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Born of gold rush days, Talkeetna clings to her heritage despite pavement and COMSAT's "Big Dish" that scans the sky. Many times the eyes of the world ...

1 Nov


Born of gold rush days, Talkeetna clings to her heritage despite pavement and COMSAT's "Big Dish" that scans the sky. Many times the eyes of the world have been trained on this tantalizing Alaskan village where history was made, has stayed, and is still being made.

When Anchorage was no more than a mushrooming tent city, Talkeetna was already on the wane. Of the thousands of adventurers churning up the Susitna River on laden river boats, living it up in Talkeetna or mushing supplies to nearby gold operations, no one seems to have taken time to record anything except the weight of his poke of gold.

Both Indian and Russians are believed to have worked the nugget-laden creek beds north of Talkeetna before the turn of the century. Perhaps the first settlement in the Talkeetna area was across the Susitna River from the present site and up the road which now leads from Cache Creek to the Petersville mines, both of which are still in operation during the summer months.

Talkeetna, at the confluence of the Susitna, Talkeetna, and Chulitna Rivers, means "three rivers" in Indian, the last syllable "na" meaning "river."

Three times Talkeetna has pulled a Rip Van Winkle, and each time she has slept for about 20 years.

The first big sleep came after the cry of "gold" subsided. It ended during World War I, when the Alaska Railroad was pushed through, connecting Talkeetna with Anchorage and eventually with Fairbanks.

Then she slept again until World War II, when the Federal Aviation Agency landing strip was put in as an alternate base. This gave Talkeetna a second link with the outside world, but the war ended and again the village slept.

Talkeetna began to stir again in 1965, when a spur road joined her with the yet incomplete Anchorage-Fairbanks highway. In 1970, Talkeetna was linked with the sky and the world when the new Bartlett Earth Station for satellite communications was dedicated. A new pavement puts Talkeetna within a few hours drive of Anchorage, Alaska, largest metropolis, just 114.4 miles to the south.

After World War II four young pilots eyed Talkeetna as a hunting and fishing resort area. Stub Morrison and Don Sheldon established the Talkeetna Air Service, Glenn and Cliff Hudson established the Hudson Air Service.

After Stub Morrison was killed in a plane crash, his widow, Lena continued his partnership with the service. After Glenn Hudson was killed in a crash, his younger brother, Cliff, carried on with the Hudson Air Service.

For over a decade the rival air and guide services vied for the patronage of the homesteader, miner, hunter and fisherman.

Early in the 1960's, Ken Holland established a third air service in Talkeetna but by that time Don Sheldon has begun a new type of flying service which has made Talkeetna a mecca for mountaineers. Perfecting glacier landing techniques, Sheldon was soon air lifting the long suffering mountaineer and his gear to the glaciers of the nation's tallest peak.

In the summer of 1963, the fiftieth anniversary of the first successful assault of Mount McKinley, as many climbers sought the great mountain's 20,230-foot summit as in all previous years combined. In May of 1966, Don Sheldon held a grand opening for his observatory and refuge on Ruth Glacier, the first and only such structure on Mount McKinley.

Today, there are four hotels or motels in Talkeetna. The old, two-story Fairview Inn has been a landmark for many years. Frank Moennikes, the proprietor, has been in Talkeetna for 39 years. He came from Germany to Alaska during gold rush days.

Still reminiscent of Talkeetna's mining era is the Talkeetna Roadhouse, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Carroll Close. It is noted for its homelike atmosphere and family-style meals served at a long, long table.

The Talkeetna Motel, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Sherman Powell, reflects the new era, complete with bar, dining room and helicopter pad. The culinary art of Mrs. Alice Powell has been featured in leading gourmet magazines and cookbooks.

The Rainbow Lodge, of which Lena Morrison is proprietress, features a glassed-in view of Mount McKinley from the dining room but reflects a bit of her native Hawaiian atmosphere from the bar. The fireplace is faced with a variety of Alaskan stones.

The proprietors of all four hostelries have lived in Talkeetna for many years and are part of her history. Any story of their individual lives would make good book material.

For two consecutive years, 1963 and 1964, the villagers pulled together in an all-out drive for the March of Dimes and won national recognition for giving more per capita than any other town in the U.S.A. How? By having fun. A bingo game at the roadhouse, a big feed at the Fairview Inn and a dance and floor show at the Rainbow Lodge. Mrs. Minnie Swanda, whose late husband, Frank, was a pioneer Alaskan hunting and fishing guide, was chairman. From school children to old-timers, all pulled together to earn the name "Smallest Village with Biggest Heart." During last May's Walk for Hope, 26 Talkeetnans finished a 31-mile walk, raising nearly $1,000 for the charitable program.

From 1932 until 1962 there was a grade school in Talkeetna, when there were enough pupils, but 1962 was different. There were eight, the number of students required for the new "pilot high school" program enacted since statehood. The 1960 census showed a population of 76.

Talkeetna was one of three Alaskan villages selected for a pilot high school. A school in the Aleutians died for lack of students. The second, at Afognak, was washed away by the tidal was which followed the Good Friday Earthquake in 1964.

The Talkeetna High School survived, and in 1962 the author became the faculty of an eight-pupil high school. By 1970, Talkeetna High outgrew a third building and a new wing was added.

Several factors have helped produce this phenomenal growth. In 1965, when the spur road was pushed into Talkeetna, high school student were bused in from as far as Willow, 40 miles to the south. When the new Susitna River bridge was completed, students were gained from the Cache Creek area. In 1970, as COMSAT engineers and technicians moved in with families, a new wing was added to the building which had seemed too large for Talkeetna in 1965.

Talkeetna is truly a melting pot. Even before the road reached Talkeetna there were many nationalities represented. Despite her name, Talkeetna is not a native village. Only two Indian families and no Eskimos live there.

Occupations run the scale, and include trappers, miners, artists, pilots, teachers, electronic engineers, railroaders, homesteaders, prospectors and pensioners, all a part of Talkeetna's history which they have made and are making.

One of Alaska's contemporary artists, Kurt Wagner, says he homesteaded near Talkeetna for the view which he wished to paint of Mount McKinley. Many persons come to Talkeetna to climb, fly, photograph or make scientific studies of the nation's tallest peak, but Kurt captured it in his own way, on canvas.

Another Talkeetna homesteader was Former Governor Keith Miller. He and his wife, Diana, who is an artist, were so impressed by their view that they ordered a large thermopane window to frame Mount McKinley from their cabin. Installation of this luxury, when it finally arrived, presented a major difficulty. There simply wasn't enough frontage on their little cabin for proper installation.

Rather than mutilate their newly acquired treasure, Keith whittled the door to make room.

Whether it's new or old the traveler seeks, it can be found in Talkeetna. Many of the old-timers have reached the end of the trail, but still present are Ole Dahl, Little John, Harry Robb, Rocky Cummins, Jim Beaver and Mrs. George Weatherall, who still talk of "the good old days." Rocky Cummins and Jim Beaver still head for the hills every summer and bring back their modest pokes of gold.

Thanks to the obstinate individualism of the villagers, many of whom reject the new, and to the long-term planning of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Talkeetna may become a designated historical site. Last year, when the proposal was made by the Borough, the villagers again united with whole-hearted acceptance.

Talkeetna may always retain the old, as it was and as it is today. The new may come, but in a zoned area. The old log cabins along the waterfront and downtown may be restored. The long-sought museum may become a reality.

Located just south of newly created Denali State Park, this little village of international renown should be pre- served for posterity, a lodestone for tourists, mountain climbers, sportsmen, and fun-loving Alaskans.