Old homestead atop Skyline may soon be a subdivision

Friday, February 1, 2013 - 06:56
Park dream could be ‘a tough sell’
Til Wallace points to the plot of land his family homesteaded in the 1950s during a meeting with Chugiak-Eagle River legislators in 2012. Wallace would like the property to become parkland, but a lack of interest from government officials and a desire by his fellow property owners to sell means the mountainside location overlooking downtown Eagle River could soon become residential property.

Editor’s note: The following is part one of a two-part series about the Old Wallace Homestead in Eagle River.


At the top of the road that begins as Skyline Drive in Eagle River is a place almost every local knows. It’s where couples go to drink in the view. It’s where hikers, snowboarders, skiers and scouts gain access to the popular Mount Baldy, bypassing the private property gate that gives almost no one pause. And, it’s where many have gone to explore the mysterious ruins that lie scattered at the end of the property’s narrow old road, where it curves around an artesian-fed pond.

The pond, with its rusted water pump, is a well-known landmark. Its neighborly companions include: a congregation of picnic tables huddled under the alders; a dozen burnt-out cabins; one cabin made of railroad ties, still standing but covered in moss; and the remnants of a horse corral. The latter has led the place to occasionally be referred to by locals as “the old ranch up at Skyline.”

But the place’s true name is the Old Wallace Homestead. Bill Tucker, one of the owners, has a plan to turn the private property, which has been publicly used for decades, into part of the Chugach State Park.

But if his plan doesn’t go through, it could soon become a subdivision for the well-to-do.

The Old Wallace Homestead is already platted for a subdivision – the Wallace brothers prepared it for development in the 1970s but eventually abandoned designs for a neighborhood there. In the 1980s other owners came on board, buying up lots with the idea of sharing in one of various grand visions for the place. One woman, an artist from Homer, wanted to build an art studio. But she’s deceased now, along with another of the land’s owners. Those who remain are getting on in years. They’re not rich people, Tucker said, and in their old age, some are facing the kinds of financial burdens that often come with retirement, such as steep medical debts.

They’re ready to sell.

Tucker said he’d like to see the land go to the public, or, as Til Wallace said, “to the people.” But if the state doesn’t acquire the land for Chugach State Park, it’ll have to be sold privately. Most likely, it would go to a developer to be made into a new, upper-crust neighborhood, shutting it off to the public forever.Fiscally conservative

However, it’s not a good time to go begging the state legislature for money —particularly for things such as parks for public recreation.

“It would be a tough sell,” said Eagle River Sen. Fred Dyson.

“Certainly I will encourage the finance committee to consider this,” he said. “But I’m not optimistic. The governor, I believe rightly, is wanting to cut the cost of government and curtail the capital budget to things that are essential for development.”

The 320-acre homestead would be worth about $6 million, Tucker said, assuming it were worthless in terms of use, which it isn’t. That’s his pitch — Tucker, a land surveyor, is the point-man for a group of ten people who own part of the homestead. He said the estimate is based in part on what some adjacent unusable land has gone for.

That’s the up-front cost. Dyson said he’s also heard concerns from state park managers that they don’t have the budget to maintain the property for public recreation.

“My point of view is, people are using it already,” Dyson said. “And transferring from the present owners to the public isn’t going to change the usage right away. It’s just changing who owns it.”

Til Wallace said he thinks setting aside the place for public use could be an important investment for Chugiak-Eagle River’s future. The 81-year-old Wallace hopes that, after he’s gone, the old homestead up at Skyline will become to Chugiak-Eagle River what Central Park has become to New York City. When Central Park was first set aside, he said, it would have been hard to imagine skyscrapers hemming its edges. And it might be hard to imagine a densely-populated Chugiak-Eagle River now.

But the native New Yorker has watched the steady transformation of wooded areas into houses, fields into parking lots, quiet places filled with natural beauty into noisy places filled with cars and bustle. He knows the transformation will continue, swallowing up the nooks and crannies of natural space where children play, until there’s nothing left but sentimental memories. It’s a force he thinks will swallow much of the land around here. But not, he hopes, the Old Wallace Homestead.


The home mountain

In the summer of 1955, Til Wallace spent most days standing outside in a bathing suit on land where the storied Fuji Gifts would eventually stand in Old Chugiak, making concrete blocks by hand.

At age 23, he was just out of the U.S. Army Special forces, and enjoying what he thought was a temporary stay in Alaska with his older brother, Art. The two made concrete block for neighbor Jim McDowell, who needed it to build the Moosehorn — a gas station, restaurant and café that would be the heart of social life in Chugiak for decades.

It was hard and delicate work. Wallace would mix the concrete just right in the hopper, then fill a steel mold with 20 pounds of concrete. Then he’d heft the whole thing up by the side handles, cock it to one side, and slam it down hard on a small steel table four times to settle the concrete. Then up, cock to the other side, and down four times again. He used the hopper to scrape the excess concrete off the top, making a smooth surface and covering it with a small wood pallet.

Next came the delicate part: to lift the mold and the wood pallet up and flip it over, setting it down gently with the pallet on the bottom and releasing the concrete from the mold without destroying it.

The Wallace brothers did about 200 of those a day, creating the blocks that would go into Chugiak’s first commercial buildings. Every once in a while, Til Wallace would glance up from his work and watch the day’s light dance across a slope on a mountain to the southeast.

It reminded him of the “hausbergs” in the German Alps, where he’d been on tour in the Army. Each town had one: a “home mountain” that it looked to as its own, and took pride in. This slope was the perfect home mountain for a new, young community, he thought. And from where he stood, it looked like paradise. He was determined to get there.

The first time he tried was Dec. 31 of that same year. Wallace hiked in from the Chugiak side, thinking he could make it before nightfall. But an earthquake fault formed a steep cleft along that route. He could only get up the other side of it by clipping one ski pole onto a tree above him, and then pulling himself up. Darkness fell before he’d topped the cliff, and he had to head back.

“You know there’s an easier way to get up there,” Dave Pippel told him. Dave was the youngest son of the Pippel farming family, and at age 17, he was an employee of Art and Til’s. The following summer, young Pippel showed Til how to reach his vision of paradise from the other side of the mountain, taking a road — now Skyline Drive — that in those days went only a little ways up the mountain.

Wallace walked in the rest of the way from the road. When he finally got there, he saw acres of bright, thick grass that grew wild across a sweeping expanse of flat land before following gentle slopes on one side. On the other side stood an emerald ridge that circled part of the land in a kind of protective wall, as though the mountain were cupping it in one hand.

The place Wallace had fallen in love with from a distance was more beautiful than he had dreamed it would be. By the winter of 1960, he and his new wife Ella were slogging a piece of canvas and some other supplies up there in a toboggan, getting ready to start a home and a homestead.

Over the years, they would create something that was much more: a place filled with beauty and mystery, and one that would cradle the most poignant memories of three generations of people who grew up and lived around the home mountain of Chugiak-Eagle River.


Next: “Where wild horses roam”

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