Prior to construction of the Alaska Railroad through the Matanuska Valley, there was little development in the area that would one day be Palmer.
One of the first white men in the valley was George Palmer, who came to Alaska in 1893. He opened a small self-service store in the Palmer area some time before 1898 and later participated in other commercial ventures in both Upper and Central Cook Inlet.
According to Orlando Miller, in his book “The Frontier in Alaska and the Matanuska Colony,” the Matanuska Valley had about 500 residents in 1910. Agriculture was limited to a few homesteads and smaller unregistered tracts near Knik and along roads to the Willow Creek Mining District. Most of the “settlers” were single men who, Miller writes, “viewed their tracts as temporary residences between mining, trapping, freighting, and prospecting.”
After the railroad’s route through the valley was determined, there was a flurry of homestead entries along the the right-of-way. Although several hundred entries were filed, only 172 proceeded to patent. A handful of homesteads were established in the Palmer area adjacent to the railroad’s branch line to the Matanuska River coal fields, and a small freight station was built there.
A post office named Palmer was opened in 1917 but closed in 1925. According to the Palmer Historical Society, two residents, a Mr. Ward and a Mr. Felton, later petitioned for a new post office and in 1931 the Warton (a combination of Ward and Felton) post office opened.
The Alaska Railroad attempted to attract new settlers to the railbelt but was hampered by several factors. These included the remoteness of Alaska, high transportation costs, and the fact that the railroad did not have the funds or the authority to directly support settlement.
The railroad did provide information to prospective settlers, offered special rates for household goods and farm machinery, and negotiated special rates with steamship companies and Lower 48 railroads for prospective settlers.
Unfortunately, worsening economic conditions in the nation prevented would-be settlers from coming. In 1934 Alaska Railroad officials reported that about 110 settlers had been enticed to come, but not all had stayed. Even including the earlier wave of homesteaders, that year there were only 117 active farms in the Matanuska Valley and lower railbelt.
The federally-owned Alaska Railroad routinely operated in the red and was frequently urged by Congress to increase its revenues. Consequently, Alaska Railroad officials were elated when the Matanuska Colony, a New-Deal agricultural resettlement project, was established in the valley. The colony would undoubtably not have been established without the presence of the railroad, and the Alaska Railroad desperately needed the revenue.
Colonists arrived in the summer of 1935 and were welcomed at the old freight station in the newly christened town of Palmer. In late fall of that year a larger combination depot and freight warehouse was built.
The depot shown in the drawing is located at 610 S. Colony Way. As built, it was 93 feet and 10-inches-by-39-feet. It’s northern end, the freight warehouse, was 28-feet, 2-inches long, with a higher ceiling and roofline that the rest of the structure. The southern end of the building, 66-feet, 8-inches long, contained a baggage room, office and ticket counter, public waiting room, and the railroad agent’s living quarters. The entire structure was sheathed with shiplap siding.
In 1948 the warehouse section was extended 49 feet and 11 inches, and a portion of the southern passenger section, including one bedroom and the baggage room, was converted into a warm storage area.
With improved road transportation, the railroad depot eventually became superfluous. The depot, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, is now used as the Palmer Community Center.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.
• “Palmer Depot, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Alfred Mongin. National Park Service. 1977
• Palmer Historical Society webpage, http://www.palmerhistoricalsociety.org/
• Palmer’s namesake provides rich history for valley, state.” Barbara Hecker. In “Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman.” 11-18-2012
• “The Colorful Matanuska Valley.” Don l. Irwin. No publisher. 1968
• “The Frontier in Alaska and the Matanuska Colony.” Orlando W. Miller. Yale University Press, 1975