School Days Delayed in Early Anchorage

This school building, constructed by the U.S. government, was paid for by using 50 percent of the funds raised by selling lots in Anchorage during 1915.
This school building, constructed by the U.S. government, was paid for by using 50 percent of the funds raised by selling lots in Anchorage during 1915. Congress authorized its construction on April 17, 1917.

When Land Office chief Andrew Christensen opened the auction for the townsite above Ship Creek on July 10, 1915, bidding became so brisk that prospective lot owners couldn’t hold down prices. After sales closed a week later, 655 lots had sold for almost $150,000 (more than $3.5 million in today’s dollars). Christensen claimed the sale had “injected confidence in the people of the town.”

But that confidence may have been tempered somewhat when the residents realized the Alaska Engineering Commission had overlooked a vital component in the new town. The Commission had sold the parcels of land with the understanding that the lots could be assessed to finance such public services as water and sewer utilities, fire protection and garbage pickup, but it had neglected to provide for financing a school.

It took months to solve the dilemma. In summer 1915, the editor of the Cook Inlet Pioneer wrote: “If we are to retain the families, and they compose the backbone of any community, we must provide the children with adequate school facilities. It is highly important that this should be done without undue delay. …”

The federal government finally solved the predicament in late September after commissioners William C. Edes and Frederick Mears convinced the Comptroller General to issue funds for construction of a school house.

Completed in November 1915, Anchorage’s first school was built to serve about 90 students. From the beginning, residents labeled the school “entirely inadequate,” “unsanitary,” and “of an order of the early eighteenth century.” The school lacked a solid foundation, paint and a satisfactory heating system, and its unheated outdoor toilets didn’t meet townsite standards.

Edes ordered Andrew Christensen to take over the responsibility of “school director in addition to your other duties,” in 1917. Although school board members A.J. Wendler, Mrs. W.T. Normile and M. Finkelstein had handled the first year of operation admirably, enrollment had doubled to more than 200 pupils by the fall of 1917. The school also had management problems. One teacher taught 70 primary students in half-day shifts.

Christensen told the principal he “must quit going to the pool halls and must get down to business,” and he advised one teacher “to stop gossiping, complaining and criticizing, and to bring her work up to standard.”

That one-room school house was used only for overflow after a second school, finished in December 1917, opened on the School Reserve. The three-story structure (pictured above), known as Pioneer School, had all the modern conveniences. Soon it was maintained day and night, with seven teachers and 300 schoolchildren attending classes by day and 10 teachers and about 200 students in the building in the evenings, according to information on the photograph.

It served both elementary and high school students until the mid-1930s.

Pioneer School now sits at Third Avenue between Eagle and Denali streets and is used as a public meeting place.

26 comments on “School Days Delayed in Early Anchorage

  1. This is so interesting. Schooling was so different in those days – just look how far we’ve come

  2. Forgetting about the school, yikes! I also can’t imagine one teacher having to teach a class of 70 students. Thank goodness the new school how was built and saved the day! 🙂

  3. There are similarities in some schools today, as budgets force school districts to cut teachers and increase class sizes. But hopefully not to 70 students!

  4. In some ways, yes, Jo. Others … not so much. I understand geography and cursive writing are not being taught now!

  5. I love old school houses. I imagine all the kids that have come and gone and wonder what their futures ended being like. I would love to restore one and live in it. Thanks for sharing this little gem that I am sure educated quite a few kids

  6. Researching and writing about Alaska history has been my life since I retired from telecommunications industry in 1995, Dov. I’ve written a four-book series titled Aunt Phil’s Trunk that takes readers through early Natives settling the country up to statehood in 1959. Now working on the fifth, and final, book in the series. Also write for Alaska Magazine 🙂

  7. My great-grandfather Mathison built the first little school house in Hope, Alaska, in the late 1890s, Veronica. The community (which only has about 68 year-round residents now) uses it for a library now 🙂

  8. I love all your articles, and especially enjoyed this one. I fell in love with Alaska 8 years ago, my first trip there. You make it more interesting with each article. Thank you and keep writing!

  9. I was told that the Hope, Ak school house (which now serves as the Hope Library) was the first school house built on the Kenai Peninsula. Do you have any data on that?

  10. Thanks, Tom. Alaska’s school history is relatively new compared to the “Lower 48!”

  11. Thank you so much, Rosemary! I am so glad you are enjoying these little stories.

  12. I believe you are right, Lisa. In fact, my great-grandfather, Robert Burns Mathison, built that little one-room school house in the late 1890s and my grandfather, Bob, was one of the first students!

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