Where the wild horses once roamed
Homestead atop Skyline has a wild past
Editor’s note: The following is the conclusion of a two-part story detailing the history of the old Wallace Homestead atop Skyline Drive. To read Part 1, visit www.alaskastar.com
The homestead at the top of Skyline, much beloved by locals for its beautiful views and intriguing ruins, might become a subdivision in a few years. The property’s handful of owners is ready to sell, and if the state won’t buy it for public use, it’ll likely go to a private developer and get turned into a suite of hilltop mansions.
Til Wallace, the homestead’s original owner, says he hopes it goes “to the people” instead. The private property’s been used as a park for decades, and he’d like it to stay that way.
But if you’d talked to him in 1971, he’d have told you he was fed up with the darn place, and he’d like to see it go to the most profitable development possible.
That wasn’t after the first fire. After vandals burned down the first cabin he and his wife Ella built, the two picked up and built again. They figured they’d build a nice house this time. Before the month was out, vandals burned that down, too.
“I had to work every day,” Wallace said. “I can’t sit home and watch the house to keep it from burning. So we decided, we’ll subdivide it.”
The Wallaces got the homestead subdivided and platted with the city in 1973. They hired a well driller to tap a water source big enough to support a neighborhood. After hitting five dry holes, the guy was ready to pack up. But Wallace told him, “Heck, why don’t you just drill right here in the road?”
Incredibly, the contractor hit an artesian well in an area that suffered from too little ground water for miles around.
The Wallace brothers, who owned Klondike Concrete at the time, offered to pave Skyline Drive all the way to the property for the municipality, improving five miles of it on their own dime and to city standards. By 1976, everything was set for the development of a pretty new neighborhood.
But it wasn’t a good time for new development. There was a little something going around called the environmental movement. Paving roads and bulldozing nature was unpopular. And, a group of homeowners at the base of Skyline didn’t like the Wallace project. They were afraid a new neighborhood would bring more traffic past their own private pieces of nature.
Wallace was a man who had gallivanted from Australia through Europe to Alaska — with a monkey on his back. He’d built a concrete business with his family literally from his own two hands, starting out back before concrete block was made by machine. He loved nature. He’d been a homesteader, and a pioneer.
But now, he was “The Man.”
“The crap hit the fan in ’76,” Wallace said. “This homeowners group got an attorney.”
Wallace got sued.
He and his brother did end up improving the road. But the project to develop a neighborhood got tied up in court. In the end, Wallace gave up, and in a way, both sides lost. Wallace didn’t get his development. Instead of having a few additional family vans going up the new road, homeowners at the base saw hordes of rowdy teenagers cruising up to reach the undeveloped grassy plateau in the mountains for everything from hang gliding to hiking to partying.
Wallace put up new gates, and teenagers broke them. He walked the property, picking up their trash: usually empty beer cans or cigarettes, but sometimes odder objects that told of a harder party, like a trashed motorcycle or a torn-off camper.
Home on the range
He can’t remember why he started hauling historic buildings up there.
He calls for his wife, but she’s left to take his nephew home. It’s getting dark in the eclectic but fastidiously tidy home they share with a black-and-white spotted duck, a pair of squirrels who live in the roof, and a dog named Snoopy.
“I thought maybe she knew why I got all the buildings up there.”
He draws attention to a squirrel perched outside his window.
“I love watching wildlife.”
Wallace’s hand presses on a wooden cane fashioned from a knotted branch. It helps him walk since his diabetes started slowing him down. He also uses the cane for punctuation, stamping it on the ground for emphasis. The side of his hand bears a series of black numbers, written in ink and then crossed out. He is a blur of glasses and long white beard, a man constantly in motion. If this is him slowed down, it’s hard to imagine what he was like as a younger man. Being around Wallace is like standing next to a life-sized atom: electrons buzzing around a central core, personified.
He is as much a force of Mother Nature as he is her admirer, and one wonders how much control he has over his own peculiar powers.
He can’t remember why he brought those old buildings to his homestead, but he remembers their allure.
“A two-story gray building from downtown Anchorage,” he said. “It was an old, old building and had a real steep roof. I fell in love with it.”
When he spied the tiny early twentieth-century home, it was one of the last remnants of the original town of Anchorage, and it was about to get torn down.
Wallace paid $1,000 for the house, plus the cost of hauling it up to his homestead.
Throughout the 1980s, Wallace fell for more than a dozen historic buildings that were in danger of being destroyed. He spent more than $50,000 saving them and giving them a new home at his mountaintop homestead.
A few were from the village of cabins that formed Old Chugiak in the 1930s and 40s. Some came from the Jonesville Coal Company, shuttered in 1968. Others were abandoned prospector’s cabins from the Buffalo Mine. Wallace settled them at various places around the narrow looped road he’d made on his homestead, creating an outdoor museum. Where the artesian well had been drilled, he installed a pump and made a small pond.
Around the middle of the decade he became enamored with a romantic vision of his grandfather, Tillman Favry. The German immigrant had arrived to the U.S. in 1870 and joined the army just before Gen. Custer was killed (and was an acquaintance of Mrs. Custer after the general had died). After the army, Favry led a ramblin’ life. Lived with the Indians. Spoke seven languages. Rode horses all over the west.
“I thought, hell, we got the land,” Wallace said. “All ya gotta do is get a horse. Be just like my grandpa. Live that way. What’s stopping me?”
He got an Arabian steed for his teenage daughter. Then he figured he could use a horse, too.
“I started getting horses. And then people started coming,” he said. “Next think you knew, I started giving horse rides. I ended up with 50 horses.”
Wallace lived year-round at the homestead, tending horses and feeding them their 28 bales per day of hay.
Later, the remains of a corral made the homestead look like a ranch, and some locals called it “the old ranch at Skyline.” But that corral was rarely used. Wallace liked to see his horses run wild.
It’s one of his favorite memories: he would get up in the morning and watch his 50 horses, their sleek coats shining in the sun, running in a herd across the emerald mountain ridge.
“They were all on open land,” he said. “That was the beauty of it.”
The end of an era
Wallace was living the dream. But by the early 90s, he was in his early 60s. He sold the horses, gave others away. He started wintering in his house with his wife in Chugiak, instead of up at the old ranch.
The place where wild horses once roamed drew residents to it. They bypassed the private property gate to hike and explore its curious buildings with inexplicable origins. Some of these were looters who dismantled the buildings for wood, or vandals who tagged the walls. Over time, other visitors — either through carelessness or maliciousness — burned the buildings down.
Now only one stands. It is a small cabin built of railroad ties, which belonged to one of the first founders of Chugiak. The roof sinks. The moss grows over it. It is the final testament to a bygone era, and to the forces unleashed by the gallivanter and pioneer Til Wallace, who with his brother Art hand-crafted the concrete blocks used to build Chugiak’s first commercial buildings, fell in love with a mountainside, and created there one of the most unique places set down in the Last Frontier by man.