Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Old Slana Roadhouse survives as private residence






The old roadhouse at Slana may be unique among Interior Alaska roadhouses. Most roadhouses changed ownership numerous times. However, the Slana Roadhouse, built by Lawrence DeWitt in 1928, is still owned by the DeWitt family.

Lawrence, born around 1890, sojourned to Alaska in about 1910. According to National Park Service documents he became a miner, trader, freighter, mail carrier, fox farm operator and roadhouse owner — one of Alaska’s quintessential wilderness entrepreneurs.

The Slana River, a tributary of the Copper River, winds down out of the Mentasta Mountains at the northern end of the Copper River Valley. Just north of the Slana’s confluence with the Copper River was an Ahtna Athabascan village, and it was here that DeWitt eventually settled.

The village was several miles east of the Trans-Alaska Military Road (also called the Valdez-Eagle Trail. The northern portion of this trail was virtually abandoned after the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail (now called the Richardson highway) was completed, but the section from Gulkana to Slana saw renewed travel beginning with the 1913 Chisana (pronounced shu-shana) Gold Rush.

Gold was discovered along the Chisana River in remote eastern Interior Alaska in spring of 1913, and by the end of summer a stampede was on. One of the routes into the area was an 80-mile trail taking off from the Valdez-Eagle Trail at the mouth of the Slana River and traveling southeast to the Chisana area.

The Chisana rush only lasted a few years, but during this time period DeWitt built a small roadhouse (no longer standing) to serve travelers. Traffic along the trail out of Slana slowed after the rush, but increased in the 1920s when Nabesna Gold Mine opened at White Mountain, 46 southeast of Slana. 
At its peak the mine employed 60 to 70 men, and most supplies for the mine passed through Slana. In 1926 the Alaska Road Commission began improving the section of the Eagle-Valdez Trail from Gulkana to Slana, and in 1933 began work on a road from Slana to Nabesna.

DeWitt, who had married the daughter of Chistochina’s Chief Nicholai, filed for a homestead at Slana during this time period, and in 1928 built a larger 2 1/2 story roadhouse.

The roadhouse is located at 1 Mile of Nabesna Road. The National Register of Historic Places states that the 32-foot by 45-foot structure’s first two floors are built of three-sided logs nailed into vertical posts at the corners. Vertical board siding covers the gable ends of the attic. All of the logs and dimensional lumber used in the roadhouse were cut on DeWitt’s property. Many of the building’s windows are original and the only major change has been the addition of an arctic entry.

During the winter of 1937 Dewitt disappeared, and people assume he drowned in either the Slana or Copper rivers. His family leased the roadhouse out to a series of operators after his death.



In 1942 a U.S. Army engineering unit built the “Slana Cutoff” road from Slana north to the present-day location of Tok, providing construction crews with access to the Alcan Highway corridor. The “Cutoff” road was realigned in 1953, bypassing Slana and the roadhouse.

The roadhouse operators at the time of the highway realignment quit the Slana roadhouse, opening a new cafĂ© and service station along the new section of road. Since that time the old roadhouse has been a private residence. 

The Slana Roadhouse, which is visible from the Nabesna Road, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. If you do go looking for it remember that is it on private property.

Sources:


  • Mountain Wilderness: Historic Resources Study for Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. William R. Hunt. National Park Service. 1991
  • Nabesna Gold and the Making of the Historic Nabesna Gold Mine and Town. Kirk Stanley. Todd Communications. 2005
  • “Selected Residents of and Visitors to the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains Region: 1796-1950.” Geoffry Bleakley. National Park Service, 2006
  • “Slana Roadhouse, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.” Kirk W. Stanley. National Park Service. 2004
  • “The Slana District, Upper Copper River Region,” in Mineral Resources of Alaska. Fred H. Moffit. U.S. Geological Survey. 1929

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