Ship Creek, Knik Arm

Ship Creek, Knik Arm

by | Aug 24, 2021

Ship Creek flows generally northwest for about 28 miles (45 km) from the Chugach Mountains to Knik Arm, about 22 miles (35 km) southwest of the village of Knik and 0.5 miles (0.8 km north of downtown Anchorage, Alaska. The watershed drains 81,344 acres (32,919 ha) between Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Anchorage. Dena’ina Athabascan people called the creek Dgheyaytnu meaning “needlefish” and refers to the three-spined stickleback. For millennia in the early spring, Knik Arm Dena’ina traveled to the mouth of Ship Creek and establish a fish camp to collect these small boney fish that arrived in large numbers before the salmon runs. This food source was particularly important if winter supplies of dried fish and meat had run short. Later in the season, they would fish for eulachon and salmon. In 1911, the village of Knik was the main center of supplies for Southcentral Alaska. Although Knik is situated on Knik Arm, an embayment of Cook Inlet, it is on the shallow upper portion of the inlet and can be reached by boat only at high tide. When the tide is out no water is visible from the village, which then looks out upon miles of barren mud flats cut by an irregular network of tidal channels. At high tide boats drawing several feet of water may reach the town by following one of the deeper channels. During about half the year the upper part of Cook Inlet is closed to navigation on account of sea ice. The mean tidal range is about 30 feet (9 m), and in the rapid currents formed by the tides the ice is carried back and forth and renders navigation impossible during the winter. During the open water season, practically all travelers to Knik would travel by ocean steamships to an anchorage near the mouth of Ship Creek. Freight would be lightered by scows to Knik and passengers were transferred by launch. In 1913, one steamship would make the trip from Seattle to Ship Creek every three weeks. At this time, there were two American families living on squatters rights at the mouth of Ship Creek, and by 1914, two more log cabins had been built.

In 1914, the U.S. Congress passed the Alaska Railroad Act to build a rail line from Seward to Fairbanks, with a spur line to the coalfields of the Matanuska Valley. The field headquarters for the project were built where Ship Creek flows into Knik Arm. Rumors about the impending construction of a railroad brought people to the area and particularly from the village of Knik, and soon a tent city started along the creek banks. By the spring of 1915, over a thousand tents were pitched on the north side of the creek and the village of Knik was practically abandoned. When townsite parcels were surveyed and auctioned in July 1915, the tent city folded and people moved to the bluffs above Ship Creek. By August 1915, the U.S. Post Office had established the name “Anchorage” for the new town that included several general stores as well as blacksmith and machine shops and had telephone and telegraph communications with Seward, the port terminus of the Alaska Railroad. Ship Creek was eventually realigned and the marshy areas and shoreline were filled in 1920. The railroad was completed in 1923, and numerous buildings were constructed to house the various functions of the railroad, as well as the city’s other industrial and warehousing needs. In 1927, the city dock was built, and adjacent cannery docks were built in 1928.

The salmon canning industry had a powerful impact on the economic and sociological development of Alaska as a territory and as a state. A salmon cannery was built at the mouth of Ship Creek in 1931 and operated by Emard Packing Company, Inc. At one time, there were two canneries in Anchorage and three more in upper Cook Inlet, but by 1976, only the cannery at the mouth Ship Creek remained and was then operated by Whitney-Fidalgo Seafoods. Fishing in upper Cook Inlet was made challenging by the extreme tidal fluctuations and sediment ladened murky brown water. In the early 1900s, salmon were caught with fish traps but these were outlawed in 1959. Fish traps were replaced by a fleet of drift net boats and fixed set nets tended by fishermen in outboard-powered skiffs. Both fisheries delivered their catch to the cannery or to shallow draft scows and tenders. The cannery at Ship Creek could only be accessed by flat-bottom ships able to withstand several beachings during the course of a visit at the cannery dock. Today, all the salmon canneries are gone but large flat-bottomed vessels and barges are still brought into the mouth of the creek to unload cargo. Read more here and here. Explore more of Ship Creek here:

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