Wasilla, Alaska sprang forth from a railroad construction camp
The 1896 Cook Inlet Gold Rush attracted hundreds of gold-seekers to Upper Cook Inlet. A few of those prospectors followed Willow Creek, a tributary of the Susitna River, into the Talkeetna Mountains. According to a 1907 USGS report, miners organized the Willow Creek Mining District, which included the Hatcher Pass area, in 1898. During the next decade, placer and hard-rock mines developed on both sides of the pass.
The community of Knik, on the northern shore of Cook Inlet’s Knik Arm, was the region’s trading center in the early 1900s. By 1909, the Carle Wagon Road from Knik to Hatcher Pass had been completed. Built by miner Jim Carle, the road roughly paralleled the same route used by the present-day Knik-Goose Bay Road and Wasilla-Fishhook Road.
A few homesteads grew up along the road, but its remoteness slowed development. Construction of the Alaska Railroad through the Matanuska and Susitna valleys changed that.
The Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC), the federal agency responsible for building the railroad, established the townsite of Anchorage (across Knik Arm from the town of Knik) in 1914. By early 1916, the AEC had built tracks northward from Anchorage along the east side of Knik Arm as far as Eklutna and cleared the right-of-way as far as mile 15 of the Carle Wagon Road northeast of Knik.
The AEC erected Wasilla construction camp there. The camp was named after a nearby lake and creek, which in turn, were named for a local Dena’ina Athabascan chief. A 1910 map of the Willow Creek Mining District shows a Wassilla Lake and several structures south of the lake labeled as Wassilla’s cabins.
Knik residents had hoped that railroad tracks would pass through their town. However, the railroad’s route toward Fairbanks from the head of Knik Arm was northwest along the western flank of the Talkeetna Mountains. Unfortunately, Knik lay to the southwest.
The AEC ignored Knik, built a small depot at Wasilla in 1917, and continued the tracks in a northwesterly direction. It also laid out a townsite and held a land auction in June 1917. New businesses (including several Knik transplants) opened, a post office was established, and a Territorial school was built — a busy year for Wasilla.
Wasilla’s rise quickened Knik’s decline. Some Knik businesses had already relocated to Anchorage. Others moved to Wasilla after its establishment. Knik almost disappeared, with even its buildings carted away to either Anchorage or Wasilla.
With railroad access, the Wasilla area began to attract more homesteaders. Wasilla also became the supply center for mines in the area and advertised itself as the “Gateway to the Willow Creek Mining District.” It continued in that capacity until Independence Mine, the last operating mine in the Willow Creek Mining District, closed in 1951.
National Register of Historic Places documents state that the Wasilla depot was completed by November 1917. The 33-foot by 52-foot single-story wood-frame building had two protruding bays: a 12-foot wide bay on the south side of the building, and an 11-foot, 8-inch wide bay on the north side facing the tracks.
The north-facing bay contained the depot office and ticket counter. To the left of the office was a waiting room and to the right, a storage room. On the building’s south side (away from the tracks), there was a two-bedroom residence. The building had a low, hipped roof with a wide overhang on all sides, surmounted by a cupola.
The depot’s cupola disappeared sometime during the mid-1900s but was rebuilt when the Wasilla Chamber of Commerce restored the building to its original condition. It now houses the Wasilla Chamber of Commerce offices and a visitor center.
- “A Walk to Remember: Family hopes to preserve historic recreation trail.” Kari Sleight. In Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman. 9-27-2010
- “Map of Willow Creek Mining District.” D H. Sleem. 1910. In the collection of the Palmer Historical Society.
- “The Birth of Wasilla.” Coleen Mielke. from Mielke’s website, “Matanuska-Susitna Valley, researching our South Central Alaska roots.” 2014
- Signage at Wasilla Depot
- “Wasilla Depot National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Alfred Mongin. National Park Service. 1977