Navy gambled on Chickaloon coal and lost
|Chickaloon bunkhouse at Alpine Historical Park|
Chickaloon is a small community located just off the Glenn Highway, about 75 miles northeast of Anchorage.
Prior to Western contact the area was occupied by Dena’ina Athabaskan Indians. According the the book, Shem Pete’s Alaska, Ahtna Athabascans from the Copper River Basin began displacing the Dena’ina about 150 years ago.
A village, called Chickaloon after its last Dena’ina chief, Chicklu, was located on the north bank of the Chickaloon River just above its confluence with the Matanuska River. Present-day Native residents use the Ahtna name Nay’dini’aa Na’ for the community.
Trails along the Matanuska River between Cook Inlet and the Copper River Basin existed in pre-contact times, but they were primarily traveled between late fall and early spring, when sleds could be used. Consequently, Athabascans in the area lived in isolation much of the year.
All that changed when Westerners began exploring the region in the 1890s. Coal deposits along the Matanuska River were discovered by prospectors in 1894, and in 1898-99 Army exploration parties conducted more detailed studies. Small-scale development occurred during the early 1900s, and a mine at Chickaloon (in operation for only a few years) was in production by 1906.
The U.S. Navy became interested in coal deposits at Chickaloon for possible use by its Pacific fleet and had Chickaloon coal brought out for testing in the winter of 1913-14. The coal proved satisfactory, and its availability was part of the impetus for selecting the Matanuska/Susitna Valley route for the Alaska Railroad. At the same time tracks were laid through the Susitna Valley towards Fairbanks, tracks were also laid along the Matanuska River towards Chickaloon.
Private mines developed along the Matanuska River, but coal deposits at Chickaloon were reserved for government usage. The government re-opened the mine at Chickaloon and built a “company” town there, a few miles up the Chickaloon River from the Native village.
On October 24, 1917, the first train reached Chickaloon. According to Katherine Wade’s book, Chickaloon Spirit, 1917 was also the year that most Athabascans living at Chickaloon died in an influenza epidemic.
By 1921 over 25 buildings had been erected at Chickaloon, including the buildings associated with the mine, a power plant, mess hall, dorms for 100 men, houses for families, infirmary, school, and two roadhouses.
The Navy’s Chickaloon coal mine was short-lived, though. Its coal, while of high quality, had always been difficult to mine, and the mine never produced up to expectations. Coupled with a move towards converting its ships from coal to oil, the Navy decided in the spring of 1922 to stop developing the mine. The Alaska Engineering Commission operated the mine for another year but closed it in 1923.
Most of the town’s population moved away, but Chickaloon eked out an existence into the 1930s as a trading center and trans-shipment point for freight headed to mining camps further up the Matanuska River or in the Talkeetna Mountains.
Most of the town’s buildings were eventually destroyed or relocated. A few were moved down the railroad line to Sutton and Moose Creek.
The 14’ x 18’ wood-frame building shown in the drawing, built in 1917, was originally a Chickaloon bunkhouse. After the mine closed, the building was moved to Moose Creek, where it was used first by railroad section crews and then by Glenn Highway road crews. In 1954 Katie Wade bought the building and moved it to her property. It was eventually bought by Eileen Haines, who donated the building to Sutton’s Alpine Historical Park in 1984. The building was moved to the park and restored, and it now open to the public.
- A History of Coal-mining in the Sutton-Chickaloon area prior to WW II. Mary Bauer & Victoria Cole. Alaska Historical Commission Studies in History. 1985
- Alaska’s Abandoned Towns: Case Studies for Preservation and Interpretation. Linda Kay Thompson. Alaska Division of Parks. 1972
- Chickaloon Spirit: The life and times of Katherine Wickersham Wade. Katherine Wade, as interviewed by Nancy Yaw Davis. Chickaloon Village Traditional Council. 2004
- Shem Pete’s Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina. James Kari & James A. Fall. University of Alaska Press. Second Edition 2003
- “The Orchestra at Chickaloon, Alaska: Anything for the Boys in Blue.” Stephen Haycox. In A Warm Past, Travels in Alaska History. Press North. 1988