The Road to Wrangell

Red Eagle Lodge

This great spot is a little past the turnoff for Valdez, where we were headed, but its reputation was so good we thought it would be worth a little detour. We spent the weekend here – the reputation is well deserved! The hosts, Richard and Judy, are great fun and were super hosts to us. This is the site of a historic roadhouse. The original roadhouse burned down, but there are several log cabins, all about 100 years old, that survived. These have been restored and updated into quaint rooms for rent. They also let motorhomes stay here… they just got an extension cord for power from the bathhouse, and we were all set! This is the only camping spot I remember staying in that has its own airstrip… the county maintained strip ends right at Red Eagle, so you can fly in if you want. Very cool!

The interiors of the cabins are done so nicely – rustic luxury is the goal. The fact that the cabins are all unique, and built a century ago by families trying to survive in such a gorgeous but challenging place, adds to the charm.

They have a couple of “Glam Tents” also; framed in an old style, they are surprisingly comfortable inside.

Probably the biggest surprise is this old bus. Most property in Alaska seems to have old vehicles scattered here and there – maybe just where they died. So I wasn’t surprised to see an old bus on the grounds. What DID surprise me was that it is also rented out as a room!

The interior has been made up with beautiful cabinetry to transform it into a very cool guest room!

The Bathhouse is newly made, and really nice. I never dreamed I’d put up pictures of a mens’ bathroom, but here I go!


We were told Valdez (pronounced Val-Deeze, as in Exxon Valdez) was especially beautiful, and again, the reputation is deserved. Even in the rain. Which is good, because that’s about all we saw for weather in Valdez.

The harbor is central to the town – maybe the main reason for its existence.

There are a couple of nice museums in town. The centerpiece of one is this amazing fire engine. This gorgeous steam powered machine was purchased in response to a fire that burned the St. Elias Hotel and several other buildings in December of 1906. It is a “Continental” model, made by the Ahrens Fire Engine Company. The Continental was state of the art in the day, with world records for gallons pumped per minute, highest water pressure, and shooting water higher and farther than any other engines. That (and the fancy finishing and paintwork) must have justified the $7,800 price tag! While the pump was steam driven, the engine itself was not… it was pulled by two horses to the scene of the fire. Unfortunately it was so heavy, four tons, that it didn’t do well in the immense snow accumulations of Valdez. In 1923 the city bought a Model T Ford based fire engine, which they occasionally used to pull the Continental. In 1935 she was retired, and placed in storage. In 1959 it was moved outside, in front of the museum, but was damaged badly when it was hit with a snowplow!

In the 80’s the Valdez Fire Department and the Valdez Museum teamed up and restored the Continental to its original glory. It is an amazing hunk of machinery!

This Model T Ford fire engine may be the one mentioned above; I’m not sure. It is interesting because it’s a “Soda Pumper.” Tanks held Sulfuric Acid and Bicarbonate of Soda – when mixed, they produced carbon dioxide gas at 200 psi which was used to pump the water. It was easier to get this machine to the fire, required no fire of its own to pump, and required less manpower.

Alaska experienced a huge earthquake on March 27, 1963. At 9.2, it is the largest quake ever to hit the United States. Valdez was built on essentially unstable ground in the delta of a glacier, and during the earthquake, the port and areas closest to the water just disappeared, taking 32 people with them. The town was then condemned as unsafe, and the inhabitants were to relocate a few miles away to a safer location. Homeowners were given a bit of money to purchase a plot in the new town, and money to move. I read through the booklet on how the move was to take place – amazing. It was accomplished in about two years, a year ahead of the deadline.

A recreation of a typical home before the relocation.

Inside this old home was a board game I’ve never played… or heard of. “Pollyanna – The Glad Game.” This was put out by Parker Brothers in 1915 – long before the movie I remember as a kid. If you notice the picture of Pollyanna in the center, it is definitely NOT Hayley Mills! [If you don’t know what I’m talking about here, Google it]

Here is an interesting little gadget somebody with too much spare time created. Instead of using a couple bevel gears to change rotation by 90 degrees, it uses a clever arrangement of sliding rods. When the handle is cranked, the shaft turns, the rods slide in and out and the other shaft rotates. I like it.

Valdez looks good in the rain, with fog and clouds framing the amazing mountains.

We drove out of town a little ways to Robe lake. A glacier could be seen in the distance, and there were little icebergs floating in the lake.

Cherryl was powerful enough to move one of these little icebergs, and pretty proud of herself!

The Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery is just outside of town. They harvest the eggs from thousands of Salmon and raise and release them. They swim out to the ocean, get strong, and return in 3 years to spawn and start the cycle again. This ensures plenty of Salmon, not only for people, but also bears, sea lions and birds. We watched as a dozen or so sea lions gorged themselves on Salmon that were so plentiful they could easily grab however many they wanted. Whenever a sea lion caught a fish, the birds would swoop down to pick up any leftovers. They all are messy eaters, so there were lots of crumbs for the birds.

Some of the birds were so satiated they posed well for me. Like this Short-billed Gull.

There were also a few less common birds…

This Magpie seemed to enjoy his strutting!

Wrangell – St. Elias National Park

The Wrangell – St. Elias National Park is Huge, even by Alaska standards. It is as large as Yosemite, Yellowstone, and… SWITZERLAND… COMBINED! The world’s largest National Park. Like the rest of Alaska, in spite of a tremendous amount of land, there are almost no roads into the area. The main road in is considered the worst in the state… more on that later.

A nice enough road leads in to the little town of Chitina. This was once a thriving place, and was thought of as a potential capital of Alaska. But mines played out, railroads went elsewhere, and now it’s pretty much a ghost town.

These are the most prominent buildings in Chitina.

From Chitina, the dirt road runs 59 miles, where it ends at a footbridge over the river. After you walk across, you are a half mile from McCarthy. You can walk or catch a shuttle to town, and then another to the old mining town of Kennecott. It’s supposed to be a gorgeous trip, but the road has a reputation of being a killer. Stories abound of folks needing two spare tires, having breakdowns, getting stranded miles from anywhere, etc. We heard that they have grated the road, which used to be the railroad right of way, and old rail spikes continue to work up out of the dirt road to attack tires. We checked for tire patches, extra water, extra food, blankets, ham radios, full fuel – we were hopefully prepared for pretty much whatever the road would throw at us. I was hoping for a railroad spike as a souvenir.

When we got to the start of the dirt road, this cheery sign welcomed us:

We chose to stifle our fears and press on. And what a great move that turned out to be! The scenery was fantastic!

There were some old wooden bridges, made with whole logs, for the mine trains.

The dire warnings may have been needed in past years, but the road was so nice now we felt silly for all our extra provisions. We’ve seen plenty of more challenging roads in Alaska. Nothing that would require four wheel drive. A forty year old sedan could have driven it successfully, with no effort. So much for any macho jeeping aspirations.

Kennecott was a company owned copper mining town. It now has some buildings that have been restored, some that they are attempting to keep from further deterioration, and some they’ve just given up on. One of the old buildings is now a nice looking hotel, one a ranger station, and a few house artifacts and info about the mining days.

The building below was the medical facility. There are pictures of it during mining days, with a bridge from that porch to the land on the left.

The centerpiece of the town is the huge multi-story building used to extract and sort the ore. Copper ore was mined from about 75 miles of tunnels in the mountains behind the town, then shipped by railed carts or overhead cables (think ski gondolas) to this massive structure. Here ore was smashed, vibrated, filtered and sorted out. A lot of the work used water to move the crushed ore through the sifting processes. The temperature in the mill was kept in the upper 30’s during the winter, so the water wouldn’t freeze. The workers’ comfort was not a consideration. The sorted ore was washed into bags, still very wet, then salt was added so they wouldn’t freeze solid on the rail trip into town. The process was amazingly complicated, and the building a mechanical marvel. It’s also amazing that the building stays attached to the steep mountainside on its original footings. Almost as amazing as the fact that they let us tour the creaky old structure!

We did wear safety headgear, but if that building collapsed, I think we’d need more than hard hats!

Our great guide gave interesting info on how the processes took place.

A lot of the moving and shaking power was delivered by belts running throughout the building. The huge wheels, gears and massive timbers are extremely impressive.

The sorting process in the main building was something like 89% efficient, but that was not enough! We don’t want to miss any copper! So the tailings were then treated chemically to squeeze out any remaining copper and bring the efficiency up to about 98%. The huge tanks were assembled on site, and hand riveted. A lot of huge, heavy work!

So we had a great time touring the old mine, and made it safely back to our campsite.

On the river near our campsite, was a working fish wheel. The Indians used wooden versions of the fish wheel to supply them with Salmon. It is an amazing invention – the flow of the river turns the wheel, fish attempting to swim upstream get caught in one of the two rotating baskets, and as the basket rotates up and out of the water, the fish slide down an angled chute and into a holding bucket. Pretty clever!


  1. Very interesting and thanks for taking us there! I did notice a hotel for sale. You might give that some thought!! Have fun!

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