Surprising history of once-booming Alaska town

Aunt Phil's Trunk

Thousands of gold seekers flooded into the North country during the late 1800s and settled around new towns such as Nome, Juneau and Dawson. Several also streamed into Cook Inlet. They hacked out primitive trails connecting scattered camps and eventually unified the region between Cook Inlet on the south and the Talkeetna Mountains on the north, and the Matanuska River on the east and the Susitna River in the west.

Although few of the prospectors who entered Cook Inlet became rich, by the early 1880s a small Tanaina Athabascan settlement called Knik had enough commercial activity that George W. Palmer opened a store there in 1880 and the Alaska Commercial Company, which had taken over the assets of the Russian American Company, opened a trading post in 1882.

Knik served as a supply center for the Willow Creek Mining District, organized in 1898, and the small settlement's population grew to several hundred as hard rock followed placer mining. But the $30,000 miners gleaned from their diggings between 1897 and 1914 wasn't enough to nourish their hopes and dreams (a little more than $1 million in today's dollars).

However the discovery of gold in the Interior in 1902 by a miner named Felix Pedro helped keep their hopes afloat. That discovery near what would become Fairbanks led to more intense mining everywhere.

Discoveries of gold north of Knik in the Talkeetna Mountains, as well as placer gold northwest on the Iditarod River, made the community across the Turnagain Arm from modern Birchwood the major trading center for the gold and coal mines in the region. Shopkeepers expanded into supplying the various sawmills in the Matanuska Valley, the Susitna River Basin and Willow Creek Mining District. At its peak, Knik boasted a population close to 500.

By 1914 the town had its own weekly newspaper, the Knik News, and two trading posts, three roadhouses and hotels, a restaurant, a general hardware store, a saloon, a transfer and fuel company, a school and a construction business. And residents and passersby alike could find candies, tobacco, magazines, stationery and postcards at The Place of Sweets. Two dentists and two doctors looked after the physical needs of the population, and itinerant priests of the Russian Orthodox Church looked after their spiritual needs.

Knik prospered for several years, but the Alaska Railroad Act of 1914, which led to the birth of Anchorage, resulted in the demise of the once-thriving community. While Anchorage blossomed, Knik wilted when the railroad bypassed the town. The post office, which opened in 1904, closed for good in 1917. Residents abandoned their homes or moved them to new locations, and businesses moved either to Wasilla or Anchorage.

A vestage of days gone by is located about 14 miles down Knik-Goose Bay Road, where the Knik Museum & Townsite, operated by the Wasilla-Knik Historical Society, welcomes visitors to explore relics from the town's heyday. The museum is also home to the Mushers Hall of Fame.

This column features tidbits found in Aunt Phil's Trunk, a five-book Alaska history series written by Laurel Downing Bill and her late aunt, Phyllis Downing Carlson. The books are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at