Newly constructed Palmer Highway linked Anchorage to Matanuska Valley in 1936
Kink River Bridge as it looked in 2017. This views is from the south
When a New Deal agricultural resettlement project was established in the Matanuska Valley in 1935, there was limited infrastructure in place to support development. Don Irwin, former director of the Matanuska Experiment Station and General Manager of the Matanuska Colony resettlement project, wrote in his book, The Colorful Matanuska Valley, that the valley only had about 100 miles of graded road before the project began.
Anchorage, the region’s commercial center, was 50 miles away. However, it was only reachable by foot, by boat, or by railroad. Realizing the importance of a road link, territorial and local officials quickly began planning for a road to the valley.
The area between Anchorage and the Matanuska Valley was sparsely populated. There were only scattered homesteads along the railroad r-o-w, a Dena’ina Athabascan village and boarding school at Eklutna, and a hydroelectric plant just east of Eklutna.
According to Marjorie Cochrane’s book, Between Two Rivers, the Growth of Chugiak-Eagle River, a motor-vehicle bridge was constructed across Eagle River in the winter of 1934/35 and work extending the road to Palmer began later in 1935. The road was a joint project between Anchorage Light & Power Company, which owned the Eklutna power plant; and the Alaska Road Commission.
In addition to blazing approximately 30 miles of road, a bridge across the Knik River was needed. By the winter of 1935/1936, most of the one-lane highway from Eagle River to the Knik River had been punched through, and work was proceeding on the bridge, about eight miles up the Knik River.
By mid-winter the road was tantalizingly close to completion and some valley residents simply could not wait for its official opening. One colonist, Margaret Miller, writes in her unpublished book, A Creek, A Hill and a Forty, the first year of the Matanuska Colony, of Palmer’s Seventh-Day Adventist pastor, who, not wanting to pay $40 to have his car shipped to Palmer by railroad, drove it from Anchorage to Palmer in January of 1936. He traveled roads most of the way, but resorted to dogsled trails when necessary, and crossed the Knik River on the ice below the unfinished bridge.
Margaret also wrote that later in January, Ernie Kling, a Palmer resident, began a trucking service between Palmer and Anchorage. King apparently crossed the the Matanuska and Knik Rivers via railroad bridges.
Interestingly, an automobile was not the first vehicle to cross the Palmer Highway’s Knik River Bridge. That honor went to a dogsled piloted by Mrs. Lee Rees of Anchorage. Rees mushed her dogteam to Palmer along the unfinished highway in March. The ice beneath the incompletely-decked Knik River bridge was too thin to attempt, so she crossed the bridge with the help of workers on-site.
The 1200’-long 6-span steel-truss bridge was completed by the fall and was officially opened on September 4, 1936, just in time for the first Matanuska Valley fair.
A reroute of the highway, which bypassed the the Knik River segment of the road, was started in 1963. The new route crossed the hay flats at the head of Knik Arm and included new bridges across the Knik and Matanuska Rivers. The reroute was fortuitous since the March 1964 Good Friday earthquake damaged the old bridge, although it was still usable. The reroute was completed in 1966.
The old highway and Knik River bridge remained open as an alternate route to Palmer, and in 1975 a new bridge was built adjacent to the old one. The old bridge was closed to vehicular traffic but remained open for pedestrians. Situated at the southern edge of the Knik River Public Use Area, the bridge is now a popular destination for joggers and walkers.
- A Creek, a Hill, and a Forty, the first year of the Matanuska Colony. Margaret Miller & Ray Bonnell. Unpublished manuscript
- Between Two Rivers, the Growth of Chugiak-Eagle River. Marjorie Cochrane. Alaska Historical Commission. 1983
- “Historic and Notable Bridges of the U.S.” Bridgehunter.com. 2002-2018
- “National Bridge Inventory Database.” BridgeReports.com. 2012-2018
- The Colorful Matanuska Valley. Don l. Irwin. No publisher. 1968
- The 1935 Matanuska Colony Project. Helen Hegener. Northern Light Media. 2014