Back in the 1970s, they were just ideas on paper. Today, the Lanie Fleischer Chester Creek and Tony Knowles Coastal trails are ingrained in the landscape and are iconic to Anchorage, its residents and visitors for biking and walking. It’s hard to believe that back in the day, some residents and politicians actually opposed constructing them.
An Important Link in Anchorage
Lanie Fleischer, after whom the Chester Creek Trail is named, moved to Anchorage in 1971. “I was running around town when I first got here thinking there should be trails. Many people said ‘you should do something about that’,” says Fleischer. Soon thereafter, she and former judge John Reese became co-chairs of the newly created Bike Day Committee.
The group wanted a network of trails, both for recreation and for bike commuting. “We wanted to be able to bike safely to schools, libraries and parks. We wanted to make it so that everyone didn’t have to get in a car to go everywhere,” she says. “I couldn’t believe that I moved to Alaska and had to go every place in a car.” The group put together a trails master plan that would, among other goals, connect all elementary and secondary schools via trails.
Anchorage was rapidly developing, and Fleischer saw a rare moment to advance the group’s vision. There were no curbs, no shoulders—and lots of resistance—but there was also the ability to build and plan for trails. Public hearings abounded, and trail advocates went to all of them.
“Back then, people didn’t think you could bike very far,” Fleischer says. At one meeting where she was advocating for trails, Anchorage City Mayor George Sullivan asked her, “Young lady, do you know how far that is?” She didn’t actually know the specific length, but she and the other supporters knew that the Chester Creek Trail would be an important link for Anchorage and a way for people of all ages to travel by bike and walk through the city. Anchorage Borough* Mayor Jack Roderick supported the trail and arranged for purchase of land along Chester Creek. In 1973, the Chester Creek Trail was officially established.
The Lanie Fleischer Chester Creek Trail parallels Chester Creek from Westchester Lagoon for four miles to Goose Lake. But back in 1973, there weren’t enough funds to build the whole trail and complete the tunnel under the Seward Highway. “We thought the Highway Department would see all the mothers pushing strollers across the highway and be so horrified that they would build the tunnel,” Fleischer says. Funding eventually came through, and the tunnel and trail were finally completed in 1975. The trail was an instant success, and was officially named after Fleischer in 1994.
While bits and pieces of the trail have been repaired over the decades, the entire Chester Creek Trail will be resurfaced this summer for the first time. For info on the resurfacing, including detour maps and the proposed schedule, head to Muni.org/Departments/Parks/Pages/ChesterCreekImprovements2.aspx.
*The City and Borough of Anchorage combined in 1975.
The Tony Knowles Coastal Trail was completed in 1987 and stretches 11 miles along Anchorage’s coastline from Second Avenue in downtown to Kincaid Park. The trail skirts the fault line of the 1964 earthquake, travels through forests and offers up sweeping vistas for walkers and bicyclists where you can spot beluga whales and North America’s highest peak, Mount McKinley, all in a single view.
Tony Knowles got his start in politics on the Anchorage Borough Assembly in 1975 and served on the Anchorage Assembly until 1980. He served as Mayor of Anchorage from 1981-87 and as Governor of Alaska from 1994-2002. Knowles echoes the comments that an enormous amount of planning and zoning was being done in the early ‘80s. Many new roads were being built and each time they were, Knowles and others worked to make sure bike trails and beautification came along with them.
The Coastal Trail had what Knowles terms a “unique competitor”—a Tidewater Freeway that the Department of Highways (precursor to the Department of Transportation) wanted to build from the Port of Anchorage to the airport. But with persistence by a number of trail advocates, planners put the Coastal Trail on the Area-Wide Trails Plan in 1975.
The freeway idea was defeated when Knowles was still on the Assembly. And in that same election, citizens passed Project 80s, which outlined support for projects including the Coastal Trail, as well as the Z.J. Loussac Public Library, the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, Sullivan Arena, the Anchorage Museum and many others. It was an advisory vote that allocated no money, but gave the city a guideline for spending money.
When Knowles became mayor in 1981, a large amount of money was coming in to the city, paving the way for completion of projects. But the right of way for the Coastal Trail would prove difficult. A number of private landowners did not favor the project. Robert Atwood, publisher of the now defunct Anchorage Times, owned a house along the route and consistently used his newspaper to print how wrong-minded he believed the project to be.
More difficult was the railroad, which was still owned by the federal government at that time. The railroad director told Knowles in no uncertain terms: “You will never get it.” But there was “strong public support for the project,” says Knowles. Eventually, the railroad was sold to the State of Alaska, which had a more positive disposition to the trail. Construction of phase one of the trail from downtown to Kincaid Park was completed in the six years that Knowles was in office.
“The trail is a real testimony to people power and the vision to insist on a unique piece of community identification. The strength of the project came from the grassroots,” Knowles recounts. He sees the trail as a great way for people to recreate and more—to meet up, socialize and see wildlife. “I’ve been stopped I don’t know how many times by a slow moose in the winter time, waiting to get home,” Knowles recalls.
When asked about phase two of the Coastal Trail, which would connect Kincaid to Potter Marsh, Knowles states, “I’ve got it on my to-do list.”
Threats to the existing trail still mount on occasion. The Anchorage Airport owns some land that the Coastal Trail passes through. Recent proposals for another runway would put the trail in a tunnel. Bridges on the trail are aging and in need of replacement. Luckily, voters approved a bond in April that will fund some bridge replacement.
Knowles’ big vision is a trail that starts in downtown Anchorage and continues to Girdwood, Portage and even Seward. Many connections to the south already exist—the paths next to the Seward Highway and parts of the old highway that have been converted to trail at Bird to Gird and Canyon Creek. With more connections, camping facilities and other amenities, bikers could start pedaling in downtown Anchorage and connect all the way to Seward.
Read more about the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail at AnchorageCoastalTrail.com.
As Anchorage celebrates its centennial, it’s clear that citizens and the community will continue to benefit from the vision and the commitment that it took to build these two extraordinary trails, and that people like Lanie Fleischer and Tony Knowles will continue to support and work hard for that vision.
This story was written by Steve Cleary, executive director of Alaska Trails and a board member of Bike Anchorage.