EAGLE RIVER, Alaska — After the U.S. Armyestablished a permanent base at Fort Richardson outside Anchorage in 1940, it didn’t take long for nearby Chugiak-Eagle River to adopt the backyard base as its own. In fact, from their very beginnings, the base and nearby small towns have enjoyed a special relationship.
“It goes way back to pre-statehood, the roots of this community as far as helping provide for the needs of the military,” said Suisie Gorski, president of the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce.
When Glenn and Dale Briggs homesteaded in 1943, there were no commercial ventures in the town now known as Eagle River. But with the population of the nearby base rapidly growing due to the influx of troops that arrived during World War II, the brothers quickly realized that the soldiers could provide a ready market for their business — hog farming.
According to the Chugiak-Eagle River Historical Society, the Briggs brothers brought 50 Hampshire pigs from Nebraska and began what turned into a thriving business. Within eight years, the brothers had a herd of approximately 700 hogs, most of which were slaughtered and sold to the military.
Today, Gorski said the base next door provides a vital economic engine for the Chugiak-Eagle River area.
“It’s very important to our business community,” she said.
Along with the on-base military population, many active duty and retired military members choose to make their home in the Chugiak-Eagle River area, which remains somewhat isolated from the rest of the Anchorage metropolitan area.
According to statistics provided by Alaska Department of Labor economist Neal Fried, 21 percent of Chugiak-Eagle River’s population has served in the military — compared to 15 percent in Alaska as a whole and 10 percent nationwide.
“They live here, they work here, they are raising their families here,” Gorski said.
State Rep. Dan Saddler’s district overlaps parts of both Eagle River and JBER. Saddler said the connection between Chugiak-Eagle River and the joint base next door is undeniable.
“We see military jets and helicopters flying over Chugiak-Eagle River every day,” Saddler said. “And everyone here knows someone in the military.”
Having a military base right next door has always come with some challenges. When the Army operated its Nike Hercules missile outpost at nearby Site Summit overlooking Eagle River during the height of the Cold War, area residents sometimes had to head for cover.
According to a story in the Nov. 16, 1960, edition of the Knik Arm Courier, 12 homesteader families — along with all pets and livestock — from the South Fork Eagle River neighborhood had to leave their property and bunk on base for four successive Mondays while the Army fired missiles over their homes.
Even then, though, the spirit of cooperation seemed evident. According to the story, the Army’s Capt. Lemay (who himself lived in Chugiak) promised evacuees “ring-side seats” on Fort Richardson, where they could watch the missiles shoot drone aircraft out of the skies above the valley.
Army public relations officer Lt. Col. Bill Coppernoll said the nearby communities provide an ideal place for soldiers and airmen to make their homes.
“Our military families live and grow in Eagle River,” Coppernoll said.
Army civilian media relations officer Chuck Canterbury has worked on base for nearly five decades. Canterbury lives in Eagle River himself, and said many neighborhoods in the town are overwhelmingly military and veterans.
“Look at Powder Ridge,” he said, mentioning a neighborhood that literally overlooks base property and is a 10-minute drive from the Fort Richardson gate. “That’s a lot of military.”
Each year during the area’s Bear Paw celebrations, the tight bond between the nearby joint base and Chugiak-Eagle River is on ready display. The Saturday of each year’s Bear Paw Parade is designated “Military Appreciation Day,” and the Air Force, Army and National Guard all march through downtown and often provide entertainment in the form of bands and floats. During last year’s event, the National Guard set up several large troop carriers that were quickly overrun by curious children anxious to get into the cockpit.
Coppernoll said the Army, Air Force and National Guard all do their best to reach out to the Chugiak-Eagle River community, and he feels the relationship is a source of pride on both sides of the fence.
“We feel like we have a fun relationship with the community,” he said.
Copperonoll said he thinks the support the troops and their families receive from their civilian neighbors makes Alaska one of the best places to be stationed in all the U.S. military.
“This is a great place to serve,” he said.
Whenever troops return home from deployment, the close connection between Chugiak-Eagle River and the military can be seen on any of the town’s overpasses, which are often covered in hand-pained “Welcome Home” banners.