Tag Archives: Copper River

Tonsina Roadhouse

View of Tonsina Roadhouse, a group of log buildings in a clearing, a sign hanging over the smaller log building reads, in part: "Fred and Jake Tonsina Road House" and a horse stands next to the building. A canvas tent is visible in the background and a dog stands near building at right. [Frederick John, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage UAA-hmc-0379-series2-v2-63a]

View of Tonsina Roadhouse, a group of log buildings in a clearing, a sign hanging over the smaller log building reads, in part: “Fred and Jake Tonsina Road House” and a horse stands next to the building. A canvas tent is visible in the background and a dog stands near building at right. [Frederick John, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage UAA-hmc-0379-series2-v2-63a]

The Tonsina Roadhouse was built around 1900 by Jim Donaldson, and for the first few years it carried his name, the Donaldson Roadhouse. It was located at the junction of the Government trail from Valdez, built by Capt. William R. Abercrombie’s men in 1899, with the Nizina Indian Trail, which accessed the rich Kennicott copper country to the east of the broad Copper River. Utilizing only hand tools, Abercrombie’s soldiers built a 93-mile packhorse trail from the coastal community of Valdez to the Tonsina River, and then built a bridge across the river. The Army Signal Corps constructed a telegraph station at the site in 1902, and a post office was established in 1903. It was discontinued in 1916, re-established in 1930, and discontinued again in 1933.

In 1902 Jake Nafstad and Fred A. Martin added onto the main roadhouse building, added a second livestock barn, and changed the name to the Tonsina Roadhouse. It would later be changed again, to the Upper Tonsina Roadhouse, and it could provide accommodations for up to 60 guests.

Tonsina Roadhouse, 1903

Tonsina Roadhouse, 1903

Historian and author Kenneth L. Marsh shared a few early travelers’ comments in his book about the early days the of the Richardson Highway, The Trail (Sluice Box Productions, 2008). In 1904 one noted “At supper (Tonsina Roadhouse) we had fresh red radishes, lettuce and turnips out of the only garden in Alaska we saw. They were fine.” Two years later another traveled reported “….the one bright spot beyond the Copper River valley was the night we spent at the Tonsina Roadhouse. We had bunks with blankets on them; we had good meals and everything (except the travelers) was clean… Prices were $2 per meal and the same for a bunk.”

Tonsina Lodge, 1920's

Tonsina Lodge, 1920’s

A 1931 travelogue brochure has been uploaded to Murray Lundberg’s expansive ExploreNorth website for travel and history fans, and it includes an interesting entry for what was by then known as the Tonsina Lodge, at mile 80: “Here you may be assured of an excellent meal, or night’s lodging, and should you have the time, good trout fishing is found in the stream by the roadside.”

A footnote: There’s an interesting entry at the Wikipedia page for Tonsina: “The centerpiece of Tonsina valley is the Tonsina River Lodge. This roadhouse alongside the Richardson Highway consists of a bar, restaurant, gas station, convenience and liquor store, laundromat and showers. There is also a camping area, RV park and motel. A main attraction of the roadhouse is the historic hotel. The Tonsina River Lodge is a rambling, shambling, gravel-covered spread, with weatherbeaten buildings. The historic hotel is an orange, three story Army barracks with a red tin roof. It once was a brothel. The lodge is at the end of an airplane runway. The lodge sits in the foothills of several towering, snow-capped mountain ranges, next to a stream.”

This seems in conflict with the current TripAdvisor and Yelp reviews for the Tonsina River Lodge, which give the roadhouse four and five stars and consistently good reports on service and accommodations.

Tonsina River Lodge

Tonsina River Lodge, 2015


Slana Roadhouse

1280px-Slana_Roadhouse,_Slana_AlaskaThe 40-mile long Nabesna Road is a spur of the Glenn Highway’s Tok Cut-Off, leaving the highway almost midway between Chistochina and Mentasta and providing access to the northern reaches of Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Originally constructed in 1933 to provide access to the Nabesna Gold Mine in the northeastern corner of the broad Copper River Valley, the road passes one of the oldest existing roadhouse sites in the state.

The original Slana Roadhouse was built in 1912 by a freighter, miner, mail carrier and fur trader, Lawrence DeWitt, to serve travelers on the trail to Chisana, the site of the last great gold rush in Alaska. The first small log roadhouse no longer exists, but the second, larger roadhouse, built in1928, is still owned by DeWitt’s descendents.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 9.59.20 PMWhen gold was discovered along the Chisana River in the spring of 1913, one of the routes to the area was an 80-mile trail which left  the Valdez-Eagle Trail at the mouth of the Slana River and traveled southeast to Chisana. The gold ran out and Chisana dwindled within a few years, but the Nabesna Gold Mine opened 50 miles southeast of Slana in the 1920’s. The mine employed 60 to 70 men, and most of their food, tools and equipment arrived by way of Slana, encouraging DeWitt to build a second, much larger roadhouse.

Born around 1890, Lawrence DeWitt made his way to Alaska around 1910 and settled in with the Ahtna Athabascan tribe of Chief Nikolai, marrying his daughter Belle. DeWitt got the contract to carry mail between Slana and Nabesna, by pack horse in summer and dog team in winter, and he staked a homestead claim where the Slana River ran into the great Copper River, several miles east of the Valdez-Eagle Trail.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 9.58.42 PMIn 1926 the Alaska Road Commission began improving the Eagle-to-Valdez Trail from Gulkana to Slana, and two years later Lawrence Dewitt hired Charlie Smelzer to construct a large spruce log roadhouse, 32 by 45 feet and two-and-a-half stories high. The National Register of Historic Places notes the foundation was rock with vertical wood posts at the corners. The structure’s first two floors are built of three-sided logs nailed into the wood posts, and vertical board siding covers the gable ends of the attic. All of the logs and dimensional lumber used in the roadhouse, including the 10′ 1″ x 6″ flooring planks, were cut on DeWitt’s homestead. He received patent to the land in 1932, and the small community of Slana grew up around his roadhouse. DeWitt provided meals and lodging for travelers, and he supplied horses when needed, keeping a stable of 24 horses and a kennel of 35 sled dogs.

The National Register of Historic Places file, written in October, 2004, describes the interior of the roadhouse. “The first floor has an open room, 19 by 44 feet, that served as a combination sitting and dining room. Wood stoves, including the cook stove, heated the building. The kitchen is at the rear. A hand pump supplied water to the kitchen and to a washroom. Four rooms open off the open room. One room has a stairway to the second floor. A room adjacent to it served as the post office. There is a rear exit centered in the back wall and a small shed roof porch. The second floor is divided into eight rooms, four on each side of a six foot wide hall. Each room has a door and a window. The attic is undivided. Toilets are out back.”

The notes go on to describe other structures which were historically associated with the roadhouse, including a 10 x 15 foot log garage, a 12 by 15 foot log storehouse, a cache, a dogyard with several log doghouses, and a fishwheel anchored to the bank of the Slana River.

Lawrence DeWitt disappeared during the winter of 1937, and was assumed to have drowned in either the Slana or Copper River. After his death, his wife leased the roadhouse to a series of individuals, but in 1953 the Slana-Tok section of the Glenn Highway was realigned and moved a mile to the north, bypassing the Slana Roadhouse entirely. The roadhouse and outlying structures have been used as a private residence by the DeWitt family since that time.

Blix Roadhouse

 Blix's Road House, with Mount Wrangle in the background, Copper Center, ca. 1910

Blix’s Road House, with Mount Wrangle in the background, Copper Center, ca. 1910

Copper Center, near the confluence of the Copper and Klutina Rivers, about 65 miles northeast of Valdez, was founded in 1896 when Ringwald Blix, born in Norway in 1872, and his wife Frances, born in Missouri the same year, built the Blix Roadhouse, one of Alaska’s earliest, for an estimated $15,000. Featuring spring beds and a modern bath, the roadhouse was very highly regarded for its outstanding services and became a favorite among travelers.

Blix Roadhouse, date unknown

Blix Roadhouse, date unknown

The community of Copper Center was further established as a mining camp during the winter of 1898-99 when about 300 prospectors settled in to wait for spring. Seeking an all-American route to Dawson City and the Klondike gold fields, they’d crossed the Valdez Glacier, descended the Klutina Glacier to Klutina Lake, then made their way down the treacherous Klutina River to the new settlement. Of the estimated 3,000 persons who attempted traversing this route, only about 300 actually arrived at the Copper River.

With the establishment of a post office and a telegraph station by the U.S. Army Signal Corps around 1901, and being on the Fairbanks-Valdez trail, Copper Center became the principal settlement and supply center in the Nelchina-Upper Susitna Region, which serviced the rich Valdez Creek mines west of Paxson. In 1903 Copper Center was designated a government agricultural experiment station, but the station was closed in 1909, citing “…transportation of supplies very expensive, insufficient rainfall during the growing season, early frosts due to the proximity of high mountains, and the desire to develop the Fairbanks station where a larger population was already established.” (1910 Report on the Agricultural Experiment Stations, U.S. Government Printing Office)

In 1932 the original Blix roadhouse burned, but it was soon replaced by the Copper Center Lodge, which was featured on the National Register of Historic Places until it was destroyed by a fire in May, 2012.