Earlier this month, a small stream near Kenai made front-page news when Kenai resident Debbie Sonberg applied to the Alaska Historical Commission to have the 1.5-mile “unnamed” creek designated as Reds Creek, partly in honor of longtime area resident Glen Rex “Red” McCollum Sr., who died in 2002.
Now it appears that the creek, which runs alongside the Wal-Mart store construction site before trickling into the Kenai River about a mile above its mouth, may have been named previously — twice.
Al Hershberger, who worked for the Alaska Road Commission from 1948 to 1951, remembers seeing what he believes was a surveying map that named all of the streams flowing through culverts beneath the then-new Kenai Spur Highway.
According to Hershberger, the stream names alternated between animals — Weasel, Beaver, Mink and Otter — and tabletop items — Salt, Coffee, Pickle and, perhaps, Sugar. One hand-drawn ARC map at the National Archives and Records Administration office in Anchorage displayed these streams, but the only one named was Beaver Creek.
Diana Kodiak, an archivist with NARA, said that the bulk of old ARC maps, containing more details and names, would likely be available at the Alaska State Archives and Records Service in Juneau.
Hershberger said he is uncertain of the exact order of the names on the map he saw, although he believes that Otter Creek was the one closest to the tower called Site 17. Longtime Soldotna resident Marge Mullen remembers a Pickle Creek on the approach to Pickle Hill just outside of Soldotna, and she also remembers Weasel Creek to the east of Kenai Central High School. She said that Weasel Creek used to occasionally flood the road and become a hazard for drivers.
Beaver Creek was in the same location it is now, and Mullen said it was known by that name when she arrived on the peninsula in 1947.
Beaver Creek itself, however, has an older name — a Dena’ina name, Hkayitnu, meaning “Tail River.” Whether that “tail” refers to a beaver’s tail is unknown.
Like Beaver Creek, the creek currently under consideration for official naming has a Dena’ina name, according to information in the 1930s research data of anthropologist Frederica de Laguna, the written remembrances of Dena’ina who lived in this area, and “A Dena’ina Legacy: K’tl’egh’I Sukdu,” the collected writings of Peter Kalifornsky.
Alan Boraas, a Kenai Peninsula College anthropology professor who helped edit Kalifornsky’s book, says “with virtual certainty” that the creek was named Shk’ituk’tnu after the village of Shk’ituk’t, which was located on the flat top of the steep bluff near the current Kenai Senior Citizens Center.
The name Shk-ituk’t means “we slide down place” in Dena’ina. The “-nu” suffix on the creek name denotes flowing waters and is usually translated as “river.” According to Boraas, Dena’ina names usually indicate either the physical features of landmarks or the uses of those features. Thus, “Shk’ituk’t” referred literally to a place where the Dena’ina slid down the bluff, and the creek below the village took on the village name as an extension of that place.
When the Dena’ina living there moved away from the north side canneries and into Kenai, the village was abandoned and the name Shk’ituk’tnu passed from common use. When the Civil Aeronautics Administration took over the village site in the 1940s, the bluff top was bulldozed and leveled to make room for the new CAA facilities. Now a small bluff-side parking lot sits at the end of a soccer field on the site.
Ultimately, the future name of the creek lies in the hands of the Alaska Historical Commission, which is taking public comments until March 15, according to Joan Antonson, deputy state historic preservation officer with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
Part of the commission’s decision will rest on prior identities for the creek, as well as the merits of the proposed name, Reds Creek. The commission does recognize commemorative name choices, and McCollum — who moved to Kenai in 1959, was a well driller and commercial fisherman, and served on the Kenai Harbor Commission — may fit the bill.
The commemorative choice, however, does not supersede the use of an Alaska Native place name when determining the designation of “unnamed” landmarks, according to state law.
Here are some central peninsula highlights from two big years, about a decade after the discovery of oil on the Swanson River field:
- When the clock struck midnight to signal the beginning of New Year’s Day, 1966, Wildwood Air Force Base celebrated the end of its first day of existence. On Dec. 30, 1965, command of the former U.S. Army post had been transferred to the Air Force. The Army had controlled the Wildwood Station for more than a decade.
- On that same day, the Kenai Peninsula Borough officially became a toddler, celebrating its second birthday. The borough had been created by popular vote in 1963 and began its official operation at the beginning of 1964.
- Later that month came something that is familiar now to peninsula residents — Mount Redoubt erupted. Threats from the volcano may seem commonplace these days, but the January 1966 eruption, which hurled ash 45,000 feet skyward, was the first from Redoubt since 1902.
- In March 1966, Roland “Doc” Lombard won his third Alaska State Sled Dog Championship in the Kenai-Soldotna race. A local favorite, the New England musher competed against other top sprint mushers of the time, perhaps most notably George Attla of Huslia.
- In April 1966, work began on the new terminal at the Kenai Airport. In May, 77 seniors received their diplomas from Kenai Central High School, which was the only central peninsula high school until Soldotna High opened its doors for the 1980-81 school year.
- The official population of Alaska, according to statistics released in July 1966 by the U.S. Census Bureau, was approximately 272,000 residents.
- In September 1966, a hovercraft company put on demonstrations to display its cargo- and passenger-carrying capabilities over Cook Inlet. Later that month, Soldotna voters said no for the third time to a proposal to change from a fourth-class to a first-class city.
- In November 1966, numerous peninsula residents flocked north for a chance to see President Lyndon Johnson, who was making a stopover at the Anchorage airport. In that same month, Alaskans elected Walter J. Hickel over incumbent William Egan as their new governor. Hickel resigned in January 1969 to become U.S. Secretary of the Interior for newly elected President Richard Nixon.
- In December 1966, work was completed on the Rig Tenders Dock on Salamatof Beach in North Kenai. Inside a reinforced-steel retaining wall, the builders dumped eight acres of sand and gravel. About this same time, peninsula residents willing to drive to Anchorage had a big new place to spend their money, as the Sears shopping center opened for business.
- In February 1967, the U.S. Post Office Department officially changed the city’s postal name from Soldatna to Soldotna. Accordingly, Postmaster Bobbye Tachick ordered new cancellation stamps.
- In July 1967, the Collier Carbon and Chemical Corporation, a subsidiary of Union Oil, awarded a contract to the Chemical Construction Company of New York to build a $50 million complex to process ammonia. In 2008 money, that construction would cost just over $322 million.
- In that same month, the Kenai National Moose Range completed the second stage of its canoe-trails system. This system, with its interconnecting portages, would eventually number nearly 70 lakes.