Tag Archives: Matanuska Valley

1935 WPA Federal Writers Project

ND Cover 420 resThe November-December issue of Alaskan History Magazine includes an article about the WPA Guide to Alaska, which was written as part of the Federal Writers Project, an interesting study of the territory in which the preface sagely advises, “The best way to know Alaska is to spend a lifetime there.”

WPACAThe Federal Writers’ Project was created in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as part of the United States Work Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal jobs program, to provide employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and other white-collar workers. Originally, the purpose of the project was to produce a series of sectional guide books, focusing on the scenic, historical, cultural, and economic resources of the United States (including the territory of Alaska, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.). The project was expanded to include local histories, oral histories, ethnographies, children’s books and other works.

WPANDThe American Guide Series books were written and compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project, but printed by individual states, and contained detailed histories of each state with descriptions of every city and town. The format was uniform, comprising essays on the state’s history and culture, descriptions of major cities, automobile tours were one of the important attractions, and there was a portfolio of photographs in each book.

m7cEAnxa5C9XwK15ggTnnvwA Guide to Alaska: Last American Frontier, was written by Merle Colby, and includes a foreword by John W. Troy, then-Governor of the territory of Alaska. Troy wrote, “Scarcely more than a generation ago, well within the memory of many living Alaskans, the news was flashed in 1897 over telegraph wires that the steamer Portland had arrived in Seattle with ‘a ton of gold.'”

Troy continues: “Even more important, and certainly no less dramatic, is the less-known Alaska of today — the Alaska of graveled automobile roads, of airplanes, used as casually by Alaskans as are taxis in continental United States, of giant gold dredges, of great fishing fleets, of farms with the latest in modern equipment, of homes set in frames of flowers and surrounded with vegetable gardens, of large shops, theaters, churches, schools, clubs, newspapers, and America’s farthest-north university.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 11.52.08 AMThe entire book can be read online, and there are interesting details throughout the 1939 guidebook, such as this curious advice regarding money: “The 5-cent piece is the lowest monetary unit in Alaska; in the remote interior, the 25 cent piece (two bits). In the latter case, this does not mean that the lowest price of any article is 25 cents, but merely that a total purchase must amount to a multiple of 25 cents. Pennies are almost unknown, and in post offices the clerk will usually make change in one-cent stamps. Prices such as 39 cents and $1.98 are unheard of.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 8.17.01 AMThe guidebook’s description of roads in Alaska is notably brief: “Automobile Highways. The Richardson Highway (open in summer only), 371 miles long, begins at the port of Valdez, on Prince William Sound, and ends at Fairbanks, paralleling the Alaska Railroad. Frequent bus and truck service connect with steamship arrivals; good accommodations are available along the route.”

Note that the Alaska Railroad, which reportedly ‘parallels’ the Richardson Highway, does so at a distance of well over 100 miles.

Delta River, Richardson Hwy circa 1922“The Steese Highway (open in summer only) extends 163 miles from Fairbanks to Circle. Bus and truck service connect with train arrivals; there are accommodations along the route.

“Other major summer highways, all with bus or truck service, are:
• Gulkana to Slate Creek, 60 miles
• Anchorage to Palmer and Matanuska Valley, 50 miles
• Fairbanks to Livengood, 85 miles
• Nome to Council, 57 miles”

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 8.29.37 AMA few local roads between 5 and 39 miles in length are listed, along with the 80-mile Mt. McKinley National Park gravel road from Paxson, now known as the Denali Highway.

A Guide to Alaska is an interesting in-depth look at the territory in the first half of the twentieth century, divided into six distinct regions and described in terms which would do justice to any modern travel guide, such as this depiction of southcentral Alaska: “A number of large rivers, as well as Cook Inlet, break through the mountains fronting the coast and open up inland valleys having a light forest cover, moderate precipitation, short but rather warm summers, and winter temperatures not unlike those found in the northern tier of prairie States. The level and rolling lands afford excellent opportunities for agriculture. The Matanuska agricultural area is located in one of these valleys in the vicinity of Anchorage. Additional and even more extensive tracts of potential farm lands, notably the Kenai Peninsula agricultural area, are found in this same general locality. ”

The entire book can be read online here.

1898 Matanuska Valley

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Original artwork for Alaskan History Magazine ©2019 Jon Van Zyle

Among the great articles in the Nov-Dec issue of Alaskan History Magazine is a look back at the Matanuska Valley in 1898. Captain Edwin F. Glenn, Twenty-fifth Infantry, United States Army, was the officer in charge of explorations in southcentral Alaska in 1898. The main task of ‘Military Expedition No. 3,’ under the War Department, was to explore the country north of Cook Inlet in order to discover the most “direct and practicable” route from the coast to the Tanana River by utilizing passes through the Alaska Range.

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Knik Arm looking east [NLM/Helen Hegener]

Captain Glenn was charged with collecting and reporting on all information that was considered valuable to the development of the country, so his descriptions of the expedition are a fascinating look at one of the earliest official government incursions into the Cook Inlet and Matanuska regions, and northeast into the Copper River Basin.

Captain Glenn kept a diary of his travels, which is available to download or read free online at the UAA/UPC Consortium Library website. His sometimes blunt and unvarnished writings illuminate the many trials and travails which beset the expedition, but they also give voice to a keen observer of the world – and men – around him. 

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Knik Arm flats [NLM/Helen Hegener]

“We reached Knik Inlet finally, cast anchor, and waited for the vessel to go aground before attempting to unload. We were deeply impressed with the appearance of everything in this inlet. The weather was much more mild than in the lower part of the inlet, and the season more advanced than at Tyoonok or at Ladds Station by at least three weeks. The trees were in almost full leaf, and the grass a sort of jointed grass resembling the famous blue grass of Kentucky was abundant and at least a foot high. The length of this arm is about 25 miles. Coming in at the head of it were the Matanuska and Knik rivers, the former from the east, the latter from the south. The valley there is quite flat and about 20 miles across. In fact, the valleys of both streams are in full view from just above the trading station.”

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Walter C. Mendenhall, USGS

Geologist W. C. Mendenhall, a member of Captain Glenn’s expedition who would go on to a distinguished career (including Director of the USGS from 1930 to 1943), made the first rough geological survey of the Matanuska Valley and the routes followed by Glenn. He mentioned the guide, Mr. Hicks, who had been prospecting in the area for three years, in his highly detailed official report, A Reconnaissance from Resurrection Bay to the Tanana River, Alaska, in 1898 for the Twentieth Annual Report for the USGS, Part VII, Explorations in Alaska in 1898 [Mendenhall’s report begins on page 265]: “Among the prospectors at the head of Cook Inlet but one was found who was acquainted with the Matanuska country. This gentleman, Mr. H. H. Hicks, Captain Glenn was so fortunate as to secure as a guide for the expedition, but neither he nor anyone else could give us any definite idea of the character of the interior beyond the head of the Matanuska.”

NLM 1898 Mat ValleyMendenhall’s explorations covered areas on the western shore of Prince William Sound and a route extending from Resurrection Bay to the head of Turnagain Arm, thence by way of Glacier and Yukla Creeks– the Crow Pass route between Girdwood and Eagle River–to Knik Arm, up the Matanuska Valley to its head, and then northward to the Tanana River. After describing the the Matanuska River’s attributes and tributaries, relative heights and characteristics of the mountains, and vegetation in the Valley, Mendenhall’s report turns to accessibility:

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Matanuska Valley from Hatcher Pass [NLM/Helen Hegener]

“The Matanuska Valley is at present reached from Knik, which is the head of navigation on Cook Inlet, and to which vessels of shallow draft can go at high tide. There is a good horse trail from Knik to the upper end of Matanuska Valley, and the character of the ground and of the vegetation is such that this trail could be made into a wagon road at comparatively slight expense. It takes horses from one to two days to reach Moose Creek, depending on the load, and … a day and a half to go from Moose Creek to Chickaloon River.” 

“The principal trading and mining centers are Sunrise, Hope, Tyonek, and Knik, and in these camps or the mining regions adjacent to them most of the whites may be found. A few each year penetrate some distance beyond the borders of the well-known districts and reach the interior of the Kenai Peninsula or prospect within the Matanuska Valley. Two small parties this year (1898) succeeded in getting nearly across the Copper River Plateau, and a few hardy traders or prospectors in previous years have reached the interior, but they have left no records.”

Matanuska River NLM 420 res

Matanuska River [NLM/Helen Hegener]

And finally, Mendenhall described the Valley as an access route to interior Alaska: “From the head of Knik Arm the Copper River Plateau and all of the interior accessible from it is reached by way of the Matanuska Valley. For the greater part of the way from Palmer’s store on Knik Arm to Tahneta Pass, at the head of the river, travel is easy. A sharp climb of 1,000 feet after crossing Chickaloon Creek, a little rough work in getting across the canyon of Hicks Creek, and a short steep climb out of the valley of Caribou [Creek], are the principal obstacles. The Tazlina River heads east of this gap, and by following it the Copper will be reached a few miles above the new town of Copper Center. This route has been followed by the Copper River Indians for many years in their annual trading trips to the stores on Cook Inlet.” 

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“The Runaways,” by Alaskan artist Eustace Paul Ziegler

An example of Mendenhall’s fascinating account of their trip: “Our progress over the rolling forested floor of the lower valley  was without more important incident than the occasional retreat of the pack animals overnight and the consequent delay next day, until we came to the ford of Kings Creek on July 29. This stream, like all those on the western slope of the coastal mountains in Alaska, is turbulent, but ordinarily its volume of water is not great; recent rains, however, had raised it to much beyond the normal. Just below the broad and comparatively shallow ford is a reach of swift, wild water, where the stream is confined in a narrow channel, across which a couple of logs had been placed side by side to serve as a footbridge.

Ziegler detail

Pack horses were a favorite subject of Ziegler’s. Detail of “The Goldseekers.”

“Canwell, the ex-cavalryman of the party and an excellent horseman, volunteered to try the ford and mounted the bellmare for the purpose. Everything seemed to be going well until he reached the middle of the channel, when his mount stumbled over a bowlder in the creek bed. She fell far enough for the swift current to catch her pack, and then in an instant was swept off her feet and carried stumbling and struggling into the rapids, Canwell clinging to her and trying to direct her struggles toward the shore. In the swift water she was rolled over and over, now head and pack, now heels, appearing above the muddy current, until man and horse crashed into the footbridge. For an instant it resisted, and then was carried down by the weight. A few yards below Canwell was pulled out, shivering, bruised, and half drowned, but there seemed no hope of saving the old mare. She was rapidly weakening, and even when she regained her feet in the quieter water farther down the stream she could not stand. Fortunately she had on a riding saddle instead of a pack saddle, and the pack finally loosened and came off. Thus relieved of her load, she succeeded in getting ashore, but 200 pounds of our precious provisions were on their way to the Pacific; later we would have given much for them. Further move was out of the question for that day. We spent the afternoon drying out, for some of the pack mules had followed their leader, and nursing our invalids.”


Screen Shot 2019-10-25 at 1.48.24 PMSubscribe to Alaskan History Magazine for great articles in your mailbox with every issue! Among the articles featured in the Nov-Dec issue are the Ed S. Orr Stage Co. which ran from Valdez to Fairbanks, the startling history of the remote Woodchopper Roadhouse, Tlinget activist for Native rights Elizabeth Peratrovich, and the 1935 WPA Guide to Alaska. Also Alaskan artists, old postcards, and classic books on Alaska’s history! 

Click here for details! 

Nov-Dec Issue

Screen Shot 2019-10-25 at 1.48.24 PMThe November-December issue, now printing, ranges widely across Alaska, from the early settlements of Tyonek and Knik to the frontier towns of Cordova, Chitina, and Valdez, and from the goldfields of the Fortymile District to the halls of the Territorial legislature in Juneau. Among the articles for this issue:

• A guidebook to territorial Alaska from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s U. S. Work Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal jobs program which created the Federal Writers Project.

• An unusual but little-known earth-moving project, notable for the remote location and for the size of the undertaking. 

Orr Stage ad• The Ed. S. Orr Stage Company, an important part of our past, which proudly claimed “Eight day service between Valdez and Fairbanks, a distance of 364 miles,” and “All stages equipped with abundance of fur robes and carbon-heated foot warmers.”

• The Woodchopper Roadhouse, at one time the oldest and largest log structure on the Yukon River between Eagle and Circle City.

• The story of pioneer Native rights activist Elizabeth Peratrovich.

• The 1898 explorations of Capt. Edwin F. Glenn and W. C. Mendenhall through the Matanuska Valley. 

• Pioneering Alaskan artists, color postcards from the turn of the century, a timeline, an index to the 2019 issues, and a few classic Alaskan books worth seeking out make this issue another worthwhile addition to your library shelves.

Click here to go to the orders page for subscriptions or single issues!

 

1935 Matanuska Colony

a_typical_farm_scene_in_the_matanuska_farm_colony__mrs_e_huseby_colonist_mother_in_the_garden_behind_her_tent_home_picking_turnips__in_the_background_can_be_seen_the_husebys_cabin_in_con2

A typical Colony scene.

The 1935 Matanuska Colony Project, developed near present-day Palmer, Alaska, was part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal for America, an unprecedented series of economic programs designed to provide aid to people reeling from the Great Depression. Nearly one hundred new communities were designed and developed by Roosevelt’s planners, but the largest, most expensive, and most audacious of them all was to build a government-sponsored farming community in Alaska’s Matanuska Valley.

A Northern Light Media website presents the detailed history of the Colony, as written in the 2016 book by Helen Hegener, “A Mighty Nice Place,” The History of the 1935 Matanuska Colony Project. The site combines the history of the Matanuska Valley and the government’s Colony Project with the remarkable photographs of A.R.R.C. photographer Willis T. Geisman, who was charged with documenting every aspect of the venture and recording the events surrounding the Matanuska Colony Project.

The site currently presents the first six chapters of the book, from ‘A History of the Land,’ to ‘Bound for Alaska,’ when the 200 families departed for their new northern homes. The second half of the book, detailing the construction and development of the Colony itself, will be posted this fall, making the entire book available to read free online.

Click here to visit the website.

A Mighty Nice Place“A Mighty Nice Place,” The History of the 1935 Matanuska Colony Project, by Helen Hegener. Published in November, 2016 by Northern Light Media. 276 pages, 120 photos, 6″ x 9″ b/w format. Print book: $24.95 plus $5.00 shipping. Click here to order the book via PayPal

1935 Colony Barns

Trunk Rd barn

A classic 1935 Matanuska Colony barn [Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media]

The May-June issue of Alaskan History Magazine included an article about the 1935 Matanuska Colony Barns, drawn from the book of that title by Helen Hegener and published in 2012 by Northern Light Media.

Driving the roads around Palmer and Wasilla one sees the old structures often, glimpsed down a tree-lined dirt lane or silhouetted against a mountain backdrop, and they rarely fail to bring a smile. Like trusted and comforting old friends, the barns are always there. There wasn’t space in the magazine for more than a thin overview of the Matanuska Colony history, but it’s an interesting topic, not only to Alaskans, but to anyone who desires to know more about our nation’s brief history.

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Ferber Baily Colony barn near Palmer [Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media]

The decade of the 1930’s profoundly altered the course of Alaska’s history, as relationships changed between the citizens, the state, and the federal government, and rugged Alaskan individualism gave way to an acceptance of the government’s increasing role in daily life. The Matanuska Colony Project was part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, a series of economic programs designed to provide the “3 R’s”: Relief, Recovery, and Reform.” Relief for the poor and the unemployed, Recovery of the economy to normal levels, and Reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat depression.

President Franklin Roosevelt took office at the height of the Great Depression in March, 1933, and when he declared in his inaugural address that “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he followed up his bold words and acted swiftly to try and stabilize the economy and provide jobs and relief to those who were suffering. Over the next eight years, the government instituted a series of experimental programs and projects, known collectively as the New Deal for America. Among these was a federal agency which relocated struggling families to communities planned by the federal government. The first of these communities, Arthurdale, West Virginia, became the pet project of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and over 100 others were either planned or initiated by the Division of Subsistence Homesteads, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration or the Resettlement Administration.

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Colonists’ camp from the top of the water tower in Palmer (Willis T. Geisman, Mary Nan Gamble Col. ASL-P270-112 Alaska State Library)

In 1935 the U.S. Government transported 200 families from the Great Depression-stricken midwest to a valley of unparalleled beauty in Alaska, where they were given the chance to begin new lives as part of a federally-funded social experiment, the Matanuska Colony Project. As part of each family’s farmstead, a magnificent barn was raised, a sturdy square structure 32′ by 32′ and soaring 32′ high. Today these Colony barns are an iconic reminder of what has been called the last great pioneering adventure in America.

Although fraught with inevitable bureaucratic entanglements, frustrating delays, and a variety of other distractions, the Matanuska Colony actually thrived for the most part, and nearly 200 families remained to raise their families and make their permanent homes in Alaska. Highways were built, the wide Matanuska and Knik Rivers were bridged, and the town of Palmer became the center of commerce and society in the Valley. By 1948, production from the Colony Project farms provided over half of the total Alaskan agricultural products sold.

Today the Matanuska Valley draws worldwide attention for its colorful agricultural heritage and its uniquely orchestrated history. The iconic Colony barn, often seen around the Valley now in artwork, logos, advertising, and other uses, has become a beloved symbol of Alaskan history.

Venne sky Albert Marquez

Venne Colony barn on Wes Grover’s farm near Palmer [photo by Albert Marquez / Planet Earth Adventures]

Learn more:

The Matanuska Colony Barns, by Helen Hegener (Northern Light Media, 2012)

Website for the Matanuska Colony Barns, dozens of photos!

Alaska Far Away: The New Deal Pioneers of the Matanuska Colony, 2008 documentary film about the Project.

Palmer Historical Society and The Colony House Museum