out of Knik and dismantled the chapel and took it with them to "New Knik" (Eklutna)


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:

http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~coleen/holt%20web.html

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Gold fever 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 away.

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.

The growth 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. 

In the 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.

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 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.

During 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.

In 1911, 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.

Gold was 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.

 KNIK MAP

Many people, 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.

On January 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.

Starting 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.

By 1912, 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.

Almost 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 bypass them.

People 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.

Today, 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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