Sunday, June 1, 2014

Denali Highway history and Whitey's cabin at Maclaren River

Whitey's cabin in 2004.

            When the Denali Highway opened in 1957 it was more than just a 135-mile scenic byway between Paxson and Cantwell.  It was the connecting road from Mt. McKinley National Park (now Denali National Park and Preserve) to the rest of the territory.
            Before the highway opened, the primary means to reach the park was the Alaska Railroad (completed in 1923). Many Alaskans began pushing for road access to the park in the 1930s though. Officials from the Territory and the National Park Service saw the road’s potential to boost tourism. Some, like park superintendent Frank Been, also welcomed an alternative to the Alaska Railroad’s high fares and hotel rates. (The railroad managed the park hotel at the time.)
            Little was accomplished before the end of World War II. However, the war did bring extension of the Glenn Highway from Southcentral Alaska to the Richardson Highway at Glenallen, and construction of the Alaska Highway, both important to positioning the park as a destination for vacationers.
            Efforts to build the Denali road intensified as the war ended. In 1945 the Alaska Road Commission recommended construction of a “Paxson-McKinley Park Road” and started surveying for the project in 1947.
            The surveyed route followed parts of existing trails. There were already trails to the mining district at Valdez Creek (just upriver from the Sustina River bridge). Surveyors followed the Paxson-Valdez Creek Trail as far as the Maclaren River Valley in the east, and traced the Cantwell-Valdez Creek Trail as far as Brushkana Creek in the west.
            Early 1950 saw road crews breaking ground, working towards each other from Cantwell and Paxson. That fall, construction also began on a road from Cantwell to McKinley Park Station.
            By 1952 the 29-mile segment from Cantwell into the park was completed. The same year the Paxson-McKinley Park Road was officially named the Denali Highway.
            Construction continued slowly on the rest of the highway. The book, Crown Jewel of the North: An Administrative History of Denali National Park and Preserve relates that work in an area west of the Susitna River was particularly troublesome because of an “obstinate hill that held out for three years despite…continual thawing and scraping... At one time, the mud was so bad that six of the crew’s eighteen large D-8 ‘cats’ were put out of commission, buried above their tracks.”
            By 1956 remaining efforts centered on bridge construction and completing the 37 ½-mile segment between the Susitna and Maclaren Rivers. In early August of 1957 the road’s two ends were finally connected, and the Denali Highway officially opened on August 5th.  However, the first private vehicle to drive the length of the Denali Highway reportedly snuck through on August 2nd.
            As hoped, opening the Denali Highway sparked increased tourism.  Establishments such as Maclaren River Lodge (42 miles from Paxson) and Gracious House (53 miles from Cantwell) popped up along the remote road up to serve travelers.
            Whitey Mathison's cabin (shown in the drawing) was built around 1957 and was one of the first structures erected at Maclaren River Lodge. Located across the parking lot from the current lodge, it was the cook shack during construction.
            The Maclaren River is above timberline, and according to musher John Schandelmeier (who used to live nearby) logs for the lodge were trucked from Delta Junction. Since building logs were at a premium, the 12’ x 24’ cook’s cabin was built with varied materials, lending it an eclectic appearance.
            Whitey was the owner of the lodge and lived in the cabin until his death in 1973. Supposedly, the cabin and lodge are haunted by two women rarely seen but sometimes heard talking to each other.
            The cabin deteriorated considerably over the years, and in 2009, the current lodge owners, Alan and Susie Echols, rebuilt it.  They raised the structure, replaced many of the rotting logs, installed a new roof, and remodeled its interior. Hopefully, Whitey’s cabin will continue to provide shelter for visitors at Maclaren River for many years to come.



  • “An Historical Resource Study of the Valdez Creek Mining District, Alaska.” Peter F. Dessauer & David W. Harvey. U. S. Bureau of Land Management. 1977
  • Conversation and correspondence with Susie Echols, co-owner of Maclaren River Lodge
  • Correspondence with John Schandelmeier, former resident of Maclaren River area
  • Crown Jewel of the North: An Administrative History of Denali National Park and Preserve, Volume 1;   "Chapter Six: Postwar McKinley, 1946-1956; Chapter Seven: Rubber-Tired Tourism, 1957-1971." Frank Norris. National Park Service. 2006
  • “Haunted Alaska, Ghost Stories from the far North.” Ron Wendt. Epicenter Press. 2002
  • “Paxson-Denali Trail (Valdez Creek) RS 2477 Casefile Summary.” Alaska Department of Natural Resources. 2013

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