Coal, Farms & the Railroad
The mission of the Alaska Railroad was to open up the rich
interior for development. Coal, gold, and agriculture were powerful
incentives. In October, 1917, the first train reached the Chickaloon
coal mines, 74 miles northeast of Anchorage. In six days, the first
shipment of coal arrived on the shores of Cook Inlet.
The Matanuska Valley was targeted as rich with coal fields and
farmland. As this entry in the Labor Day Parade of 1916 in
Anchorage touted in glorious color and optimism: "Matanuska Farms
and Chickaloon Coal."
In the 1920's, there were 350 homesteads in the Matanuska Valley,
more than a decade before the valley became famous for President
Franklin D. Roosevelt's "colony experiment" in the years of the Great
Depression. Farmers raised cold-weather crops of vegetables, grains,
and potatoes. They trapped, hunted, pickled fish, and subsisted on less
than $100 of cash a year. There were no stable markets for produce and
life was not easy.
In 1935, amidst great fanfare in the press, 202 poverty-stricken families from the
depressed northern regions of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, arrived to
carve a pioneer settlement out of the wilderness of Alaska.
The Grand experiment was called the Matanuska Valley Colony.
The federal government paid for the cost of the colonists' transportation and agreed
to build their homes and barns. The colonists, in turn, had to buy their own land at
$5 an acre (uncleared) and purchase or lease the necessary farm equipment and
livestock. However, since none of them had any money, the federal governemnt
extended generous long-term lines of credit.
The people in Anchorage were desperate for new settlers to the region, so the arrival
of the colonists caused great jubilation. But after a short while, there was bitter
disappointment all around. Nearly a third of the families had left. Few of the original
colonists were farmers and life had proved too rugged in the valley. Those that did stay
eventually found a ready market for their produce with the advent of World War II and
the military construction boom in Anchorage in the 1940s.
Farming in the Matanuska Valley has seen a roller coaster economy. But there are still
farms today, horses grazing in the pastures, 70-pound cabbages growing in the fields,
and, in the middle of it all, expansive grounds for the largest agricultural fair in Alaska
held every year during harvest time.