Friday, April 6, 2012

Dot Lake community grew from Alaska Highway construction camp

Dot Lake Community Chapel

Dot Lake, located about half way between Tok and Delta Junction on the Alaska Highway, is a picturesque little town on the east shore of Dot Lake. The community did not really exist until the Alaska Highway was constructed, but the area has a long record of human habitation. An archeological excavation recently conducted by the University of Alaska at Healy Lake (about 35 miles northwest of Dot Lake) uncovered evidence of human habitation dating to 11,500 years before present. 

Athabascan Indians, who have occupied the area for thousands of years. were semi-nomadic. They moved cyclically, depending on the season and availability of resources, and trapped in the Dot Lake area during the winter.

The Tanana River is about ¼ mile to the north, and Dot Lake is on an old Indian freight trail along the river. According to the State of Alaska, by 1924 the Alaska Road Commission (ARC) had built an improved winter trail (called the Tanana Crossing-Grundler Trail) from Big Delta (near present-day Delta Junction) to Tanacross (about 35 miles southeast of Dot Lake). This trail probably went by the Dot Lake site.

When the Alaska Highway was constructed in 1942-43, a construction camp called Sears City was established at Dot Lake. As an interesting aside, most of the Alaska Highway was built by U.S. Army Corps of Engineer troops working side by side with private contractors. However, the section of highway between Tok and Delta Junction was one of the few segments of the highway built solely by a private contractor.

Several of the local Athabascan men worked on the project, and after World War II ended, some Athabascan families began moving to Dot Lake from Sam Lake and Lake George (about 12 miles and 18 miles to the northwest), and from Tanacross. A brochure available at the chapel states that the first Athabascan family to settle at Dot Lake permanently was the Peter Charles family.

Non-Natives also started moving to the area, beginning in 1947 when Fred Vogel acquired several of the cabins used by the Alaska Highway construction crews. It was Vogel who started the lodge at Dot Lake. Stanley Buck, a Christian missionary who also worked for the ARC, began holding services at the Dot Lake lodge at about the same time. Eventually, as the village’s population grew, residents decided to build a church. In 1949 a small chapel was constructed on skids next to the lodge and then moved to its present location next to the lake.

By 1952 the community had grown large enough that the Territorial Department of Education was persuaded to send a teacher to Dot Lake. In return for the Territory providing text books and a teacher, the community agreed to construct a school and provide desks. That first school building sits behind the chapel. The State of Alaska built a new school long ago, and for many years the original school building was used as the church parsonage.

With today’s paved highway and more fuel efficient vehicles, fewer road travelers stop at Dot Lake than in years past. The gas station is closed, and the former lodge is now a private residence and contract post office. The community is still worth stopping at, though, even if it is just to take photos of the lake (I saw swans there last summer) and visit the Dot Lake Community Chapel.

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