Photo Credit: Frank Kovalchek

LESSON 6: Hope and Sunrise: A Tale of Two Cities, Part One


This is a two-part lesson. In the first lesson, students will compare the growth and decline of Hope and Sunrise. Both towns grew as mining communities during the late 1800s/early 1900s. Hope remains an established community while there is little left of the once vibrant town of Sunrise. By comparing the sister communities Hope and Sunrise, students will analyze the factors that led to the demise of Sunrise to better understand what is necessary to sustain a community in rural Alaska. In addition, students will learn the frustration when primary documents contradict one another.



Other Resources (Optional but Helpful)

  • Memories of Old Sunrise (Autobiography of Albert Weldon Morgan)
  • Walking Tour Sunrise City Historic District (Rolfe G. Buzzell, Ph.D)
  • A History of Mining on the Kenai Peninsula (Mary Berry)


Alaska Content Standards:


A-4  Use graphic tools to interpret human and physical systems.

D-1  Know the need for people to exchange goods, services, and ideas create  population centers and transportation/communication links.

E-3  Understand the capacities of physical systems to support human activity.

History Standards:

A-4  History relies on the interpretation of evidence.

B1(b)  Comprehend the forces of change and continuity in human communities and their relationship with climate and resources.

C-2  Use historical data from a variety of primary resources.

C-4  Use historical perspective to solve problems.


Inquiry-Based Thinking Strategies Utilized:

Comparing:  Students will compare Sunrise and Hope to evaluate population dynamics.

Interpreting:  Students will explain the meaning of what factors are necessary for a successful town in rural Alaska.

Evaluation:  Students will make judgments to determine which critical factors may have led to population fluctuations.

Hypothesizing:  Students will propose possible solutions substantiated with factual information from primary resources.


Background Information:

It didn’t take long, when Alexander King returned to Kenai with four pokes of gold, for the towns of Sunrise and Hope to spring up on the southern shore of Turnagain Arm. Buoyed on successful placer deposits, both towns surged in size in order to support outlying claims which drew thousands of prospectors to the area. In 1900, the Sitka-based Alaskan News described Sunrise as being “progressive” and the “leading town in the Cook Inlet country.” In fact, at one point, Sunrise was the largest town in all the Alaska territory. It boasted three stores, as many saloons, a community well, an electrically lit hall built by the townspeople, and a tram to bring supplies into town from the dock in Turnagain Arm. Hearts swelling with pride no doubt felt that their town would become the future leading metropolis in this new land.

Yet just a few decades later there were scant signs that Sunrise ever existed. No doubt Sunrise was just another victim in the boom/bust world of gold rushes. But a more compelling question lies eight miles to the west. The community of Hope also experienced the same boom . . . the same bust. Yet even to this day Hope survives and, in its own small town way, thrives. The question is “Why?” Why did Hope survive when its larger, more boisterous, more established, more populous sister city failed? There are no simple answers. However, to explore this question is to understand what factors are necessary for a town in Alaska (particularly at the turn of the century) to become established and to survive.

This lesson will dissect the needs and challenges that a fledgling town in early Alaska faced. And although some of these issues are era-sensitive, many are still viable concerns for the communities of the Kenai corridor.


A Word of Caution!

This lesson (and the extension lesson) uses a variety of resources that includes the article from the Skita Alaskan, the Polk Business Directory, and transcribed handwritten census/demographic ledgers. (These resources, among others, can be found on the Hope/Sunrise Museum website.). But what first appears to be a treasure trove of information is soon realized to be contradictory and frustratingly incomplete—welcome to the world of primary source research! For instance, in the 1923 Polk Directory, Sunrise City has a stable population of 100 souls. Yet the transcribed handwritten census of 1920 listed only five people remaining in town.

Finding and discussing these contradictions is a lesson onto itself. Students could consider how data was extracted and why. In the case of the Polk Business Directory, considering how information was exchanged across long distance (physically) and considering the directory’s purpose was to extoll the vibrant economy of the territory, this data could be viewed as being a bit more speculative.

That said, the data is still valuable if only to define trends and to illustrate that “old” data is not always accurate data.

Last note: the Hope/Sunrise website is a growing resource. Additions and changes are likely, so it is worth a look before diving into this lesson.



1) Bait the Hook:

Define the City of Sunrise. First, ask students what the Cook Inlet/Kenai Peninsula Region was like in 1900.

For starters, there wasn’t any Anchorage. The only ones living on Resurrection Bay were the Lowell family (Seward would not be established for another three years). There was the beginning of a town in Cooper’s Landing and the town of Kenai had been established since the days of the Russians. But other than that, this area was remote, isolated, and sparsely populated at best. However . . .

Provide students with copies of the Sitka Alaskan article of May 3, 1900 to understand that Sunrise was a leading metropolis of the region . . . and really, the entire territory. Have students use a highlighter to note interesting/important references. One interesting phrase that should be noted is near the end, when it talks about a winter mail route to Resurrection Bay in Prince William Sound. (Looking back to the Russian letters, they always referred to building the fort and boat in “Chugach Bay,” their name for Prince William Sound. This further demonstrates how our perception of place and space changes throughout history.)


2) Set the Hook:   Establish the problem.

Ask students where Sunrise is today? Well . . . it’s not. There’s scant evidence that the town of several hundred, with restaurants and stores and community hall and school ever existed. Obviously it was a victim of the boom/bust gold rush era.

But what about Hope, the sister town 8 miles to the west? It certainly went through the same boom/bust stage, but unlike Sunrise it is still a vibrant community.

Why did Hope survive yet Sunrise fade away?

Here’s the reality, all of the communities on the corridor faced the possibility of becoming either a Hope (and become established) or a Sunrise (being erased from the land).


3) Getting to Know the Towns 

Read Trails Across Time Chapter 5 to get a sense of what allowed the towns to become established. Pay special attention to the map of the Mining District in 1910 (pg 62). Peruse the Hope/Sunrise Museum website to see photos from these towns. Again, these sister towns seem indistinguishable from one another. Yet one survived. One vanished.


4) Chart, Graph, and Compare the Population Trends


  • Polk Population and Demographic Info — Hope and Sunrise
  • US Census Data — Hope

Construct an Excel chart using data from Polk’s Population and Demographic information. (Don’t use Sunrise Census Data) Then, construct a graph based upon this data. Chart and graph should look something like the ones to the right.

NOTE: Several questions should immediately emerge regarding the population trends of the two towns. First, the Polk Directory of Hope does not seem to match the listed inhabitants. Indeed the 250 Hope inhabitants of 1905-6 seemed to be out of place. These figures could be a result of the seasonally transient nature of the town which brought hundreds, even thousands of miners to work summer claims in the surrounding area.

Another data issue is that of Sunrise. From 1917 to 1923 the population flat lined at 100 then somehow was abandoned within 10 years.

These figures suggest incongruities.

Let’s throw another wrench into the search for truth. . . .


5) Add another layer of data

Add the Sunrise Census of 1900, 1910, and 1920. Keep the 250 people for the year 1898 (figures will vary wildly seasonally during this boom time up to 800). Include the data from 1903 and 1905 (since they fit the census curve), add 2 to the remaining population in 1930s then 0 for 1940 (the last resident Mike Connolly died in a boating accident in 1939—(Buzzell; Walking Tour of Sunrise City). Now you have a graph that probably more accurately represents the population decline of Sunrise City.

Now although data may not always agree, the trends are unmistakable: At some point Sunrise City failed to continue to function as a town and was destined toward abandonment whereas, at about the same time, Hope stabilized and started to increase in population.


To understand the dynamics specific to these towns it’s necessary to consider what elements are necessary to make and sustain a town in rural 19th century Alaska.


6)        Define the attributes necessary to establish a rural Alaskan town:

In order to begin to answer why Sunrise did not survive the test of time, we need to define what factors are necessary for the development of a town. Students need to consider what elements are necessary to bring people together communally, then to remain as a unit throughout time. More specifically, what are those critical elements for the establishment of a community in the isolated regions of Alaska in the late 1800s?

As a class (or individually or small groups) define, in generic terms what parameters they feel are necessary for the establishment of a town in Alaska in 1898. The key thing is this: what are the elements necessary to draw a person to a specific area and would allow them to survive comfortably there. The list below is just a sampling of what students might come up with. Their list might be longer— however make sure the list is generic in nature, specifics will come with the next step.



Although the student’s list will likely have more parameters, the ones that are listed above are key components for understanding the communities of Hope and Sunrise. The student’s master list can be longer; however the focus of this lesson will be upon these key components.


7)     Now for the specifics . . . generically:

After the class has decided upon a list of critical needs for the establishment and persistence of a community, it is time to consider what this meant for a small town in rural Alaska. Consider how towns, such as Sunrise and Hope, may have met these needs in more specific terms.

The best way to start laying this out is to use a large sheet of butcher paper, then to use “branches” to illustrate the “generically specific” ways that a town would have satisfied these needs. For instance, clean potable water was a critical need. Bottom line: You’ve got to drink! Students would question: “In what ways could settlers in an Alaska community get clean water?” The three “generic” answers would be a) from streams/lakes b) from wells c) from precipitation (rain/snow). On paper this would look like this:



Make sure to space out the “branches” for this will continue to expand with more details specific to Hope and Sunrise. The key thing to remember is this: how could settlers in a rural Alaskan setting meet the needs that are essential elements for maintaining a community?

 Student Example


8) Time to Roll up the Sleeves:  How did each town meet its critical needs?

….and more importantly, what did Sunrise lack in order to sustain the town???

Now it’s time to determine how Hope and Sunrise met the needs of a vibrant community and, from this, try to tease out how Sunrise fell short in efforts to sustain the community. Unfortunately, this task of unraveling this mystery is neither straightforward nor easy. In fact, much of the process will have to be intuitive thinking substantiated as best as possible with researched facts and guidance from the teacher. There is no “one stop shopping” on this hunt for information and resources are often incomplete. However, with the information that can be provided, the students can get a “window” into the world of Hope and Sunrise during the early part of the 20th century.

There are two hints that you might provide to students in their quest to answer this question:

  • Hint One: When prospectors arrived, why was there no Dena’ina village in the nearby region?
  • Hint Two: It’s all in a name….specifically “Sunrise.”

Here are some resources that will be helpful:

  • Google Earth/Topographical Map/Chart of Cook Inlet. (Use these resources to compare the topography surrounding Hope and Sunrise.)

Provide charts to students. 

Students should consider how each town may have met the “essential” elements outlined earlier. When direct evidence cannot be found, teacher can prompt students to consider how settlers of Hope and Sunrise might have met these needs in their communities.

The one resource that will be invaluable is a topographical map of the area or/and Google Earth.


Use this to guide students in the right direction:

Water: Look at a map. Obvious streams for water. Any problem with this? Think placer mining? Likely streams were very silty due to use of hydraulics upriver. Wells would have been an important supply of water.

Port: This is central to why neither town could sustain itself for long. Both Hope and Sunrise were located on Cook Inlet— a very dangerous, turbulent stretch of water. Extreme tidal ranges would prohibit boat traffic except during high tides. In addition, both towns were landlocked in winter when the Inlet would freeze. (This area was largely ignored by indigenous natives because of this.)

In addition, Sunrise was located a mile inland. A 1-1/2 mile tram had to be built to bring supplies from docks into town.

The only overland access was to Resurrection Bay to the south or over Portage Glacier to Passage Canal. Neither Hope nor Sunrise had good access prior to the construction of roads and rails.

Employment: Jobs were either in the mining industry or in services supporting the mining industry. In Part Two of this lesson we’ll see that there was effort to diversify Hope’s economy; however, both towns were based upon resource extraction. When the gold played out, both communities experienced heavy losses.

Food: Although hunting was certainly a major way of providing protein, the surrounding terrain and habitat is not optimal for large quantities of game nor prolific runs of salmon… certainly not enough to sustain thousands of summer prospectors. Much had to be brought in (remember, limitations with the port). That left gardening. Gardening was critical for providing the necessary fresh food to settlers. And in this was one of the biggest differences between Hope and Sunrise. And leads us to the demise of Sunrise . . .

9)   Google Earth:  The Final Piece of the Puzzle

By this time students probably have realized that both towns were built strictly on the basis of gold. In addition, both towns had woefully difficult access. This access to the Outside was critical for supplies, medicine, and communication with loved ones back home.

Yet Hope survived. What did it have that Sunrise did not?

To answer this we go to Google Earth.

If possible set up two computers side by side: one that is “hovering” over Hope and the other over Sunrise. Compare the surrounding features. Students will note that Hope lies in a wide valley near the Inlet and Sunrise is inland, on mud flats surrounded by steep terrain.

Re-position yourself using Google Earth at sea level just to the north of both towns looking towards the horizon. Scan the horizon: to the north— nice view. But the view to the south is what differentiates both towns. From this perspective we can see that Sunrise is located in a narrow valley surrounded by mountains.

Now set up the “sun feature” and set the date for March or September. Run the loop that demonstrates how the sun (and shade) would track during this season. Try other dates as well. The result is clear: Sunrise rests in a narrow steep valley that experiences less daylight than Hope: Remember, “it’s all in a name?” Sunrise was named because seven surrounding mountain peaks created seven sunrises in day. This means, for portions of the day, the steep terrain hid the sun behind the mountains making it a very cool and shady place.


So What Does This Mean?

Simple, which place (a sunny place or a shady place) would you rather live? Most would agree sunny…. but from a community perspective it is more than just a sunny location that makes a town. In terms of Sunrise, the steep topography caused the following issues.

1) Cooler Climate

2) Limited level land to expand town

3) Gardening was not productive. (Consider Hope. Hope is called the garden spot of the Kenai).

10) Conclusion:  It’s about the sun.

The reason why Hope managed to continue while Sunrise disappeared? Neither town was well positioned to survive as the gold played out. However, of the two, Hope was sunnier. It produced productive gardens. It was warmer by virtue of the increased sunlight. Simply, it was a nicer place to be.

Indeed, Hope may have gone the way of Sunrise had it not been for the development of the railroad and road system that provided access to goods and supplies. Hope’s population surge in the 40s and 50s coincides with the development of both.

But the interesting perspective is how Hope transformed itself from a predominantly mining town. To understand that perspective we can look at population demographics.