Alaska Life

How a vanishing Anchorage lake illustrates the local landscape changes of the last century

Aerial of Anchorage centered on Blueberry Lake/O'Connell Lake

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.

If someone from 1950 Anchorage traveled to the present, they would be surprised at the many changes. Taller buildings, paved roads, fashions, technology and the decline in strip clubs would be among the more startling differences. Yet, they would also be shocked at the widespread alterations to the physical geography, to the landscape itself. The creeks look different. Some of those roads, homes and business districts crossed what had once been impassable, swampy muskeg. And certainly, they would wonder, what happened to that big lake south of town?

In what is now Midtown Anchorage, there was indeed once a lake in a location notably lacking water features today. The lake stretched along A Street from north of Northern Lights Boulevard to 32nd Avenue, covering all of what is now Barnes and Noble and much of the Walmart parking lot. Per the United States Geological Survey, its official name was O’Connell Lake, though there is almost no evidence of locals ever actually calling it that. Instead, residents knew it as Blueberry Lake, Blueberry Bog or Blueberry Swamp. Whoever the namesake O’Connell was is lost to history, as is whatever name the Indigenous Dena’ina might have had for the lake. The more popular moniker was literal, inspired by the area’s rampant blueberry growth.

In early Anchorage, the lake was one of several ice-skating destinations. In 1924, a group of winter enthusiasts blazed a trail to it, and the Anchorage Daily Times noted the appeal despite its relative distance from the small town. As an unnamed author wrote, “Skaters—all in a day’s work at the office, would hike two miles, skate two hours, hike back again and affirm that they felt like a million dollars.” By the middle of the century, the lake was also the frequent site of Boy Scout camping excursions.

Fireweed Lane, first graded in 1930, was initially called the Blueberry Lake Road. In those days, roads outside the tiny city core were generally and casually named for their endpoints. Spenard Road was thus the Spenard Lake Road. The Lake Otis Road, now a parkway, led to Lake Otis, another ice-skating destination. Even before it was known as KFQD Road, Northern Lights Boulevard was the Woronzof Road. And the Blueberry Lake Road took the scenic route from Spenard Road to Blueberry Lake.

Much of the Anchorage Bowl was once wetlands, though only a relatively few areas remain that hint at the former nature of the landscape. Connors Bog, Baxter Bog and the marshy stretch immediately south of Sand Lake are such remnants. The Blueberry Lake was itself part of a more extensive swamp that roughly extended between what is now Arctic Road to Lake Otis Parkway, and from Northern Lights Boulevard to Dowling Road.

A 1953 USGS map of Anchorage, centered on Blueberry Lake/O'Connell Lake
A 1953 USGS map of a portion of Anchorage
A 1953 USGS map of Anchorage

Development killed Blueberry Lake. From 1939 to 1950, greater Anchorage grew from about 4,000 residents to 32,000, a boom initially driven by federal investment. The population growth built upon itself. Construction on Fort Richardson began in 1940, which required an influx of workers. These laborers brought their families, and suddenly there was a new demand for housing, which enticed more laborers north. All these people wanted new stores and schools, which prompted a rapid road system expansion.

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In 1950, Blueberry Lake still lay near the southern extent of town, though homesteads dotted the landscape farther on. As Anchorage grew in that direction, development at first skirted around the lake for the obvious logistical and practical issues. In the 1960s, the lake was filled and largely forgotten, the blueberries swapped for asphalt and concrete. However, this was far from the only change to the local landscape.

Beginning in late 1939 and finishing early the following year, a canal was built between lakes Spenard and Hood, finally offering Anchorage a functional floatplane base. Planes could not be left unattended in the Knik Arm, but none of the lakes around town were large enough for heavily-laden takeoffs. Before 1940, pilots often launched empty from the lakes and landed in the Arm to take on cargo and passengers.

Lakes Spenard and Hood before the connecting canal was built

Demand for floatplane tie-down space continued to grow. In 1958, and after receiving permission from the Civil Aeronautics Authority and the Fish and Wildlife Service, Campbell Creek homesteaders George McCullough and David Alm dammed the waterway, thus creating the lengthy and public Campbell Lake. Notably, neither McCullough nor Alm owned a plane, but they saw the profit potential.

Most of the major creeks running through Anchorage have been significantly altered. One of the more well-known bits of local historical trivia is that Potter Marsh is a manufactured wetland. Construction on the Alaska Railroad reached Potter Creek in 1916, and the bridge crossing the creek was completed by that November. In early 1917, the embankments on either side of the bridge were connected, blocking the stream, and thus creating the marsh.

The paths of Ship, Chester, and Fish Creeks have, at many points, been straightened, widened, and altered. Fish Creek is sourced from the erstwhile Midtown wetlands that included Blueberry Lake. The same wave of development that paved over the bog redirected much of the creek underground, though a few scattered ditches are relics of its former path.

Chester Creek, in particular, barely resembles what it was when Anchorage was founded in 1915, in ways both small and large. The manmade Hillstrand Pond, on the creek and immediately west of Lake Otis Parkway, is one of the smaller examples. Named after area homesteader Earl Hillstrand (1913-1974), the pond was originally created around 1959, though it has undergone many design changes since then.

Anchorage tent city in 1915

By comparison, the creek’s western terminus represents massive changes to the natural environment. The Westchester Lagoon was once the stream’s floodplain, which emptied into the Knik Arm without interruption. At various times in city history, the mouth of Chester Creek has housed a small fishing fleet, an informal pet cemetery, and been the primary ingress point for bootleggers during Prohibition.

Beginning in 1964, city and state planners essentially redesigned the area. Construction for the Minnesota Drive extension over the creek began in 1967 and was completed the next year. Residents of a certain vintage might still call that section of road the Minnesota Bypass instead of Minnesota Drive. On the morning of Sept. 24, 1973, Anchorage Mayor George Sullivan closed the floodgates at the western end of the creek, and the lagoon slowly began to fill. Another piece of nostalgic trivia, how many people remember that there were once three islands in the lagoon?

While the Minnesota bypass eased congestion on Spenard Road, and everyone loves the acclaimed lagoon, not every resident prospered from the Chester Creek development. Leslie Wernberg moved to Alaska in 1935, and for decades his home was the “5th house right past Chester Creek” on Spenard Road. Before 1967, Wernberg, a commercial fisherman, could walk out his back door, get in his boat, and sail unimpeded into the Cook Inlet. The new Minnesota Drive bypass blocked his access, and he sued the state and City of Anchorage for violating his property rights regarding abutting water. In 1974, the Alaska Supreme Court denied Wernberg’s claim. He died in 1995 at the age of 86, and his home is gone now. Where it stood is now a stretch of empty land owned by the municipality on the water side of Spenard Road, just south of 19th Avenue.

The same development process that destroyed Blueberry Lake ironically led to the creation of several other lakes and ponds that now dot Anchorage. The road construction and wetland filling during the midcentury population boom required a massive amount of gravel. Per a 1969 industry article on the state of gravel production in Alaska, gravel accounted for roughly half the costs of a finished road, and there were a lot of new roads being built in those days.

gravel pit, wasilla, valley, meadow lakes

In response to this demand, gravel pits proliferated around Anchorage, usually but not always located at the outermost edges of town. While the gravel pits were profitable, they had to compete for land against the developers they were supplying. The same sites appealed to both pit companies and home builders. And by the late 1960s, public sentiment had turned solidly against the unsightly gravel pits. As one anonymous gravel pit operator told the Alaska Construction & Oil magazine, “I can’t blame these people who complain. Gravel pits are ugly. We go in and tear up the ground, knock down the trees, dig big holes. There’s always a lot of machinery, lots of noise, lots of dust. I wouldn’t want to live next to a gravel pit either.”

As Anchorage-area zoning regulations were strengthened in the late 1960s, gravel pit operators increasingly relocated to the Matanuska-Susitna area, creating new and ongoing conflicts with residents there. Gravel extraction is no longer allowed within the Municipality of Anchorage. Some of the former gravel pits were themselves eventually filled and commercially developed. Others were turned into parks. Taku Lake, University Lake, Cheney Lake and Cuddy Pond are all former gravel pits.

Across Anchorage, hills have been carved, and mountainsides dynamited for road and railroad access. Buildings come and go. Looking at pictures of early Anchorage, the vistas are almost unrecognizable except for the comforting constant of the surrounding mountains. Then again, even there, rising tree lines mark the passage of time. There is no telling what Anchorage will look like a century from now.

Anchorage panorama, May 1, 1916

Key sources:

Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge Management Plan. Divisions of Habitat and Wildlife Conservation, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, 1991.

“Anchorage is Running Dry in the Pits.” Alaska Construction & Oil, September 1969, 38-44.

“Complete Canal Work.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 31, 1940, 4.

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DeMarban, Alex. “Much of a Creek That Once Ran Through Anchorage is Now in Underground Pipes. A Group Wants to Return it to the Daylight.” Anchorage Daily News, May 7, 2022.

“Homemade Lake Will Pasture Planes.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 22, 1958, 8.

“Lands on Canal, Finds It Convenient.” Anchorage Daily Times, April 29, 1940, 10.

Leslie Wernberg v. State of Alaska and City of Anchorage. 519 P.2d 801 (Supreme Court of Alaska, 1974).

“Mayor Closes Floodgates on Westchester Lake.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 24, 1973, 40.

“Obituaries.” Anchorage Daily News, October 4, 1995, B4.

“Society.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 18, 1924, 6.

Stock, Pamela. “Pond Plan Could Help Clear Creek.” Anchorage Times, B-1, B-8.

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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