Sunday, January 11, 2015

Historic Healy Hotel lives on at new location


 
Healy Hotel, now Princess Tours employee housing, in 2012
Most people driving the Parks Highway through Healy have no idea they can see a historic structure from the road. However, the two-story building just to the north and east of the Healy Spur Road intersection used to be the historic Healy Hotel.

Healy began as a mining and hunting camp in about 1904, during the same period when gold prospectors  made strikes at Kantishna, 70 miles to the southwest; and Bonnifield, 40 miles to the northeast. Prospectors used to ascend into the mountains east of the Nenana River via a trail up Healy Creek, a tributary of the Nenana located across the river from the present townsite.

According to William Brown’s book, Historic Resource Study of Denali National Park and Preserve, a roadhouse and store were established on the bluff across from Healy Creek, and commercial hunters also used the site as a base of operations. This early camp was sometimes called Dry Creek and sometimes Healy Fork.

Outcroppings of coal are common in the area. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources reports that geologists in the early 1900s estimated the area contained about 10 billion tons of coal reserve. Of course, there was no way to get that coal to market, and early residents only mined the easily accessible seams for local use.

Construction of the Alaska Railroad changed all that. The railroad follows the Nenana River from Broad Pass to the Tanana River, and the Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC - tasked with building the railroad) built a construction camp at Healy Forks. By the end of the 1910s the AEC had built a hotel to house train crews and railroad employees, dormitory, mess hall, hospital, warehouse, blacksmith shop, and other facilities.

The Railroad also spurred development of coal mines in the area. Beginning in 1918, several small coal mines were opened along the Nenana River, along Lignite Creek just to the North of Healy, and at Suntrana Creek, about 2.5 miles up Healy Creek. These coal mines found ready customers in Fairbanks, where wood cutting had denuded the hills for miles around the city, and the newly organized Fairbanks Exploration Company needed inexpensive and dependable power for its fleet of gold dredges.

After World War II the townsite of Healy moved about a half mile to the north. This was in part because the old hotel had burned down, but also because river erosion was threatening the community. A new hotel was built in 1946. It was a flat-roofed two story wood-frame structure, similar in appearance to the depot next door.

Suntrana developed into its own little company town, and was eventually absorbed by the Usibelli Company, which began mining coal in the Healy area in1943. Usibelli continued to house workers at Suntrana until the 1970s, when expansion of coal mining nearby forced the company to find alternative employee housing.

Construction of the Parks Highway (connecting Anchorage and Fairbanks) had been completed in 1972, and the community immediately began gravitating towards the highway. In 1978 Usibelli leased a large land tract near the highway from the Alaska Railroad, subdivided it, and subleased lots to its employees. Suntrana was abandoned and Healy grew.

Changing social and economic conditions led the railroad to close many of its Healy facilities, including the hotel. In her book, Buildings of Alaska, Alison Hoagland writes that the hotel building was sold to private investors. In 1986 it was moved to its present location next to the Parks Highway and placed on a new full basement. Aside from new siding and a pitched roof, the old hotel, which now houses Princess Tours employees, looks much the same as it did when railroad crews called it home.



Sources:

  • “Buildings of Alaska.” Alison K. Hoagland. Oxford University Press. 1993
  • “Healy Creek Trail, RS2477 Casefile Summary, RST 444.” Alaska Department of Natural Resources. No date
  • “Historic Resource Study of Denali National Park and Preserve, Volume 1 - Historical Narrative.” William Brown. National Park Service. 1991,
  • “Mining the Burning Hills: a History of Alaska’s Suntrana Coal Mine and Townsite.” Rolfe G. Buzzell. Alaska Department of Natural Resources, 1994
  • Denali Borough land records

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