Sunday, December 11, 2011

Find memories, welcome and soothing waters at Chena Hot Springs, Alaska

Historic cabins at Chena Hot Springs in 2009

Most Westerners exploring the Chena River drainage in the early 1900s had gold fever and were looking to get rich. Robert Swan had rheumatism and was just looking to ease his aching body.

He and his brother Tom were Fairbanks miners, but they heard about a U.S. Geological Survey party that had been working on the Upper Chena in 1904. The survey crew had seen steam rising from a valley somewhere ahead of them. Although they did not investigate, the workers thought there might be hot springs in the area.  

In the summer of 1905 the two Swan brothers headed up the Chena with a boat-load of supplies. Over a month later they discovered hot springs about 60 miles northeast of Fairbanks on Monument Creek, a tributary of the North Fork of the Chena River. Supposedly they also found an old campfire ring that Felix Pedro had used.

When the Swans returned to Fairbanks, rejuvenated by the hot springs, other sore and weary residents headed there as well.  George Wilson arrived at the springs and liked them so much he homesteaded the site in 1906, developing it as a health spa for Interior residents. By 1911 the spa's facilities consisted of a bathhouse, stable and 12 small log cabins. (The drawing shows the two surviving cabins from that period.)

Fairbanks residents were proud of their little home-grown spa, and in 1912 James Wickersham, who was by then Alaska’s delegate to Congress, asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to analyze the hot springs’ water. The government’s analysis showed the water was very similar to that of hot springs in Karlsbad, Bohemia (present day Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic).

Perhaps buoyed by this information, local residents petitioned the territorial government to get a road to the springs constructed. The Alaska Road Commission punched through a winter trail from Fairbanks to the hot springs in 1913. It had originally planned on constructing a regular road, but with short funding a trail was the best that could be accomplished.

Today it takes less than two hours to reach Chena Hot Springs from Fairbanks via the paved year-round Chena Hot Springs Road (CHSR), but in the early 1900s it was at least a four-day journey. To serve the hot-springs-bound travelers three roadhouses were built: Little Chena Roadhouse (14-mile CHSR), Colorado Creek Roadhouse (near 32-mile CHSR), and Greg’s Roadhouse (48-mile CHSR).

Much has changed over the years. With the construction of the road to the springs, the old roadhouses (no longer needed) were bypassed and fell into ruin. Development along the road increased, but fortunately, the State of Alaska set aside over 250,000 acres along the Upper Chena as the Chena River State Recreation Area. Chena Hot Springs is just outside the park’s northeast boundary.

The water from the springs has been diverted and channeled numerous times, just as the building housing the in-door pool has been rebuilt and modified many times. But the water still bubbles up out of the ground at about 110 degrees Fahrenheit. (It has to be cooled down before entering the indoor pool.)

All the old buildings except for the two small 10’ x 10’ cabins (across the path from the pool building) have disappeared. Other than the cabins, the oldest building at the springs is the original portion of the main lodge and restaurant, constructed in 1939. Numerous other buildings, including lodging units, smaller cabins, greenhouses and dog kennels have sprung up, but Chena Hot Springs still retains its rustic charm. And there is really nothing quite like floating in the large outdoor hot springs pool while the air temperature hovers around -40° Fahrenheit and the Northern Lights dance overhead.