A Glenn Highway landmark that’s still standing
The Glenn Highway, which stretches from Anchorage 179 miles northeast to the Richardson Highway, should perhaps have been named the Castner Highway. After all, Lt. Joseph Castner, and not his superior, Capt. Edwin Glenn, is credited with being the first Westerner to blaze a trail along the Matanuska River to the Copper River Plateau.
The U.S. Army sent Glenn and his men to Alaska in 1898 to find a route from Southcentral Alaska to Circle City on the Yukon River. However, Glenn spent most of his time in Cook Inlet, delegating much of the exploration to his lieutenants. Lt. Henry Leanard led a party up the Susitna River, and another party, commanded by Castner, traveled up the Matanuska.
Castner’s party faced extreme obstacles, hacking its way through thick undergrowth along the tumultuous Matanuska River, all the while cajoling pack animals across bogs, streams, and steep hillsides. After two months he finally attained the Copper River Plateau. Glenn did eventually follow Castner, but it was the lieutenant who blazed the trail.
Even with an established trail, the route was difficult, and few followed it except prospectors. In the early 1900s some of those prospectors discovered gold along tributaries of the Little Nelchina River in the northern foothills of the Talkeetna Mountains. According to a 1918 U.S.G.S. report, in 1914 about 400 miners swarmed into the area, establishing the gold camp of Nelchina (now abandoned) at the confluence of Crooked Creek and the Little Nelchina.
While some supplies were freighted up the Matanuska River to Nelchina, the primary freight route was from the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail to the east. That changed with construction of the Alaska Railroad. The federal government wanted to develop coal deposits along the Matanuska River to provide fuel for the Navy’s Pacific fleet. A railroad spur was extended from Palmer up the Matanuska to Chickaloon, and the first coal was shipped in 1917.
With a railroad line as far as Chickaloon, most freighting to Nelchina shifted to the Matanuska River route. The Chickaloon coal mine closed in 1922 as the U.S. Navy shifted from coal-fired to oil-fired ships, and the tracks north of Sutton were abandoned. However, the old railroad grade was still utilized by freighters.
With the building of Elmendorf Airfield and Fort Richardson at Anchorage in 1940-41, the federal government decided the area needed a road-link to the Richardson Highway. Work on the Glenn Highway, following the Matanuska River, began in 1941 and was completed by 1945.
The Eureka Roadhouse (now Eureka Lodge), located at mile 128 of the highway (and about 15 miles south of Nelchina mining camp), was one of the first businesses opened along the new road. However, the roadhouse’s existence predated the highway.
Even in the early 1900s the Nelchina region was a destination for caribou hunters. According to a 1990 article in Alaska Business Monthly, Eureka Roadhouse began in 1936 as a hunting lodge. The lodge’s current owner, Jim Fimpel, told me that a couple named Warrick (first names unknown — they were just Ma and Pa) erected the original building (shown in the drawing) on the shore of a small lake.
The log cabin, with squared corners held in place by vertical boards, began as an approximately 15-foot x 15-foot structure, but by 1945 a similarly-sized extension (also of logs) was added to the rear. Except for a new metal roof, and the fact that the cabin has settled considerably, it looks much the same as it does in photos from the 1940s.
A larger lodge building was built in the late 1940s, but the original cabin still stands as a reminder of the Glenn Highway’s early days.