The many lives of the Copper Center

                                                 by Mary Taylor

IT SITS AT THE BEND OF THE ROAD, SIMPLE
and silent. There are no windows, just the entryway commonly found in snowy environments. The once-tan plywood sheathing now frames a gray two-story rectangle that was built after a 2012 fire destroyed the original building. Looking at the structure now, it’s difficult to imagine the proud Copper Center Lodge that occupied the spot for so many years and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Incarnations of the lodge went from rough, cold accommodations to classic log cabins, and then to a traditional lodge-type dwelling, which supported travelers as varied as hunters, military personnel, prospectors, National Park Service employees, pipeline workers, and even tourists. The history of this hostelry situated on the Copper Center loop road about 100 miles north of Valdez is special because of its human stories, unique family involvement, and microcosm of what was happening in the Alaska of that era. Old Copper Center began when erstwhile gold seekers, who were trying to cross the Valdez Glacier to reach the Klondike, found it too difficult. They chose to stay, and soon entrepreneurs were providing materials and services to that group, as well as to the nearby Native village. The community of Copper Center, as well as the evolving chain of Copper Center lodges, lay along the historic Valdez to Eagle Trail, which began as a Native trail and then became the route of the first planned Alaskan telegraph line. The trail was upgraded to a wagon road in 1910, to automobile standard in the 1920s, and finally paved in 1957 as the Richardson Highway. Eventually, the highway got rerouted, and by 1980, the town of Copper Center and the lodge were no longer on the main highway. Instead, they sat on an adjacent loop road.

The lodge had a history of many owners, starting in 1896 with Andrew Holman, who set up tents to house
prospectors from that era’s gold rush. The tents were eventually replaced by simple log cabins and a trading post. Following Holman was his partner, Ringwald Blix, who ran it from 1906 to 1918. The next notable owner was Florence “Ma” Barnes from New Zealand who purchased the property in 1921. The original log cabin burned in 1928, and when it reopened in 1932, it included a grocery store and later a post office. The lodge became a favorite for early pilots because they could get weather reports on Barnes’ phone. She continued to run it until her death in 1948.George and Katherine Ashby from Valdez were the next proprietors, beginning a 70-year family tradition of serving the public in the lodge and later in the inn. The Ashbys operated the lodge from 1948 until 1979, when George passed away. Katherine continued to run it until 1991. During that time, the lodge had 19 rooms; modern plumbing appeared in the 1950’s.  

The present owner, Tom Huddleston, is a grandson of the Ashbys. He and his wife, Kim, operated the successful lodge from 2002 through 2012, when an early morning fire left it in ruins. They planned to rebuild, and framed two floors before timing and finances interfered. They now operate the appealing Old Town Copper Center Inn and Restaurant adjacent to the original lodge. With all those owners there are lots of fun facts, or maybe just imaginative reminiscences. When the Ashby's purchased the lodge, they inherited some of the long-term customers who were “leftovers from the gold rush.” Their daughter, Jean Ashby Huddleston, described how they would sit around the old Yukon stove, “playing cribbage while intermittently spitting tobacco into the stove.” She also remembered the pungent odor of pelts that the trappers traded for lodging. Then there’s the long-held belief that ghosts haunted the lodge, particularly in an old storeroom. There had been a few deaths in the lodge over the years, but most thought the ghostly individual was a man named Don Green. It was the day of a Christmas Eve party in the 1930s; Green and companions were talking together when Green suddenly died. The frozen ground made it all but impossible to dig a grave. So the men took the only logical action: They put Green in the storeroom for holding until the ground thawed. Jean Huddleston believed she had experienced his spirit in the lodge. There also were reported incidents of an alarm clock being thrown, and the sound of footsteps when no one was visible. There were enough stories about these ghostly events that they are included in Haunted Alaska: Ghost Stories from theFar North, by Ron Wendt. So, if you want to step back in time to experience a unique corner of a small but important area, turn off the Richardson Highway at Mile 100 and wander down the “Old Loop Road.” You just might find an ashtray-throwing ghost inside the historic roadhouse, ready to give you a tour.

Mary Taylor, based in Long Beach, California, writes about unique sites found when RVing in the West and from her 35,000 miles of sailing in the Pacific Ocean.

ALASKA MAGAZINE.COM MAY 2019