Southcentral Alaska


Alaska's Past - Regional Perspectives

In this section you will learn about:

  • Alaska Railroad construction
  • Fisheries development
  • Copper mining industry
  • Katalla petroleum development
  • Aviation

Ballaine's dream comes true

In 1912 the U.S. Congress passed the second Organic Act which created Alaska's first legislature. For Southcentral Alaska another important section of the law created an Alaska Railroad Commission to investigate the railroad situation in Alaska.

The commission's five-month study concluded that it would be less expensive to purchase the Copper River and Northwestern Railway and build a trunk line from Chitina to Fairbanks than to buy and extend the defunct railroad from Seward. The commission also found Cordova's harbor better than Seward's and less subject to naval attack. The Copper River railroad, however, was associated with the Guggenheims and the business monopolies they represented.

A presidential election took place before the commission's report was adopted. The incoming administration believed that purchasing the Copper River and Northwestern Railway would be an unpopular move. Shortly after taking office, President Woodrow Wilson appointed a new study team, called the Alaska Engineering Commission. This commission was sensitive to the new administration's political concerns. The group was also impressed by the long-range benefit of opening the Matanuska and Susitna river valleys for agriculture.

President Wilson decided that the railroad route would be from Seward to Fairbanks. The road would follow previously built track across the Kenai Peninsula to the head of Cook Inlet. From there it would go through the Susitna River valley and across Broad Pass then turn east and follow the Nenana and Tanana rivers to Fairbanks.

Knik residents welcomed the announcement. They expected their town to be an important stop on the railroad, but when crews surveyed the route in 1914 they by-passed Knik altogether. They defined the right-of-way a few miles to the northeast of Knik and located a construction camp where the railroad route intersected the wagon road from Knik to the Hatcher Pass mines. The camp was called Wasilla, after an Athapaskan chief Vasilie.

A tent city springs up

The survey crews headquartered near the mouth of Ship Creek in upper Cook Inlet. As construction crews gathered there in 1915 a tent city spread along the creek's northern banks. On a plateau above the creek the Alaska Engineering Commission laid out a 240-acre townsite.

At first the town was called Ship Creek, but residents voted to rename the town. First choice was Alaska City." Second choice was "Lane," in honor of Secretary of the Interior Franklin D. Lane. Alaska's governor, J.F.A. Strong, favored "Matanuska" as the official name. The United States Post Office made the final choice by insisting that "Anchorage" would be the name. The name was an abbreviation of "Knik Anchorage," a holdover from the days when the area was a transfer site for passengers and supplies bound for Knik.

In 1917, when the headquarters of the Alaska Engineering Commission were moved to Anchorage, the population of the town was almost 4,000. Railroad wages created a stable economic foundation. Many jobs were related to railroad construction and maintenance. The Alaska Engineering Commission contracted with independent firms to build 100-foot sections of the railroad. This arrangement enticed builders to move to Anchorage and bid on the work units. They in turn hired local laborers at hourly rates fixed by the commission.

Anchorage's port opens

The most difficult stretch of railroad construction was across the 30 miles of rock cliffs along Turnagain Arm. Until it was completed, all machinery and supplies for construction had to reach Anchorage by water. Before ships could unload without requiring expensive and time-consuming lightering at Anchorage, a port had to be developed. The harbor near the mouth of Ship Creek had to be dredged. A wharf had to be built.

Even with these improvements Anchorage's harbor was still not ideal. Although the shipping lanes to the port seldom froze in winter, rivers and creeks discharged great blocks of ice into Cook Inlet. They moved back and forth with the tide at speeds of several knots creating severe hazards to shippers.

Fisheries develop

Some of the shippers carried products from the sea. Taxes on those products accounted for as much as 85 percent of the revenue that supported the territorial government. Southcentral Alaska fisheries provided a fair share of that amount. Salmon canneries operated on Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, and Resurrection Bay at places like Cordova, Kenai, Port Graham, Ninilchik, Seldovia, and Seward and on the Eyak and Copper rivers.

Salmon was not the only product taken from Southcentral Alaska waters. Halibut, herring, and shellfish became increasingly important. By 1910 halibut were being caught by deep-sea fishing boats in the Gulf of Alaska. A cold storage plant to freeze the fish was built at Seward in 1917. About the same time, commercial herring packing began on Cook Inlet. The herring catch varied greatly from year to year. By 1929 wasteful practices had almost destroyed the fish population.

Another industry, clamming, developed in Southcentral Alaska and peaked during the 1930s. Razor clams were plentiful on the beaches of Prince William Sound. Piles of clam shells at abandoned village sites showed they had been important to the Native diet. Alaska clams were introduced on the national market in 1916 to replace clams from the depleted beaches of Washington and Oregon.

By the 1930s, the center of Alaska's clamming industry was in Cordova. In 1932 Alaska beaches produced more than half the total clam pack of the United States, but production soon dropped. The ruthless methods of the diggers depleted the number of clams. Repeated over-harvesting was compounded by cold winters and heavy storms that brought monstrous ice packs onto the Copper River delta. Ice shifting back and forth across the clam beds further diminished the clam population. As a result, government regulations were passed to limit the digging season and to restrict the clam harvest in critical areas.

Copper mines open, then close

In the same years that the different fisheries developed and declined so did production from the Kennecott Mines. The ore was mined deep inside the Wrangell Mountains. A three-mile aerial tramway carried the ore from portals high up the sides of spectacular peaks to a mill and concentrator 4, 000 feet below at the company town of Kennecott. Without coal, smelting the copper locally was not possible, so the ore was shipped to a smelter in Tacoma, Washington. The high costs of shipping the ore to the smelter made it only profitable to mine high-grade ore.

Copper ore was also shipped to Tacoma smelters from mines on Latouche Island in Prince William Sound. The mine there first opened in 1899. Eleven years later the Guggenheim family purchased the property, but operations continued under the original owner. In 1915 Kennecott Copper Company assumed management as increasing demands of World War I for copper called for major expansion. Copper prices soared during the war. At one time, more than 300 men were employed in the Latouche mine. In the post-war period profit from the mine gradually declined and in 1930 it shut down. By 1938 the Kennecott Mines also closed and the Copper River and Northwestern Railway was abandoned.

Local smelters, using Alaska coal, might have extended the life of some of the copper mines by making their operation more economically attractive. Alaskans expected the Alaska Syndicate to build a smelter near the Copper River and run a spur line from its Copper River and Northwestern Railway to the Bering River coal fields. The political controversy, however, had killed the plan.


In the years following 1914 the U.S. Navy sponsored a thriving community in the Talkeetna Mountains, 74 miles from Anchorage. The town of Chickaloon had homes, a schoolhouse, stores, a power plant, dormitories, a mess hall, and most important of all, deposits of coal. The navy developed the coal mines to produce fuel for its ships.

An 1898 army exploration party had found a vein of good quality coal that measured four feet across near the Chickaloon River. Traders and prospectors had also learned of the coal from Natives. The deposits were hard to reach and there was little interest in them until a railroad was built to Interior Alaska.

In the winter of 1913- I914, John Dalton., who had built a toll trail from Haines to the upper Yukon River in 1898, hauled 800 tons of Chickaloon coal down the frozen Matanuska River to navy ships for testing. The tests showed that the coal had good burning properties and would be acceptable fuel for ships. Congress set aside the land as a reserve. When construction of the Alaska Railroad was approved in 1914, the plan included a spur line to the Chickaloon coal fields.

The navy contracted with the Alaska Engineering Commission to oversee the Chickaloon mine. Mine shafts were sunk several hundred feet below the entrance to the east end of the community, and drifts ran east and west. The first shipment of Chickaloon coal reached Anchorage in 1917. In 1919, more than 4,000 tons of coal were mined by Chickaloon's 35 employees. Two years later, the navy began building a million-dollar coal-washing station at nearby Sutton. All of the coal that Chickaloon mines produced over the next few years was for navy use. Not even the government railroad could burn Chickaloon coal.

Like so many other Alaska mining towns, Chickaloon grew quickly and almost as quickly declined. About the time that the navy was planning to enlarge the mines, California oil was found to be more economical than coal. Ship engines were converted to burn oil instead of coal.

Not long after, the navy ordered the mine shut down. Over the next decade, Chickaloon buildings were taken apart and moved to the new railroad town of Matanuska or to Anchorage. In the 1950s Congress opened the area to homesteading.

Bear hunt yields black gold in Katalla

The end of the smelter project marked the failure of Katalla's bid to become important in coal and railroad development. Oil had provided another opportunity. The story goes that an old timer named Tom White discovered the black gold when he fell into a seepage pit during a bear hunt. White claimed that after he had cleaned his gun and himself, he returned to the pit and threw in a match "to see what would happen." The pool reportedly burst into flames and burned for a month. The Alaska Development Company brought in the first gusher a short time later, in 1902.

Numerous claims were staked in the Katalla and neighboring Yakataga districts east of the mouth of the Copper River, as well as in the Iniskin Bay district on the west side of Cook Inlet. Alaska Natives and Russians had noted oil seepages in many parts of Alaska, but commercial oil development began in Southcentral Alaska when the first barrel was pumped from the Katalla well.

Except locally, Katalla oil could not compete with fuel oil that was produced more cheaply in California. Also, like coal, Alaska oil lands were soon off-limits for exploration. The federal government added oil land withdrawals to the coal land withdrawals in 1910. Production was halted on all but one tract that had been patented before 1910. Oil from this tract was processed at a small refinery built in 1912 . The oil had a high-grade paraffin base, and kerosene was a major product.

No successful wells had been drilled on Cook Inlet by the time of the 1910 withdrawals. Although exploration was renewed when an oil leasing law was passed at the close of World War I, the Cook Inlet wells produced little but disappointment. Katalla wells, however, continued to operate until 1933 when the refineryburnedand was never rebuilt.

Airplanes break down harriers

In 1922, ten years before the Katalla refinery burned, a Boeing seaplane arrived in Anchorage aboard the steamer Juneau. Piloted by C.O. Hammontree, a World War I mechanic and aviator, the seaplane made several flights around Cook Inlet. The aircraft, the first in Southcentral Alaska skies, attracted a lot of interest and curiosity.

Aviation developed rapidly in Southcentral Alaska. The industry leaders were early pilots like Bob Reeve, who was known as the "glacier pilot" for his landings on glaciers to supply remote mining camps. Reeve had flown for Pan American Airways in South America before he arrived in Valdez in 1930 . He rebuilt an old Eagle Rock biplane and began a charter service. Villages and mining camps in the middle of the Alaska wilderness were suddenly only a few hours from Valdez, Cordova, or Anchorage. The airplane overcame Alaska's geographical barriers to influence social, political, and economic life in the territory.

Summary questions

  1. Why did the federal government finally choose to construct a government railroad from Seward to Interior Alaska rather than to buy and extend the Copper River and Northwestern Railway?
  2. What natural conditions kept Anchorage's harbor from being an ideal port?
  3. Why was it profitable only to mine high-grade ore at Southcentral Alaska copper mines?
  4. Why were early efforts to develop oil in Southcentral Alaska unproductive?
  5. What impact did introduction of airplanes to the region have on Southcentral Alaska?

Inquiry questions

  1. In this unit fishery, copper, coal, and petroleum resources have been discussed. Can you list other natural resources of Southcentral Alaska?
  2. You will recall from the last chapter that Ballaine thought that a railroad from Seward to Fairbanks was practical because of mineral, timber, and agricultural resources along the route. On a map of the railroad route, mark resources that are being developed today and shipped on the Alaska Railroad.

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