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The Hill That Government Built

By Austin Baird, Political, Rural Reporter, abaird@ktuu.com
Published On: Jul 11 2013 11:00:00 AM AKDT

Since time immemorial, the place has been used as fishing and camping grounds used by the Dena'ina. But those now familiar man-made noises are almost a century in the making. Government Hill, the neighborhood there, is almost as old.

ANCHORAGE -

A slight hill rolls up from the grayish flats that compose the Knik Arm, just at the northern tip of downtown, where rhythmic slaps of waves against mud are more easily seen than heard.

Standing along the edge of the bluff, one can hear, without any trouble, the beeping and buzzing of things moving around in the port and rattling along the railroad below.

Since time immemorial, the place has been used as fishing and camping grounds by the Dena'ina. But those now familiar man-made noises are almost a century in the making. Government Hill, the neighborhood there, is almost as old.

Before President Woodrow Wilson's administration made Anchorage the connecting hub for a stretch of railroad, the most prominent dot on western maps of the Alaska Territory was Campbell Point. In 1915, construction of a railroad that eventually would link Seward and Whittier to the coal-rich fields of the Matanuska Valley and the state's expansive interior began.

Hoards of job seekers arrived on boats and set up tents on the flats, and so burgeoned a tent city. One could stay alive there, but there was not exactly a high quality of life. To attract and keep people working in the newly-founded Anchorage, the Alaska Railroad, backed by the federal government, decided to build cottages on the hill.

Anchorage, which draws its name because boats decided to drop anchor here, has a name about as original as Government Hill, which would not exist in its current form if not for the government throwing cash at the hill nearest the tent city.

That's the story as told by historian Bruce Merrell, who spent much of his career with the Anchorage Public Library System.

According to Merrell, the importance of the railroad to the city's growth could not be overstated.

"If you look at the earliest phone directories for Anchorage, perhaps a quarter or even a third of the people who lived in Anchorage worked for the railroad," he said.

So when construction ended in 1923, things puttered along until the threat of a land invasion by Imperial Japan became apparent. The military ramped up investment in the area, including the construction of Elmendorf Army Air Base, which gave Government Hill its modern borders.

That's about the time Weaver Franklin arrived. In 1946, the western Nebraska native bought a lot on Government Hill.

"I was out in the Aleutian Islands for quite a while," the 90-year-old historian said, standing outside his home, wearing his Alaska Railroad cap.

“I passed through Anchorage and liked what I seen. That was a long string of bars. It was a good place for a young fellow to have fun, and so I came back," Merrell said.

In the early days, he lived in a Quonset hut, a simple steel building sold off as surplus by the military. Similar structures lined Harvard Avenue and the streets nearby.

Even when he got too old for the bars, he stayed around and raised a family. He worked on the railroad for the better part of four decades, eventually becoming a locomotive engineer, then to management of the operations. All the while he remained in the neighborhood.

"It was fun; it was a great adventure," Merrell said.

Virginia Borrego, standing along the fence that separates her yard from Franklin's, waved a picture of the steel abode she once called home.

"They were all like this," Borrego said. "And they were nice."

Whenever there are talks of the neighborhood's history, invariably they shift to the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake. On Government Hill, the elementary school split down the middle; half of the building dropped 20 feet, and the playground fell 35 feet.

According to a report, the problem was that gravel had been pulled from the foot of the hill during railroad expansions. Because school was out, no one was hurt. No one on Government Hill died.

"How lucky we were that the kids weren’t in that school," Franklin said. "It would've killed half of them."

"Everything was just like it was, it just sank," said Borrego, who was a teacher at the school. She remembers leaving her shoes in the building earlier that day and going back to get them from her classroom.

Even today, where the school was once located, now the site of Sunset Park, there is still rusted rebar and gravelly concrete jutting out of the ground where the school was once located. A new school was built a few blocks away, back from the bluff, right next to the base.

Another topic that often comes up is the neighborhood's future. A potential bridge across the Knik Arm may someday end up in Government Hill; cuts to the military budget and ongoing talks of base consolidation could affect the people who live there. But the place has changed before. Long before trains and soldiers and bridges showed up, the salmon-rich creeks below were fished and the hills above camped.

"Every time I think about doing something, I look at this and think forget it," Borrego said to her longtime neighbor.

"It was good to you," he said. "Government Hill was good to you, and to me. I feel it's been good to us."