Beneath the streets: Underground tour gives glimpse of Palmer's past
Alaska Picker owner Kelly Turney makes his living collecting antiques and the stories behind them.
Twice a year, he gives people a chance to go beneath the streets and share those tales from a bygone era.
His Palmer Underground tour takes people into the basements of buildings around town to get a little glimpse of what life was like during the town’s founding.
“We’re going to the Car Quest Auto Parts building which was originally Bert’s Drug Store, but in the basement it used to be the Palmer Cocktail Bar,” Turney told the group.
The basement is filled with boxes of spare parts but it’s what’s on the walls that stands out.
“If you look around you can see the murals from the bar that are still here. You have a cache, a bear and I believe scenery is behind the two door panels,” Turney pointed out.
Remnants of a nightlife scene left behind long ago still linger: an old bar, deconstructed and tucked in a corner, and a red, Naugahyde-type covering on one of the posts.
At the Palmer fire station, the steam whistle from the old powerhouses sounds off three times a day. Kelly shares an anecdote from its origins.
“In the ‘50s there was a mayor who did not like said steam whistle, it annoyed him so it disappeared,” he told the group.
Then it was on to the basement of City Hall where people were surprised to find two old jail cells when they rounded the corner.
“From 1951 to 1983, the city of Palmer ran its own jail,” Turney said. He explained they took a few years off and contracted with Alaska State Troopers to patrol the town.
City Hall was also the site of a bombing in 1973. Turney told the story of how a person placed two bombs on different ends of the building. One went off, damaging a patrol vehicle and people evacuated.
“As soon as they keyed up the microphone to radio to Anchorage, the radio waves set off the second bomb and it broke out some windows. No one was hurt, no one was killed,” he said.
Turney has researched the history of the Palmer Police Department and had the chance to talk with the dispatcher who radioed for help that day. He said the underground tour gives him a new audience for the stories.
“I think it’s my duty that the story live on and share it with someone else so that story doesn’t end with me,” he said.
It’s those kinds of tales and snapshots in time people who took the tour were eager to take in.
“When you live in an area for most of your life to find out there’s a huge part that you didn’t know existed you have to see it,” said Gail Gibson from Wasilla, who said she’s lived in the area since the 1970s.
The Valley Hotel is one of Turney’s favorite stops on the tour. The light on top of the building played a special role for the Palmer Police Department.
Turney explained emergency calls that came in after hours would come to the Valley Hotel.
“They could flip a switch and that red light would turn on and it would go around, motorized. The cop knew he had to turn around, go to the hotel and see where the call for service was,” Turney said.
Underground there’s another piece of history he uncovered.
“This is the original Palmer switchboard here. It’s U.S. Army surplus,” Turney said.
For him, the switchboard connects the story of the light on the roof and ties to his love of law enforcement.
“I’ve served in Alaska for 15 years as a police officer, my wife still runs the police dispatch center in Palmer. This speaks to me on a personal level more than any other part of the tour,” Turney said.
Storage at the Palmer Train Depot shines a light on a different decade.
“This is the original art deco lighting for the depot. They’ve been saved,” he showed off the light fixture.
Palmer’s story is unique with the 203 at settled there for the Matanuska Valley Colony as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal plan.
But it’s small pieces like light fixtures and switchboards that tie Alaska’s history to other parts of the country.
“Not only is it Palmer’s story but it’s America’s story,” said Sheri Hamming, the president of the Palmer Historical Society. “It’s the story of our homesteaders and our colonists from 1935 when everybody settled here from the Midwest.”
Turney debunked the myth of the Palmer tunnels, saying the steam tunnels from long ago have been closed off as buildings around the area changed hands or burned down.
As a final stop, people got to go inside the grain silo at the old Matanuska Maid property. A Matanuska Valley Fair catalog from 1958 touts it as "Alaska first grain elevator building in 1957."
Voices echoed inside as people walked around the floor that was covered in years of pigeon feathers and droppings.
All of the stops on the underground tour are on private property, conducted with the owner's permission. Alaska Picker will likely host another tour in the fall.
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