WASILLA - GEOGRAPHY AND HISTORY OF WASILLA (ALASKA)

Wasilla is a city in Matanuska-Susitna Borough, United States and the sixth-largest city in Alaska. It is located on the northern point of Cook Inlet in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley of the southcentral part of the state. The city's population was 7,831 at the 2010 census. Wasilla is the largest city in the borough and a part of the Anchorage metropolitan area, which had an estimated population of 364,701 in 2008.

Established at the intersection of the Alaska Railroad and Old Carle Wagon Road, the city prospered at the expense of the nearby mining town of Knik. Historically entrepreneurial, the economic base shifted in the 1970s from small-scale agriculture and recreation to support for workers employed in Anchorage or on Alaska's North Slope oilfields and related infrastructure. The George Parks Highway turned the town into a commuter suburb of Anchorage. Several state and federal agencies have offices in Wasilla, including the Alaska Departments of Environmental Conservation, Labor and Divisions of Public Assistance, Social Services.

Wasilla gained international attention when Sarah Palin, who served as Wasilla's mayor before her election as Governor of Alaska, was chosen by John McCain as his vice-presidential running mate in the 2008 United States presidential election.

Wasilla is named after Chief Wasilla, a local Dena'ina chief. "Wasilla" is the anglicized spelling of the chief's Russian-given name, Vasilij, which corresponds to the English name Basil.

History
The City of Wasilla derives its name from Chief Wasilla, a respected local Dena'ina Athabascan Indian Chief. There is some debate about the meaning of the Chief's name. One source claims it means "breath of air" in the Dena'ina Athabascan Indian dialect. Other sources assert the name descended as a variation of the Russian name "Vasili" meaning "William".

Before Anchorage was established, the settlement of Knik had served as the transport and supply hub for the region since the 1880's. With the founding of Anchorage in 1915 and the concurrent building of the Alaska Railroad as an overland supply link to Fairbanks and interior Alaska, the end was in sight for Knik.

By 1917 Knik was eclipsed by the new town of Wasilla which sprang up that year after a government land auction at the point where the Alaska Railroad crossed the main supply route (the Carl Wagon Trail) for the mines in the Willow Creek Mining District now the intersection of the George Parks Highway and Main Street. The location of Wasilla also provided a better supply staging point for the Kantishna Gold Mining area near Mount McKinley and mines in the Talkeetna area.

While placer (hydraulic) and hard rock gold mining had been underway in the Willow Creek Mining District since 1907, Wasilla prospered from its founding the 1917 until 1940 as the self proclaimed, "Gateway to the Willow Creek Mining District". With the exception of the latter part of WWII this was a very active mining area between 1909 and 1950. Incomplete records indicate at least 623,874 ounces of gold worth nearly $18 million dollars were produced at a time when gold was valued between 20-35 dollars an ounce. Over the years at least 50 mines and prospects have operated in this area and at the current time there are still a few active.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s the federal government formed the Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation to set up the Matanuska Colony for the agricultural development of Alaska. This influx of 200 farming families and supporting services meant that from 1935 until the 1960s, instead of Wasilla, the town of Palmer gradually became the primary supply and service center for this region.

Palmer remained the regional commercial center until a new Glenn Highway bypassed Palmer allowing more direct travel from Wasilla to Anchorage. The subsequent development of the new George Parks Highway to Fairbanks (through Wasilla) in the early 1970s opened opportunities for the first wave of "suburbanite" settlement. This meant that with ever improving roads and business opportunities Wasilla shifted from a small town and weekend destination for people from Anchorage to a hometown for workers in Anchorage and Wasilla.

Wasilla was incorporated in 1973. The current city resident population is 7,028 with a conservatively estimated population of more than 80,000 adjacent Borough residents who patronize the Wasilla business and commercial center.

In Wasilla, major growth resulted from the 1970s and 80s Alaska oil boom and pipeline development and by 1984 Wasilla had again become the commercial heart of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and for a time was the fastest growing city of its size in the United States. By the end of 2009, the City of Wasilla had 1,726 businesses registered with the Department of Finance, Sales Tax Division.

Luciano Mende

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