Sutton, about 15 miles northeast of Palmer on the Glenn Highway, owes its existence to coal mining.
Geologist G.C. Martin explored the area for the U.S.G.S in 1905 and reported an estimated 61 square miles of coal deposits, much of it high-grade bituminous coal. Unfortunately, the coal seams were faulted and folded, with intrusive rocks. This made coal mining difficult and lowered the coal’s value unless intrusives and other contaminants were removed.
Shortly after miners began developing claims, the federal government withdrew all federal coal lands from entry in 1906. The nascent coal mining industry along the Matanuska River died.
It took the U.S. Navy, and construction of the Alaska Railroad to bring coal mining back to the Matanuska Valley. The route of the railroad was chosen in part to provide access to the Matanuska Valley coal deposits.
According to the book, A History of Coal Mining in the Sutton-Chickaloon Area Prior to WW II, in 1913 the U.S. Navy, searching for high-quality coal to fuel its Pacific fleet, investigated an abandoned coal mine at “Watson’s Camp” near Chickaloon. The Navy was impressed with the quality of the coal, and contracted with Jack Dalton (most famous for opening the Dalton Trail from Chilkat Inlet to the Klondike) to provide 800 tons of coal from the Chickaloon site for testing. He delivered that coal to tidewater at Knik via horse-drawn sledges during the winter of 1913-1914.
In 1916, the federal government released Matanuska Valley land for coal leasing, while retaining the Chickaloon coal deposits for government usage. Mining quickly resumed.
Railroad tracks reached Chickaloon in 1917. Spurs were also built to access coal mines that developed along Moose and Eska creeks. The Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC), which was building the railroad, purchased the Eska mine for its own needs.
In 1919, the station at the junction of Chickaloon branch and Eska spur was named Sutton in honor of a local homesteader, birthing the town of Sutton.
The Eska mine, located just a few miles northwest of present-day Sutton, was mined extensively by the AEC. It was one of the largest coal producers in the Territory from 1917 to 1920, producing 150 tons per day. Eska operated until 1920, when its superintendent, Evan Jones, left to start his own mine nearby. The AEC closed Eska when Jones opened his Jonesville coal mine.
The AEC and later the Navy worked on developing a mine at Chickaloon. In support of the Chickaloon and other area mines, the federal government constructed a four-story, 86-foot by 132-foot washing facility at Sutton to remove intrusives from the coal. The washerie, completed in 1922, operated less than a year. It closed after the Navy shut down its Chickaloon mine, having determined that faulting and folding in coal veins and intrusive rocks made the Chickaloon coal too expensive to mine. Only a portion of the washerie foundation remains.
About 17 coal mines operated in the Matanuska Valley, some for only a few years. As mines closed, many miners relocated to Sutton, where the Jonesville mined continued to operate until 1968.
During the early 1940s a Glenn Highway construction camp was located at Sutton. A post office was established in 1948. The drawing shows the town’s first post office, now located in Sutton’s Alpine Historical Park.
Signage at the park states that Mike O’Neil built the tiny wood-frame structure across the highway from the Alpine Inn in 1948 as Sutton’s gas station and post office. It served as the post office until 1951, after which is was moved and converted into a chicken coop. It was renovated in 1988, four years after the Alpine Historical Society was established.
• A History of Coal-mining in the Sutton-Chickaloon area prior to WW II. Mary Cracraft Bauer & Victoria Cole. Alaska historical Commission Studies in History. 1985
• “Coal Miner’s Son.” Lisa Larson. In Anchorage Daily News. 2-18-1990
• “Coal Rush.” Grant Olson. In Touchstone magazine. Vol. 4, No. 1, 1979
• Signage at Alpine Historical Park, Sutton