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Big Lake Chamber of Commerce

Big Lake… Rich in History

Big Lake lies at the western end of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, for many centuries the home of the Dena’ina Indians of Cook Inlet in South Central Alaska. Building a sophisticated maritime culture, the Dena’ina also hunted, trapped and traded. In 1834, the Russians established a mission at Knik, just a few miles south of Big Lake on Cook Inlet, converting the Indians to Christianity and trading with them and through them with the Indians in the Interior. Contact with “civilization” was disastrous for the Dena’ina, however, as smallpox ravaged their numbers.


When gold was discovered in 1890 to the north of Knik in the Susitna area and after in the more easterly Willow Creek, Knik became the supply depot for all the miners working the many claims & mines and – conversely – the point of departure for the gold on its way to smelting. Many heavily used supply trails fanned out from Knik, one of which passed on the eastern end of Big Lake and another being the famous Iditarod Trail, which carried people, dogs, supplies and mail as far away as the gold fields in Nome. The Iditarod passes two miles south of Big Lake.

Herman Gronwoldt, the first person to homestead (1916) at Big Lake, had been a gold prospector in Alaska for 15 years when he decided to settle on the eastern end of Big Lake, near the supply trail running from Knik and about 4 miles from the railroad being constructed from Anchorage to Fairbanks. For the next 30 years or so, he lived alone on Big Lake, fishing, trapping and raising mink. He supplied cured fish to dog mushers, transporters using the trail and railroad workers. He probably also supplied a little hootch.


In 1944, Oscar and Beda Anderson homesteaded on Fish Creek, the outlet of Big Lake. During the earlier years, visitors and fishermen came to Big Lake – mostly by small plane. But the Andersons got to their homestead first by walking from Wasilla, 13 miles away, then by using a tractor trail brushed out by Oscar. Their business was called Sunset Park.

By the end of the 1940’s, a few other homesteaders joined Gronwoldt and the Andersons, and when in the early 1950’s a road was put through, a flood of fishermen and recreationists poured forth onto the shores of Big Lake. This was just after World War II and many military people chose Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley for their new home. Big Lake became Anchorage’s playground. With wonderful fishing, 50 miles of shoreline and many islands all in the spectacular setting of the mountain-fringed Mat-Su Valley, Big Lake was a recreational paradise.

A Small Community

Homesteading continued and in the 1950’s, Big Lake took on the aspect of a small community with a quonset hut school, gas station and general store, a church and several marinas, lodges and bars serving the visitors to the lake. Electricity came in 1953 and telephones in 1955. Activities based on Big Lake ranged from summertime features such as a regatta with speed boat races and Miss Alaska contest, sail boat races and excellent fishing to wintertime sports involving dog mushing, snowmobiling and ice fishing. By the year 2000, Big Lake has grown to around 2000 people, but the essence of the town remains centered on recreation on the lake, both summer and winter.

Millers Reach Fire

In the first week of June, 1996, another major page in Big Lake History occurred – the Miller’s Reach Fire. Starting several miles north of Big Lake, it consumed 37,000 acres and 433 structures before it was contained. Fingers of fire went through Big Lake and the surrounding areas, destroying property and land in an unpredictable, patchwork pattern. Many Big Lake residents and their close neighbors lost homes and in some cases their means of livelihood. That did not stop the community from pulling itself together; homes are being rebuilt and businesses have reopened. The Community of Big Lake is back on its feet & BIG LAKE IS OPEN FOR BUSINESS!!

Of all of the emergency responses that the Big Lake Fire Department has been involved in the single event that has had the most significant impact on the evolution of the fire department was the 1996 Millers Reach Fire, a three day wind driven wild land urban interface fire. The Big Lake Fire Department has increased its amount and quality of training and equipment to respond to structural, rescue, EMS and wild land incidents in accordance with local, state and national training and response standards as much as possible given the number of responders and funding that is provided.

Merger with Meadow Lakes Fire Service Area

In 2008, it was unanimously agreed upon by the members of the Big Lake Fire Department, and the Fire Service Board of Supervisors, that it would be in the best interest of the residents of Big Lake to unify with the Meadow Lakes Fire Department. Combining resources would improve emergency response capabilities, while also working towards reducing fire insurance costs.

Big Lake Fire Department

The Big Lake Fire Department began in the late 1960’s thru the mid 1980’s with the establishment of the informal Big Lake Fire Auxiliary. The Auxiliary was made up of a group of local full-time and part-time property owners who banded together to provide some type of fire response after several cabins burned down in the community.

Funding for the Auxiliary was accomplished with donation jars kept at the local restaurants and bars where money was collected for float pumps, hoses, nozzles and fuel.  The float pumps and firefighting equipment was then strategically placed at the Big Lake Lodge, Call of the Wild, and the Island Lodge. Some additional pumps and equipment were privately owned and kept at the owner’s property.  Notification for the Auxiliary was done by MTA conference call to several members of the group who then made additional calls from a phone tree to activate the response.

One major shortfall of the Auxiliary was that their firefighting capability was pretty much confined to the shoreline of Big Lake. They were ill equipped for anything beyond exposure protection and their ability to get water in the winter consisted of cutting squares in the ice with chain saws and axes, used ice augers to get water into the squares, and then setting the float pumps in the ice squares to retrieve the water. It was a very labor intensive, time consuming and sometimes an ineffective operation.

Establishment of Big Lake Fire Service Area

It was finally realized in the late 1970’s, after some fire occurred on the lake, that a more organized and better equipped fire department was needed.  On May 5, 1981 an ordinance was introduced by the Matanuska Susitna Borough Assembly creating the Shoreline Fire Service Area (Big Lake FSA). A public hearing was conducted on May 19, 1981 and the voters approved the establishment of the FSA in a special election held on June 16, 1981 with 90 “yes” votes, 30 “no” votes and 1 questioned ballot. That was the beginning of the Big Lake Fire Service Area and Big Lake Fire Department.

First Fire Truck

That same year after the vote was officially certified, members of the Big Lake FSA petitioned Alaska State Senator Jay Kertulla for funds to purchase a new fire engine.  Senator Kertulla was successful in securing the funds and the new fire engine was ordered.  It was a 1981 FMC 1,000 gallon fire truck with a 1,000 GPM pump.  The fire truck was transported to Big Lake with the help of the Big Lake Lions Club and Wrightway Carriers.  The Lions Club also donated fire hose and nozzles with funds they had left over from a grant.  It arrived in 1982 and was housed under the Post Office at Fishers “Y”. The fire engine is still in use, today.


Walt Embry became the first Fire Chief for the Big Lake Fire Department in 1981.  Walt quit in the mid-1980’s for a job with California Department of Forestry and Prevention where he eventually rose to rank of Captain.  Arnie Berg was the second Big Lake Fire Chief in the mid-1980’s and stayed until 1993 when he left to pursue his business in the private sector. Bill Gamble assumed the Fire Chief position in 1993 and is still the here. Chief Gamble originally joined the department in July of 1989.

1983: The first fire station was built on land donated by Bud Beech. The fire station was named the Bud Beech Public Safety Building, Station 8-1.  It was quickly determined that a tanker truck was needed for additional water since the nearest fire station was more than 10 miles away in Houston.

1984: Senator Kertulla was again successful in securing funds and the Fire Department purchased a 1985 Grumman 2,500 gallon pumper/tanker with a 1,000 GPM pump. The fire station had two bays where both the engine and pumper/tanker were kept.  

1993: A second fire station was built near Horseshoe Lake.  It was dedicated to Jack Helms, one of the original members of the Fire Service Area Board of Supervisors.

1998: The Big Lake Fire Department requested and received a new rescue truck to assist with vehicle accidents and ice rescue incidents.  The rescue truck is kept at Station 81.

2006: State Representative Mark Neuman and State Senator Charlie Huggins secured state funds for purchase of a new 3,500 gallon pumper/tanker with a 1,250 GPM pump.  The new fire truck is housed at Station 81.

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