Eklutna’s Orthodox church may be the oldest building in the Anchorage area
|Old St. Nicholas church in Eklutna as it looked in the 1980s
Eklutna, 25 miles northeast of Anchorage on the east shore of Upper Cook Inlet’s Knik Arm, is a small Dena’ina Athabascan community. It is home to possibly the oldest building in the Anchorage area, St. Nicholas Orthodox church.
Dena’ina Athabascan Indians have lived around Cook Inlet for between 1000 to 1500 years. The area along the eastern shore of Knik Arm has been home to Athabascan villages for at least several hundred years. When Captain Cook explored the inlet in 1778, he observed smoke from Native villages in the vicinity of present-day Eklutna.
Russians explored Lower and Middle Cook Inlet and established a presence on the western Kenai Peninsula in the 1800s. According to James Kari and James Fall in their book, Shem Pete’s Alaska, during the Russian period, few attempts were made to explore or exploit the resources of Upper Cook Inlet. No permanent Russian posts or stores (except for a short-lived fort at Tyonek) were established in Upper Cook Inlet before the 1867 transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States. Trading activities there were accomplished through Dena’ina middlemen.
Russia did impact the Dena’ina of Knik Arm, though. Orthodox priests based in Kenai after 1845 visited Knik Arm Natives, converting many to the Orthodox religion. Also, intermarriage between Russian creoles (the progeny of Russian and Native unions) increased after 1850, and a wide variety of Russian trade goods were available.
Eklutna, like many Athabascan villages, was located near a major salmon-spawning stream, the Eklutna River, from whence the community’s name is derived. Eklutna is an Anglicized version of the Dena’ina word “Idlughet,” which translates as “by the several objects” (a reference to hills near the mouth of the river). The village was also at the junction of trails headed north towards the Copper River, south towards the Kenai Peninsula, and northwest towards the Matanuska River and thence southwest towards Tyonek.
The most prominent features in the village today are the Native cemetery and two Orthodox churches — the old St. Nicholas church, built before 1900 and the newer church, opened in 1962. All are in Eklutna Village Historical Park, located about a 1/2 mile off the Glenn Highway.
The most common narrative for the old church is that it was built at Knik in about 1870 (possibly as early as 1830) and moved to Eklutna around 1900. Unfortunately, this narrative does not sync perfectly with modern research.
Recent studies indicate there were no Orthodox churches built in Upper Cook Inlet during the Russian occupation. The Orthodox church remained active in Alaska after 1867, but missionary work was curtailed. Dr. Andrei Znamenski, a Russian scholar who has studied old Russian-American and Russian Orthodox documents and journals, states in a 1998 article in Alaska History magazine, that not until the 1880s did the church re-establish a presence around Knik Arm. Beginning in 1882, chapels were erected at Tyonek, Knik, Susitna Station and Eklutna.
The Knik chapel was completed in 1889. Orthodox priest Ioann Bortnovsky, who served Upper Cook Inlet from 1897-1907, wrote in his journals that numerous Dena’ina families moved from Knik to Eklutna in 1897 to escape what they viewed as the unfair practices of white traders. The Knik chapel was evidently disassembled for relocation as well, but Bortnovsky persuaded the Dena’ina immigrating to Eklutna to build a new chapel instead. The chapel was finished by December 20, 1897, and the fixtures from the Knik chapel were installed in the new building.
The simple 19’ x 30’ chapel at Eklutna exhibits construction typical of Russian-constructed and Russian-influenced log buildings in Alaska. It is made of squared spruce logs with dove-tailed corners and has a gable roof. Notice that the log courses in the wall with the window are spliced together mid-wall with half-lap joints. The wall logs on the opposite side of the building also have half-lap splices.
A shed-roofed entrance/vestibule supports an open bell tower. (Early photos show that the vestibule and bell tower, as well as the wood shakes on the chapel roof, were added after 1918.)
Fortunately, villagers kept the old chapel after the new church was completed in 1962. The old chapel was restored in the 1970s and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Tours are available in the summer.
- “A Tanaina Indian Village.” Nancy Yaw Davis. M.A. Thesis, University of Chicago. 1965
- Buildings of Alaska. Alison Hoagland. Oxford University Press. 1992
- “Native Culture through Orthodox Eyes: Russian Missionary Ioann Bortnosky on the Dena’ina and Ahtna, 1896-1907.” Andrei Znamenski, in Alaska History magazine. January 1998
- On the Trail of Eklutna. Ann Chandonnet. Adams Press. 1991
- Shem Pete’s Alaska, The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina. James Kari & James Fall. University of Alaska Press. 2016 Revised Edition