Alaska Life

Histories of Anchorage park names, from Dena’ina origins to the etymology of ‘williwaw’

Tiny Kedaya Park is located in South Addition

Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

All the Anchorage parks, all 223 of them covering 10,926 acres, were each named for a reason. This article continues the effort to document the origin of each park’s name. There are far too many parks to cover in a single article. So, if your favorite park has not yet been covered, it likely will be in the future.

At only 0.24 acres, Kedaya Park in South Addition is not only one of the smallest parks in Anchorage but perhaps the most unique. It was dedicated in 1954, making it one of the oldest parks in town, but the particulars of its location are its true hallmark. The parkland is set back from the street and surrounded by private parcels with no apparent entrance. There is an easement guaranteeing public access, but the effective reality is that someone would have to walk through a driveway or yard to reach the park.

The park does have a sign, and beneath the name is the word “birch” with no explanation. “Kedaya” is an extremely mangled version of some Dena’ina word, though it is unclear whether “birch” is a correct translation. In Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina, the language of the local Dena’ina, “q’ey” means “birch.” In Outer Inlet Dena’ina, as spoken on the Kenai Peninsula, birch is chuq’eya, which is closer but still unlikely.

Aaron Leggett, a senior curator at the Anchorage Museum and president of the Native Village of Elkutna, believes a more likely origin is the Dena’ina “gedeyaq,” meaning the black-legged kittiwake. He stated, “For Kedaya, I speculated that this could be its name based on my own learning of Dena’ina thinking how an English speaker would try and write it.” He also noted that several other park names in the Anchorage area are derived from Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina terms, which supports a more local origin for “kedaya.”

Nulbay Park in Bootleggers Cove is the most accurately English-transcribed and translated of those Dena’ina-derived park names. “Nulbay” means seagull. The parkland, with its stunning view of the water, was transferred from the Alaska Railroad to the city of Anchorage in 1965. The seal and killer whale-themed playground was installed in 2003.

Among the other Anchorage park names with Dena’ina origins, Kanchee Park, in southern Mountain View, is derived from “qanchee” for porcupine. Tikishla Park, in Airport Heights, is derived from “ghedishla” for a black bear. Duldida Park, in Mountain View, is derived from “deldida” for a red squirrel. For Chanshtnu Muldoon Park, which opened at Muldoon Road and Debarr Avenue in 2018, “chanshtnu” translates as “grassy creek,” which otherwise became mangled into “Chester,” hence Chester Creek. The Muldoon part of the name is from Arnold Muldoon (1909-1985), who homesteaded near the southern end of the namesake road he helped build. Rabbit Creek Park in south Anchorage is named for the creek name, which is a direct translation of the Dena’ina placename, “Ggeh Betnu.”

Tikishla Park, hockey, hockey rink, outdoor hockey
A cleared area where the Government Hill School used to be before it was damaged in the 1964 earthquake

Sunset Park in Government Hill was transferred to the city in 1968 and designated as a park but not developed until the early 1980s, when the Government Hill Community Council named it. The parkland was previously the site of the old Government Hill Elementary School that was destroyed in the 1964 earthquake.

The Wickersham of Wickersham Park, along Campbell Creek between Seward Highway and Lake Otis Parkway, is early 20th century Alaska judge and politician James Wickersham (1857-1939). In 1900, Wickersham was a well-connected lawyer and state legislator in Tacoma, Washington, when President William McKinley appointed him as the judge for the newly created Third Judicial District of the Alaska territorial court then based in Eagle. In 1908, he was elected as Alaska’s non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives. Despite his lack of voting power, his influential lobbying led directly to the 1912 Organic Act, which made Alaska a territory and allowed the creation of the first Alaska Legislature. Other victories for Alaska during his tenure included the 1914 Alaska Railroad Act and securing the funding for what was then the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, today the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

James Wickersham portrait, 1921-1922
Campbell Creek, Salmon, Spawn, Spawning, Wickersham Park

Turpin Park, south of the Glenn Highway between Turpin Street and Muldoon Road, is named for former area homesteader Eldrick “Dick” Turpin (1913-2000). Born in Oregon, he moved to Alaska in 1937 and lived in Anchorage from 1946 through his death in 2000.

The federal government seized most of the modern Muldoon area in 1944 and designated it as part of a broader military reserve. Homesteaders in the area, including Arnold Muldoon, were compensated for their land, although usually a minimal amount. In 1949, the land was reopened for homesteaders, and Muldoon reclaimed his former homestead. Turpin was among many new homesteaders who claimed land in the area, proved up, and quickly parceled out their homesteads. Many of the homesteaders who filed claims in 1949 wound up with roads, schools, and parks named for them, including Paul Boniface (1927-1991), Burl Tudor (1920-2000), Harold DeArmoun (1924-2020), and Von Baxter (1916-1999).

The land that became Williwaw Park, off Debarr Road near Russian Jack Springs Park, was transferred out of the Municipality’s Heritage Land Bank to create a park in 1998. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a “williwaw” as a “sudden violent squall or gust of wind, especially in coastal waters in high latitudes.” The specific origin of the word is unknown, though it perhaps derived from a combination of “whirly” and some other unknown term. The earliest documented usage is from the early 19th century. Philip Parker King’s 1832 Sailing Directions for the Coasts of Eastern and Western Patagonia, a guide to safely navigating the Straits of Magellan south of South America, mentions “williwaws, which “drive the ship from one side to the other, as if she were a light chip upon the water.”

[From a fierce local advocate to the overblown hero of the serum run, here is how some popular Anchorage parks were named]

The dominant use of williwaw throughout the 19th century was in relation to storms around Cape Horn, including the Straits of Magellan. Over time, the term began to be used more broadly, particularly in Alaska. The 1893 Appleton’s Guide-Book to Alaska and the Northwest Coast notes, “The wreck of the Ancon remains a conspicuous object on the rocky shore, where it was blown by a williwaw or ‘wooly’ as it was letting go from the wharf at high tide on August 25, 1889.” Incidentally, that wreck stranded noted painter Albert Bierstadt for five days at the Loring cannery north of Ketchikan. He produced several drawings and paintings from the experience.

Williwaw gained its most significant association with Alaska during World War II, when pilots, soldiers and sailors adopted the term to describe the sudden violent storms common around the Aleutian Islands. Author Gore Vidal served there, and his first novel, published in 1946, is tellingly titled “Williwaw.”

Whisper Faith Kovach Park, east of Seward Highway and off Lore Road, is a landmark to a tragedy. The park land was purchased in 1975, and the resultant park was subsequently named Lore Park for the adjoining road. In 1998, seven-year-old Whisper Kovach stepped into the road near the park after obtaining some candy from an ice cream truck. A pickup truck hit her, and she died from her injuries shortly thereafter.

She was a kid who loved ice skating and cartoons, who rode bikes and swam. According to her family, “Whisper was the light of life. She had an everlasting smile on her face. She found joy in the simplest events. She was always ready to meet a new friend and had no fear of strangers. She stole the heart of all who met her. We adore her still, and we will love her forever. She would have been, should have been, 31 years old this year, a young adult contributing to this world. The park, which was rededicated in her honor on June 29, 2000, reminds us of what was lost.”

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Key Sources:

Beardsley, Nancy. The Park Book: A Brief History of Parks in Anchorage. Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department, 2006.

Bell, Tom. “Child’s Death Prompts Campaign.” Anchorage Daily News, July 20, 1998, B-1, B-3.

“Eldrick ‘Dick’ Michael Turpin obituary.” Anchorage Daily News, June 23, 2000, B-15.

“In Whisper’s Memory.” Anchorage Daily News, July 11, 2000, D-2.

King, Philip Parker. Sailing Directions for the Coasts of Eastern and Western Patagonia. London: British Admiralty, Hydrographical Office, 1832.

“Land Ownership Reflects Mix.” Anchorage Times, April 16, 1978, B-1.

Leggett, Aaron. Email July 22, 2022

Scidmore, Eliza Euhamah. Appleton’s Guide-Book to Alaska and the Northwest Coast. London: William Heinemann, 1893.


David Reamer

David Reamer is a historian who writes about Anchorage. His peer-reviewed articles include topics as diverse as baseball, housing discrimination, Alaska Jewish history and the English gin craze. He’s a UAA graduate and nerd for research who loves helping people with history questions. He also posts daily Alaska history on Twitter @ANC_Historian.

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