Wednesday, September 21, 2011 - 20:00

“What would Chugiak's pioneers think of the Palmer Highway if they were to drive through the community today?”

That thought came to mind the other day while waiting for the flag person to turn her sign from “Stop” to “Slow.”

Instead of the narrow gravel road here when Chugiak was settled nearly 65 years ago, the highway now known as the Old Glenn has a brand-new facelift. Widened, some curves eliminated, a turn lane added at major intersections, a new bridge over Peters Creek — not to mention an “awesome” bike path and extensive landscaping — the long-awaited road project is almost complete.

Dubbed the Palmer Highway despite the fact that it was a single lane dirt trail, it opened in 1936 after the Alaska Road Commission extended the road cut through by Anchorage Light & Power to its Eklutna power plant. It served as a link between the new Matanuska Colony and Anchorage.

Mary Siebenthaler Bryant, whose family established a mink ranch on what is now Beach Lake, was quoted in “Between Two Rivers” as calling it “the awfullest road.” She said she wanted her husband to stop and let her walk when they crossed the Eklutna Flats.

Some longtime residents have mixed feelings about the current improvements. The bike path often comes in for criticism as “a waste of money,” but even its most vocal opponents concede that it is very popular.

“I'm a little disappointed, but it looks really nice,” offered Darlene Halverson. “I don’t like seeing all the changes. It feels like we're missing years of history. It will be easy to forget the way it was because it will be totally different in a few years.”

Halverson is doing her part to keep that history alive, having written a book detailing her life on a Chugiak homestead in the Forties. Her parents, John and Bernie Stockhausen, proved up on a homestead carved from the wilderness to make a farm where they grew potatoes and other vegetables. Her father built a log home and then another log building alongside the highway where he opened a liquor store and later a bar, “Bernie’s Piddle Stop.” It is now the site of Peters Creek American Legion Post 33.

Darlene first traveled the highway when her father drove the family over the Alcan from Wisconsin in 1947. When they went to shop in Anchorage, it was over an unpaved two-lane road that crossed Eagle River on a log bridge laid just inches above the rushing water. The dirt road then went up and along what now is the campground entrance, through Fort Richardson and followed what now is Mountain View Drive. In the winter, she rode the lone bus to school in Anchorage until Chugiak Territorial School opened in 1951.

“It’s a pretty nice drive,” said Ginny Kirk, who probably taught Darlene’s younger siblings at the Chugiak school. Kirk now is president of the Chugiak-Eagle River Historical Society. She feels it’s a little confusing for those who have grown accustomed to the old road’s landmarks, though. “I have to look at the road signs to recognize where I am,” she quipped.

Friends who are avid bicyclists came out recently from Anchorage to ride the new bike path, Kirk reported. “They said it’s the best in the entire area.”

Dixie Waddell, on whose property sits the historic Spring Creek Lodge, considers the $31 million price tag to be “a waste of money. We had a nice looking road before.” The founder of the Rural Discount Center, she saw business dry up during the three seasons the road has been under construction. “We’ll have to wait and see if customers will return when the work is finished,” she said.

As did all the others who were contacted, she spoke favorably of the bike path.

“Our kids came up from Seattle and were really impressed,” she said. They were accustomed to trails in the Evergreen State, but were surprised to find the new facility here.

Mike Hall, a retiree whose home fronts the highway near Fire Lake, earlier had been outspoken against the bike path, saying the underpass near his house “was uncalled for.” His feelings have changed, although he still calls it “a little extravagant.” Now, as joggers, bicyclists and parents pushing perambulators pass his door, “I’m seeing a lot of people I’d never seen before.” It’s used by a lot of people, he said. He believes the improved road will see fewer accidents. “We’ve had quite a few bang-ups along here.”

Pleased with the new road is Til Wallace, a Chugiak fixture since the 1950s who years ago suggested renaming the Old Glenn to Main Street. “That’s what it is,” he said.

“It’s beautiful. It’s like a boulevard. It’s more than we deserve,” he gushed after making a wisecrack about the government borrowing money for such projects and the foreign governments to which we are beholden.

“The landscaping is awesome. And, you know, it’s a real pleasure to see people pushing baby carriages on the bike path. I’m proud to drive down that road,” he concluded.

Wallace had one complaint, though.

“There are a couple of unsightly places.” Old cars and piles of weathered building materials detract from the beauty of the new road. “Hopefully the owners will be inspired to clean it up,” he said.

Darlene Halverson said it would be hard to imagine what her parents would say if they were to see Chugiak today.

There were no two-car families in 1947, when Chugiak was born. Driving to Palmer or to Anchorage was an all-day affair. There was only one road and it was narrow, rutted and winding, muddy in the summer and icy in the winter. Small trees and brush lined the route and Knik Arm on the west and the slopes of the Chugach Mountains on the east were readily visible.

What would those pioneers think? Without a doubt, they’d be amazed.

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