Ship Creek school oversight causes delay

Aunt Phil's Trunk

When Land Office chief Andrew Christensen opened the auction for townsites above Ship Creek on July 10, 1915, bidding became so brisk that prospective lot owners couldn't hold down prices. After sales closed a week later, 655 lots had sold for almost $150,000 (more than $4 million in today's dollars). Christensen claimed the sale had "injected confidence in the people of the town" that soon would become Anchorage.

But that confidence may have been tempered somewhat when the residents realized the Alaska Engineering Commission had overlooked a vital component in the new town. The commission had sold the parcels of land with the understanding that the lots could be assessed to finance such public services as water and sewer utilities, fire protection and garbage pickup, but it had neglected to provide for financing a school.

It took months to solve the dilemma. The editor of the Cook Inlet Pioneer wrote that summer: "If we are to retain the families, and they compose the backbone of any community, we must provide the children with adequate school facilities. It is highly important that this should be done without undue delay...."

Jane Mears, wife of Alaska Engineering Commission's Lt. Col. Frederick Mears, organized the Anchorage Women's Club to take on the project after her husband allegedly told her "I'm busy building a railroad, if you want a school you'll have to build it yourself," according to the Pioneer School website.

The women's group spearheaded the building of a school with salvaged material from the railroad project. Completed in November 1915, Pioneer School was constructed to serve about 90 students.

From the beginning, residents labeled the school "entirely inadequate," "unsanitary," and "of an order of the early eighteenth century." A second floor was added to the building shortly after it opened as the number of children needing an education kept growing. But the school lacked a solid foundation, paint and a satisfactory heating system – woodstoves converted from steel barrels heated the two classrooms. The unheated outdoor toilets didn't meet townsite standards, either.

In August 1916, construction of a new three-story school began. The first two stories were completed by January 1917 so classes moved into the bulding. Additional classes were held in the Presbyterian Church until construction of the school was completed that December.

Edes ordered Andrew Christensen to take over the responsibility of "school director in addition to your other duties," in 1917. Although school board members A.J. Wendler, Mrs. W.T. Normile and M. Finkelstein had handled the first year of operation admirably, enrollment had doubled to more than 200 pupils by the fall of 1917. The school also had management problems. One teacher taught 70 primary students in half-day shifts.

Christensen told the principal he "must quit going to the pool halls and must get down to business," and he advised one teacher "to stop gossiping, complaining and criticizing, and to bring her work up to standard."

Pioneer School was used only for overflow after the second school opened on the School Reserve. It served both elementary and high school students until the mid-1930s.

The old Pioneer School eventually was moved to Sixth Avenue and F Street where it became the meeting place for the Pioneers. In 1965, it moved to Third Avenue and Eagle Street and is operated by the city as a public meeting place. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on Dec. 6, 1980.

This column features tidbits found among the writings of the late Alaska historian, Phyllis Downing Carlson. Her niece, Laurel Downing Bill, has turned many of Carlson's stories – as well as stories from her own research – into a series of books titled "Aunt Phil's Trunk." Volumes One through Five are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at and