Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
“Why is it called that?”
When it comes to local history, that is the most popular type of question I receive. Why is the city called Anchorage? Who are all those people the schools are named after? How about the streets? Why are these neighborhoods called Government Hill, Fairview, and Mountain View? Now is the long-overdue time to learn about some park name origins. There are far too many parks — 223 of them covering 10,926 acres — to cover in a single article. So, if your favorite park is not included here, it will be covered in the future.
As best as I can tell, the smallest Anchorage park is the tiny .05-acre Cunningham Park in Government Hill. The undeveloped, bare, triangular parcel is bordered by Cunningham Street, East Bluff Drive, and East Cook Avenue. There is no sign, but the park and Cunningham Street, are named for early Anchorage settler and longtime Alaska Railroad employee John T. Cunningham (1888-1959), who moved here in 1916, retired in 1949, and then promptly moved to California, where he died 10 years later.
Hostetler Park, inside the curve where Third Avenue becomes L Street, is almost hidden despite its downtown location. The park was created as part of the post-1964 earthquake city renovation and dedicated in 1967. Original plans called for an Explorers Park, but it was quickly renamed after Anchorage City Councilman Chester A. “Chet” Hostetler (1911-1967) died in office. The park was expanded slightly in 1974 to include room for the small parking lot. Since 1994, Hostetler Park has housed the Alaska Victims Memorial, which lists the names of hundreds of Alaskans killed by violent crimes.
Delaney Park, better known as the Park Strip, was first cleared as a firebreak in 1917 and has served as parkland ever since. On July 27, 1922, the park strip land was conveyed to the City of Anchorage “for fire protection and park purposes, and to furnish a suitable field for aeroplanes.” In the summer of 1923, locals worked together to clean and level the space for use as a combination golf course and airstrip. Merrill Field replaced the airstrip, and the Army closed the golf course during World War II, fearing enemy landings.
The park had many informal names over the years — the Park Strip, firebreak, city golf course, and Ninth Avenue Park — but it took until 1971 to receive an official designation. On September 14, 1971, the Anchorage City Council named the park after former Anchorage Mayor James J. Delaney (1896-1970). His primary connection to the space came in the early 1930s when he ordered the removal of several brothels that bordered the park. Decades later, he told the Anchorage Daily Times that it was his “biggest mistake” as a politician. He added, “The girls moved out of the Red Light District, but they scattered around town. Trouble was more common after that.”
Roosevelt Park is a half-acre pocket park north of Fish Creek and south of Spenard Road. It is one of the oldest developed parks in Spenard, dating back to the mid-1950s. In keeping with the surrounding streets named after former presidents, a sub-neighborhood known as Dead Presidents, the park is named for Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt. Similarly, the nearby Wilson Park is named for President Woodrow Wilson.
Cope Street Park is a .67-acre pocket park located north of West 36th Avenue and between Spenard Road and Arctic Boulevard. The park and street are named for Alonzo “Lon” Cope (1897-1939), an early Anchorage bush pilot and mechanic who worked for and with pilots Russel “Russ” Merrill and Frank Dorbandt. When Merrill disappeared after a 1929 flight, Cope identified the only fragment of his plane ever found. Cope died when his plane was caught in a winter storm and crashed near Juneau in 1939.
Red Bridge Park is a 1.91-acre park along Fish Creek, west of Minnesota Drive, east of Northwood Drive, and south of Spenard Road. The lot was previously an unofficial dumping site, a “garbage pile” in the words of one resident. The park was first developed in 1978, including the red-painted bridge that spans Fish Creek. In the subsequent naming contest, Tracy Reed, a student at nearby Northwood Elementary, submitted the winning entry and won a $50 savings bond.
Javier de la Vega Park, south of International Airport Road and west of Minnesota Drive, was built on the site of a former Greater Anchorage Area Borough landfill in 1984. It was named in honor of Javier de la Vega (1954-1984), a Mexican national who moved to Alaska in 1975. He worked as a fisherman and for Alyeska, but he truly left his mark with his promotion of soccer. He helped organize the Anchorage Soccer Association and served as its president. His passion helped soccer gain a foothold in a place far from the sport’s more established hotspots.
The Ray Storck Homestead Park in Anchorage’s Bear Valley neighborhood is appropriately named after Ray Edward Storck (1921-1983), who proved up on a homestead that included the parkland in 1953. Storck first came to Alaska in 1946 with the Army but chose to stay after his 1948 discharge.
University Lake Park is obviously named for the nearby universities, the University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University. The lake itself began as a gravel pit. As the development of the Anchorage bowl accelerated in the mid-20th century, gravel pits proliferated to meet the need for gravel and fill. Cheney and Taku lakes are also former gravel pits.
The Municipality of Anchorage purchased the University Lake site, also known as Behm Lake, from APU in 1985 in exchange for $2.6 million (about $7 million in 2022 dollars) and nine acres of surplus land adjacent to Williwaw Elementary School. Chester Creek was rerouted to run through the lake.
One of my favorite Anchorage walks is the path around Baxter Bog, which is named after LaVon “Von” Baxter (1916-1999), a World War II veteran and insurance man who moved to Anchorage in 1945. His homestead was located at what is now the intersection of Tudor and Baxter roads. The adjoining Pfleiger Park is named for Terry Pfleiger (1943-2016), who donated the land to the municipality. The Alicia Iden Nature Trail through the Baxter/Pfleiger Park is named for the longtime Baxter community advocate and activist who passed in 2005. Hard as it is to tell today, the area was used as a dump site by contractors before its conversion into a park.
[Here’s how Russian Jack Park got its name from a notorious bootlegger]
Kanchee Park on Klevin Street is in, depending on who you ask, Russian Jack or south Mountain View. As in, the area might officially fall under the Russian Jack Community Council, but proximity and history tie the area more directly to Mountain View. The City of Anchorage purchased the land in 1956. “Kanchee” is a mangled version of the Dena’ina word for a porcupine, “qanchi.” It is not a traditional Dena’ina placename for the area. In other manglings, the “Klevin” of Klevin Street should be spelled “Kleven.” Nels Kleven was the first homesteader in what is now Mountain View.
Fairview Lions Park, a buffer between residential Fairview and the traffic corridor to the north, is named for the role the Fairview Lions Club played in its development. Where the park is now was long the site of the notoriously blighted S & S Apartments, a nine-building, 206-unit, low-income housing complex built in the early 1950s. The owners struggled with vacancies and defaulted on their mortgage by the mid-1960s. After that, the complex quickly became one of, if not the most notorious slums in town.
Tenant complaints were wide-ranging and all-inclusive: mice, roaches, holes in floors and walls, sagging floors and walls, leaking floors and walls, obscenities on walls, insufficient heating, hazardous wiring, scattered fecal matter, fallen washbasins, broken appliances, poor plumbing, and broken glass in the playground. When fire damaged rooms, the doors were typically just boarded over. Complaints generally went unanswered. Rent strikes, lawsuits for hazardous living conditions, and fines from the city were common. A 1972 inspection found 290 building code violations. Tony Knowles, then an assemblyman for the Fairview area, described the buildings as “absolutely atrocious.” In 1976, an S & S resident said, “some tenants have been without heat and hot water all winter and have had up to one foot of ice in their bathtubs.”
In 1980, the Outside ownership declared bankruptcy. The Municipality of Anchorage seized the property, and the 33 remaining residents were evicted. In 1983, the property was sold to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) at auction. The following year, HUD sold it back to the city with the understanding that new, affordable housing would be built on the site. Due to asbestos removal, lawsuits, and auctions, the complex remained a rotting derelict until razed in 1985.
Neighborhood residents were divided on what to do with the land. Despite the ever-present need for new housing, the Fairview Community Council proposed the land be converted into a park. Council members even placed a sign on the lot: “New neighborhood park being developed by the Fairview Community and Parks and Recreation.” On the other side was the Fairview Community Housing Corporation, which wanted a 72-unit, owner-occupied, moderate-income housing structure built on the site. On May 21, 1986, the Anchorage Assembly unanimously voted to turn the property into a park. Reasonably priced housing in modern buildings continues to be an elusive combination in Anchorage.
And yes, there is both a Fairview Lions Park and a nearby Fairview Park. I have been told that the similarity in names has confused emergency services on more than one occasion.
[The origin and naming of Valley of the Moon park in Anchorage]
For further reading, past articles in this series delved deeper into the origins of Delaney Park, Russian Jack Springs Park, and Valley of the Moon Park. How many of these parks have you visited?
“ARR Official Dies Outside.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 6, 1959, 5.
Beardsley, Nancy. The Park Book: A Brief History of Parks in Anchorage. Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department, 2006.
“City Agrees to Buy Park.” Anchorage Daily News, August 9, 1985, C3.
Killoran, Nancy. “Fairview Park Proposal Divides Residents.” Anchorage Times, January 29, 1986, 13.
“Park Dedicated.” Anchorage Daily News, October 11, 1978, 2.
“Ray Edward Storck obituary.” Anchorage Times, December 17, 1983, B-4.
Shinohara, Rosemary. “Alicia Iden, Driving Force Behind Baxter Bog, Dies at 58.” Anchorage Daily News, May 25, 2005, B1.
“Terry Pfleiger obituary.” Anchorage Daily News, January 10, 2016, B-3.
Williams, Andy. “S&S Ordered to Fix Apartments.” Anchorage Daily News, March 8, 1972, 2.
Williams, Andy. “Tenants Get Action on Housing Woes.” Anchorage Daily News, January 7, 1972, 2.
Wilson, Bill. “Tenants Fight ‘Slum’ Condition.” Anchorage Times, June 18, 1976, 1, 3.