History of Chugiak-Eagle River
In the Beginning
For thousands of years, human activity along the eastern side of Knik Arm primarily revolved around seasonal hunting and fishing activities by the indigenous Dena'ina Athabascan people. “The last frontier” with its promise of the gold brought prospectors, fur traders and missionaries through the area.
The true unlocking of Alaska's wealth began with the completion in 1923 of the Alaska Railroad, totally financed and constructed by the federal government. From the Port of Seward, the railroad was extended to the interior community of Fairbanks. One of the earliest segments to be built was from Ship Creek in downtown Anchorage north to the Matanuska Valley coal fields. Ship Creek became the hub of activity as a construction camp and supply terminal site and later became the main rail yard, railroad headquarters and ultimately the center of activity which permanently established Anchorage as a new community.
Growth of Eklutna
Little growth occurred in Anchorage or north in the Chugiak-Eagle River area after the completion of the railroad. An exception, however, was at Eklutna. In 1924, the U.S. Department of Interior established a home at Eklutna for Native children orphaned by the 1918 influenza epidemic. The home was soon converted to a boarding school called the Eklutna Industrial School, which offered vocational training to high-school age youths from throughout western Alaska. By 1930, enrollment had reached 110 students, making it the largest of the territory’s three vocational schools. A post office was also established at Eklutna in 1926.
In 1928, an Anchorage entrepreneur obtained a federal license to construct a hydroelectric project in the Eklutna Valley. Completed in 1930, the project included a storage dam at Eklutna Lake, a diversion dam seven miles downstream on the Eklutna River, a 1,900 foot tunnel and an 870 foot penstock to channel the water to the power house located a short distance from Eklutna village. Because of the size of the operation, housing was also constructed at the site for permanent full-time personnel. The power plant operated for more than 25 years and was a major source of electricity for Anchorage.
Interest in homesteading in the Chugiak-Eagle River area grew during the 1930’s following establishment of the Matanuska Colony and construction of the Palmer Highway through Chugiak-Eagle River, linking Palmer (to the North) and Anchorage (to the South.) Initiated as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Program, the Matanuska Colony was seen as a way to help farmers escape the drought and poverty of the Midwest while, at the same time, helping to establish agriculture in Alaska.
World War II
With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, military leaders began to anticipate United States involvement. This led to the establishment of Fort Richardson military Reservation and, later Elmendorf Air Force Base (today referred to as JBER – Joint Base Elmendorf-Richarson.) Most of the lands were acquired between 1940 and 1943. The establishment of the military reservation clearly separated Anchorage and Chugiak-Eagle River areas. However, the army post did provide a market for the small farming and livestock raising activities undertaken by early Eagle River homesteaders.
After World War II
Additional land was made available for homesteading and small five-acre home sites. Terms for land ownership were also made more attractive, particularly for ex-military personnel. Homesteading, however, seldom provided enough of a livelihood to support a family.
Rapid Growth 40’s & 50’s
The 40’s and 50’s saw rapid population growth. The population of the greater Anchorage area rose from 4,229 in 1939 to 82,736 in 1960, primarily as a result of national defense efforts associated with World War II, the Korean War and the Cold War. Large numbers of military personnel were assigned to Anchorage, while high paying jobs associated with military construction projects also attracted large numbers of civilians.
Chugiak-Eagle River’s population grew from an estimated few hundred people in 1939 to 2,229 in 1960. During this period, many G.I.’s were exposed to the attractions of the Anchorage and Chugiak-Eagle River areas. After World War II, additional land was made available for homesteading; however, it seldom provided enough of a livelihood to support a family. Consequently, most homesteaders commuted to jobs at Fort Richardson or Anchorage. These land use and job commuting patterns which were established following World War II throughout the Chugiak-Eagle River area have continued to the present.
Through the late 40’s and 50‘s, more families settled in Eagle River and Chugiak. In 1947, families living near present-day Chugiak formed a school club and decided to call their area “Chugiak”, a Dena'ina word meaning “a place of many places.” As Eagle River and Chugiak grew, however, Eklutna declined. In 1945, the Eklutna post office was closed as was the Eklutna Industrial School, which was eventually relocated to Sitka. Some Eklutna villagers moved to Anchorage where jobs were more readily available.
The Anchorage area continued to grow during the 1960’s, with the population of Chugiak-Eagle River area doubling. Much of the population growth was related to continued federal government activities, as well as post-1964 earthquake reconstruction. Out of the increase of 43,597 people in the greater Anchorage area during this decade, 3,603 settled in Chugiak-Eagle River.
Eagle River took on the look of a small town as some of the original homesteads were subdivided into small lots served by community wells. Small businesses which had been established during the 1950’s to serve the local population and travelers along the Glenn Highway, increased in number. However, Chugiak and other outlying areas to the north and up the mountain valleys remained rural and undeveloped.
As the Chugiak-Eagle River settlements grew, the need for public services also rose. Most community services were provided by local service clubs and organizations. One of the earliest and longest-lasting, for example, is the Chugiak Volunteer Fire Department.
As a result of the Trans-Alaska pipeline, from 1980 to 1985, Chugiak-Eagle River’s population grew from 14,800 to 25,067 people. New schools were constructed to accommodate the influx of people and roads and utilities were upgraded. The Glenn Highway between Anchorage and Eagle River was expanded to six lanes with highway lighting creating a pleasant and safe commute. A second bridge, the Briggs Bridge, over Eagle River was constructed and connected to the Glenn Highway in 1993.
Today, based on mid-decade estimates from Alaska’s Department of Labor, the population of Chugiak-Eagle River is right at 35,600. The community has a vibrant business district, two full high schools, two middle schools, eight elementary schools that includes one charter school. All public schools operate under the jurisdiction of the Anchorage School District.
Much of the remaining developable land in the Municipality is owned by Eklutna Native Corporation. In fact, through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Eklutna Native Corporation is the single largest private landowner in the Municipality of Anchorage. Eklutna Native Corporation has provided much land for schools in the area and developed some of the most beautiful properties, both commercial and residential, in Chugiak-Eagle River.
Recreational activities are diverse and include lots of local parks with ADA accessible playground equipment. Additionally, five Municipal baseball fields are available for team play at Loretta French Park in Chugiak. Six more baseball fields are located at Eagle River Lions Park along with facilities for Pop Warner Football. Extensive trail systems are maintained in Chugiak and Eagle River for both Nordic ski and dog mushing. Downtown Eagle River Commons Park has eight acres of developed open space, a covered stage / amphitheater, the first fully accessible playground in Alaska, and a connecting trail to the Glenn Highway bike trail. Eagle River/Chugiak Town Center is located in the heart of downtown and is home to Municipal offices, the Chugiak-Eagle River library and the Chamber of Commerce.
Chugiak-Eagle River continues to attract visitors and new residents alike because of its pristine beauty and modern conveniences. New subdivisions are in the planning stages that will accommodate those wishing to relocate to this area. However, plenty of open space remains allowing residents and visitors to thrive in this beautiful Alaskan environment.
Reference: State of Alaska, Department of Labor, Chugiak-Eagle River Comprehensive Plan, Municipality of Anchorage Planning Department; Chugiak-Eagle River Parks & Recreation