December 7, 2023 in Alaska

Girdwood, Alaska: From Gold Mining Town to Ski Resort Paradise

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Early History

The Girdwood valley has a very long history of human habitation. Archaeological evidence indicates the area was settled by Athabaskan Indians over 7,000 years ago. The Ahtna and Dena’ina tribes used the valley as a meeting place for trade and celebrations.

Russian fur traders were the first non-natives to arrive in Girdwood in the 1700s. Seeking valuable sea otter pelts in Cook Inlet, the Russians built trading posts in the region and interacted with the native populations. Early American explorers like Capt. James Cook charted the territory in the late 1700s. The name “Girdwood” comes from Col. James Girdwood, who mapped the Sushitna Valley for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1898.

Gold Mining Era

The Girdwood valley was relatively untouched by outsiders until the late 1800s, when gold was discovered in the surrounding mountains and rivers. This led to a gold rush starting in 1895, bringing an influx of miners and prospectors to the area. Crude mining camps popped up along Glacier Creek and Crow Creek, which both contained rich deposits of placer gold.

Within just a few years, the remote valley was transformed by the chaotic mining activity. The implementation of industrial mining techniques, like hydraulic mining, also began destroying the natural landscape. Minimal regulations meant that native lands and resources were heavily impacted by the rampant development.

The mining camps were notorious for being lawless, rugged places, filled with saloons and violence. At its peak, the Crow Creek camp had over 1,500 residents while Glacier Creek had around 500 miners living in poor conditions. Both towns were eventually abandoned as easily-accessible gold disappeared. This short-lived mining boom left a permanent mark on Girdwood’s landscape and was formative in the area’s early history.

Settlement Era

The settlement era in Girdwood began around 1904 when the town was officially established. As more people came to Girdwood in search of gold, businesses and infrastructure started developing to support the growing population.

In 1909, the Alaska Railroad was built connecting Seward to Fairbanks, with a stop in Girdwood. This made it easier for people and supplies to access Girdwood and helped businesses transport goods. The rail station became an important part of the town.

As Girdwood grew, roads were built connecting it to other parts of Alaska. The Seward Highway, completed in 1951, allowed automobile access to and from Girdwood. The town also got electricity and phone service during this time.

Daily life in early Girdwood centered around the gold mining industry. The town had various businesses like general stores, lodges, restaurants, and bars that catered to the miners. Families lived in modest, rustic homes heated by wood stoves. Churches, a school, post office and other community buildings were constructed.

People had to be resourceful and self-sufficient to endure the harsh winters. Mining started declining in the 1950s, so residents took on jobs in the Alaska Railroad, tourism or other industries. Girdwood began evolving from a mining town into a community with a more diverse economy.

World War II

The onset of World War II had a profound impact on the small community of Girdwood. Though located far from the frontlines of the conflict, Girdwood became an important site for the construction of critical infrastructure to support the war effort.

In 1941, the Alaska Railroad was extended from Anchorage down to the town of Seward, passing directly through Girdwood. The new rail lines enabled swift transport of supplies and military personnel between Anchorage and Whittier, an ice-free port that served as a primary shipment point for materiel bound for the Aleutian Islands campaign against Japan. During peak wartime activity, trains ran day and night through Girdwood, their whistles a constant reminder of the ongoing global conflict.

The influx of military personnel and construction workers provided an economic boost to Girdwood. The town’s hotels and cafes supported a thriving service sector catering to the soldiers and laborers passing through daily. The population of Girdwood swelled to over 1,000 at the height of wartime activity.

Though no direct combat reached Girdwood, the war still left its mark on the small community. In 1943, a troop train heading to Whittier derailed near the Girdwood depot, resulting in 24 casualties. The Girdwood cemetery contains a memorial to those lost in the derailment.

While the war brought growth and activity, it also disrupted the traditional way of life for Girdwood’s civilian populace. Rationing and resource allocation mandated by wartime needs led to shortages of consumer goods and services. Blackout regulations required residents to cover their windows and turn off lights at night to avoid providing targets for potential Japanese air raids.

By the end of World War II, Girdwood was primed for new opportunities. Though the town’s population dropped as military activities ceased, investments in infrastructure like the rail line opened the door for future development. The community’s sacrifices during the war also strengthened bonds between residents, shaping Girdwood’s local identity and spirit.

Post-War Years

After World War II ended, Girdwood began to grow and develop rapidly. Soldiers returning from the war came to work at the mines, causing the population to steadily increase. The economy also expanded as demand for metals like copper, gold, and silver grew.

New infrastructure projects helped connect Girdwood to other parts of Alaska. The Seward Highway was completed in 1947, allowing people and supplies to travel between Anchorage and Seward much more easily. The Alaska Railroad also extended its rail lines south from Anchorage to Whittier in 1943, passing right through Girdwood and boosting transportation access.

The 1950s saw even more growth, with new houses, businesses, schools, churches, and other facilities popping up around town. The remote mining community was transforming into a more modern town. By the 1960s, Girdwood had become a popular destination for outdoor recreation like skiing and fishing. The natural scenic beauty of the surroundings attracted visitors from across Alaska and the lower 48 states.

Alaska Earthquake 1964

The 1964 Alaska earthquake, the strongest earthquake recorded in U.S. history at a magnitude of 9.2, had devastating effects on Girdwood. The earthquake struck at 5:36 PM on Good Friday, March 27. In Girdwood, the earthquake triggered massive landslides on Mount Alyeska, destroying much of the town. Homes crumbled, downtown buildings collapsed, and roads buckled and split apart. The landslides and flooding from tsunamis caused by the quake completely reshaped the region.

In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake, rebuilding efforts in Girdwood were slow. With the town’s infrastructure destroyed, residents lived in tents amidst the wreckage. Potable water had to be flown in until water systems could be rebuilt. It took several years for Girdwood to rebuild after the 1964 quake. While many residents stayed and rebuilt, others left Girdwood for good. Today, evidence of the earthquake’s damage can still be seen in tilted buildings and damaged roads. Though Girdwood persevered through this natural disaster, the earthquake of 1964 reshaped the town permanently.

Alyeska Resort

The development of Alyeska Resort in the 1960s transformed Girdwood and put it on the map as a world-class ski destination. Alyeska was founded in 1954 when Alaska Methodist University students cut the first crude ski run on Mount Alyeska. In 1960, a group of Alaska businessmen formed the Alyeska Ski Corporation to develop a complete ski resort. After several feasibility studies, they chose the southern slopes of Mount Alyeska, 30 miles from Anchorage, as the ideal location.

Construction on the resort began in 1964. To support the resort, the George Parks Highway was extended from Anchorage to Girdwood and the Alyeska ski lifts were installed. In December 1966, Alyeska opened to the public. At the time, Alyeska boasted four chairlifts, nine runs, and multiple restaurants and lodges. It was the first year-round ski resort in the United States.

The opening of Alyeska Resort transformed Girdwood from a quiet town into a bustling tourist destination. Overnight, Girdwood became home to Alaska’s fledgling ski industry. The resort brought jobs and economic prosperity to the town. New restaurants, hotels, shops catering to skiers began popping up. Girdwood quickly established itself as Alaska’s premier ski town.

Over the years, Alyeska continued to expand, adding new lifts, runs, and facilities. Today Alyeska has 1,400 skiable acres, 76 runs, 6 high-speed quads, 2 triple chairs, 4 restaurants, and a luxury hotel. It has played a pivotal role in putting Girdwood on the map and driving tourism to the town year-round. The development of Alyeska Resort was a defining moment in Girdwood’s history.

Transportation

Girdwood’s transportation links to Anchorage and other parts of Alaska have evolved over time.

The settlement was initially accessible only via trail until the Seward Highway was constructed in the 1940s, connecting Girdwood by road year-round to Anchorage. Prior to the highway, there was no road access into or out of Girdwood during winter. The highway vastly improved transportation options.

The Alaska Railroad also serves Girdwood, with the Glacier Discovery Train offering scenic rides along Turnagain Arm and stops in the town. The railroad enabled transport of mining equipment, supplies and resources out of Girdwood starting in the early 20th century.

While Girdwood has no commercial airport, small planes can land at Girdwood Airport and several other small airstrips around town. For major air travel, residents rely on Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, a one-hour drive from Girdwood.

The highway system continues to provide the main transportation link for Girdwood into the 21st century. The town still depends on Anchorage for most services not available locally. Improved roads have also facilitated growth of tourism.

Recent History

Girdwood has seen significant growth and development in the past couple decades. The town’s population grew from under 2,000 to over 2,500 residents between 2000 to 2010. This growth was fueled in part by the expansion of the nearby Alyeska Resort, drawing more permanent residents who work in the tourism and hospitality industries.

Some major events and changes in recent decades include:

  • In 1995, the Alyeska Resort doubled in size after being purchased by John Byrne and renamed from Alyeska Ski Resort to Alyeska Resort. The resort has continued expanding since then.
  • The Girdwood Forest Fair, an annual music and arts festival, was founded in 1996 and became a major summer event drawing crowds.
  • The Girdwood K-8 School opened in 2006 to serve the growing population of young families.
  • The Glacier City Airport was expanded in 2010, allowing larger planes to serve Girdwood.
  • Several new subdivisions and housing developments have been constructed, expanding residential areas.
  • New restaurants, shops, and other businesses have opened up to support the growing population and tourism industry.
  • Infrastructure projects have expanded roads, trails, utilities and other services. Recent projects include the Ruane Road rebuild in 2021.

So in summary, Girdwood has gradually transformed from a sleepy ski town into a growing resort community over the past couple decades. But it still retains its natural beauty and small-town charm.

Girdwood Today

Girdwood has transformed from a gold mining town into a vibrant community known for its natural beauty and as a gateway to recreation. The economy relies heavily on tourism, with the Alyeska Resort being the major draw and employer in the area. The ski slopes and summer activities bring in visitors and seasonal workers year-round. While mining has declined, many small businesses cater to tourists such as shops, restaurants, tours, fishing charters, and lodges.

The community retains its small-town feel despite the influx of tourists. Locals are drawn to the scenic valley surrounded by mountains and glaciers. Girdwood has a thriving arts scene with galleries, festivals, music and craft fairs. The community comes together for events like the Forest Fair, winter Solstice Festival, and summer concerts. While part of the Anchorage municipality, Girdwood maintains its own identity and sense of place.

Traces of Girdwood’s gold rush past remain, like the preserved hand-hewn log cabins of early settlers. The town celebrates its heritage with the annual Miners and Trappers Ball. Some current residents are descendants of the original miners and trappers. The community honors its native heritage and works to preserve the environment through organizations like the Girdwood Land Trust. Though transformed, Girdwood retains its connection to the past while welcoming the future.




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