This article is excerpted from the May-June, 2021 issue of Alaskan History Magazine:
In July, 1973, the National Register of Historic Places received a nomination form for the Knik Site, at mile 20 of the Knik Road, for two buildings, listed as the Knik Museum, owned by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough; and a small log cabin owned by Joe Reddington, Sr. (incorrect spelling of Redington is on the paperwork), listed as a private residence: ”Only two structures remain from the era when Knik was the largest community on Cook Inlet. These are what is now the Knik Museum, a two-story balloon frame building that once served as a roadhouse and later a store, and a small log cabin. The first floor of the museum is furnished with period objects, while the second is used to display equipment, etc., associated with sled dog transport and racing. The cabin is used as a storage building by a Knik resident. Both buildings have been altered a little but still reflect their period of construction. The area of the site has, however, been considerably altered by recent road construction which now cuts the museum and cabin off from the shore of Cook Inlet and the old cemetery.”
The form goes on to note Knik’s importance as a distribution point for water-borne freight to the towns of Sunrise and Hope on the Kenai Peninsula, to the Moose Creek mines up the Matanuska River valley, to Susitna Station, and to the gold and coal mines in the Talkeetna Mountains.
In 1911 Knik also became a way station on the Iditarod Trail between Seward and Nome, and the form notes: “Travel was so heavy that in one week in 1911 more than 120 mushers passed through Knik and out from Iditarod. Inbound freight and gold seekers to the Innoko-Iditarod gold fields passed outbound shipments such as the 1916 ‘Iditarod Gold Team’ with 3,400 pounds of gold hauled by 46 dogs.”
The first permanent white resident of the Matanuska Valley, and the first white resident of Knik, was George W. Palmer, who befriended the local Dena’ina and lived with them as he developed the first privately owned stores in the Valley. Originally the manager of the Alaska Commercial Company store at Knik, George bought them out in 1901 when they closed several of their stores in southcentral Alaska, and he then established his own trading post. He added more buildings to his first store, sorting them into one for groceries, one for hardware, one for clothing and dry goods, a few designated as warehouses, one for storing dried salmon for dog food, etc., ending up with over a dozen in all. He sailed Cook Inlet in his schooners, the C. T. Hill and the Lucy, making purchasing trips to San Francisco for his stores, and in October, 1904 he became Knik's first postmaster.
In 1900 Orville G. Herning arrived in Knik, by which time the white population had risen to 100. Herning was hired to open a trail to the Willow Creek Mining District, opened the Knik Trading Company in 1905, and became another successful businessman and civic leader in Knik, and later in the new railroad town of Wasilla.
By 1905 Knik had two stores, a roadhouse and several cabins. In an article titled "Seward Trail for Winter Route," the Iditarod Pioneer reported on August 10, 1910: "From the mouth of the Yentna to Seward the trail will be traveled all winter and many roadhouses are located at convenient distances. The Susitna Station is quite a new town where the A.C. Co. has a large store and supplies can be had. Then the trail passes by Knik, another town and post office where there are three restaurants and two good stores..."
By 1915, the peak year for the town, it was the chief outfitting point for the Matanuska and Susitna Valley gold mines, and there were four general merchandise stores, two hotels, three saloons, a fuel company, a movie house, barber shop and pool room, a law office, three qualified doctors and two dentists, and a newspaper, The Knik News.
There were also farms and gardens. As early as 1900, George Palmer had been experimenting with the seeds he received from the Sitka Agricultural Experiment Station, and he would write to Prof. C. C. Georgeson, the Special Agent in Charge, detailing his efforts at Knik. In her small classic, Old Times on Upper Cook’s Inlet, Louise Potter printed a list of 132 people who had homesteads near Knik by 1915, noting, “That such a list is possible at all is apt to come as a surprise to many who have been encouraged to believe that 1935, the date the ‘Colonists’ arrived in the Matanuska Valley, marks the beginning of the history of agriculture in the Upper Inlet Region.”
When the federal railroad chose to route their line about 15 miles north of Knik, through the area which later became Wasilla, the astute businesspeople of Knik moved to the new mid-valley trading center, some bringing their buildings with them, and the once-vibrant town of Knik began an inexorable fade into history. ~•~
This article is excerpted from the May-June, 2021 issue of Alaskan History Magazine. You can order the issue for $12.00 postage paid at Northern Light Media.