A Brief History Of Why The Glenn Highway Is The Way It Is Today

How Alaska's Glenn Highway Was Built

Interview With Harry Heintz Of Slana, Alaska 

Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved. 

Alaska historic roadhouses: Slana Roadhouse.
The former Slana Roadhouse, around 2013.
Harry Heintz, who came to the Copper Valley from Seattle in 1935 to help his uncle run a non-productive mining camp at "Grubstake" on Ahtel Creek, wound up in the northern part of the region at the community of Slana. The Slana Roadhouse -- a trading post, post office, hotel and eating place -- was empty by 1938, and Harry Heintz leased the roadhouse for $30 a month, and $3 a month for the single-line phone that connected the roadhouse to Copper Center. Harry, a mustachioed, railroad cap-wearing big German-American, ran the roadhouse at Slana for 3 winters. Then, in the late 1930's, the Alaska Road Commission began planning a road to connect the Copper River Valley to the Matanuska Valley.

Scenic view on Glenn Highway
View Of King Mountain, from the Glenn Highway.
Hired by the Road Commission, Harry went down to Santa Claus Lodge, which at that time (before it was destroyed by an ice jam) stood on the banks of the Gulkana River. He got 4 pack horses and some supplies from the town of Chitina, which was the main supply town at the time, due to its rail links to the coastal community of Cordova. With a Juneau engineer and a Valdez man, Harry started cross-country toward Palmer, negotiating the tangle of black spruce, alder, bogs and willow that covers the Copper Valley.

After two weeks of bushwhacking across trackless terrain, Harry Heintz returned to Gulkana with the horses. The animals were defeated by the swamps, where they got stuck up to their necks. The two other explorers had continued on foot. Trail-blazing on their own for two months, they finally reached Sutton.

In the fall of 1940, Harry tried again. This time he brought in bigger guns. Four pack horses hadn't been enough.

This time, Harry Heintz charged toward the Matanuska Valley -- across the scrub, and the swamps, and the hills and mountains with a DC-7 Cat and two bobsleds -- loaded with gear, fuel and tents. A total of five men set out towards Palmer in October. They traveled cross-country for six weeks, some of them almost dying from drinking bad water along the way. Finally, they reached the steep and treacherous banks of Caribou Creek.  Today, Caribou Creek is a deadly switchback. Thoroughly intimidated by its dangerous ravine, Harry and his crew again turned back.

It didn't look all that hopeful. O.A. Nelson, the defacto "mayor" of Chitina -- a mayorless town then and now -- put up a playful sign at the point where the Richardson Highway met the new "road" to the Matanuska Valley, and the coast. The sign said, "Road to Chickaloon. Hopefully."

By 1941, the first 2 1/2 miles of the new road was finally put in, starting at the highway camp of Moose Creek -- where the Glennallen Library is now.
Cabin on the banks of Moose Creek, with logs hewed by Harry Heintz. 
This cabin served as Road Commission Headquarters when it was built.

The Moose Creek highway camp needed a name. And Harry offered one.

"The superintendent one day, he says to me -- I'm working 28 hours out of the 24 -- he says, 'Harry, this is Moose Creek. And it's going to be quite a settlement some day'," Harry recalled 50 years later. "This is Mr. Shepherd -- He says, 'We got to have a name for this area -- this Moose Creek area.'

"I said, 'Well, Mr. Shepherd, in the early days when the army was surveying up the Copper River Country to Fairbanks, two of the head engineers of that party -- one was a Major Glenn and the other was a Lieutenant Allen. 

"So I says, 'Mr. Shepherd, my uncle was here in the early days. I used to hear him talk about Glenn and Allen.' So I says, 'Mr. Shepherd, this is a new settlement going in here. How about naming it Glennallen, in honor of those two men?" So he says, "I'll write to Washington DC to get that name."  And about a month and a half later, he flagged me down. He says, 'Harry, our new settlement here will be Glennallen'."

Glennallen Alaska near Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
Modern-Day Glennallen, with a view of Mt. Drum.
In 1941 and 1942, following the tortuous cat trail that Harry had worked on, a civilian crew, living out of tent camps, followed Harry Heintz's route and laid down what is known in Alaska as a "Pioneer Road" -- the trail that later became the Glenn Highway. A pioneer road uses everything that was available -- including corduroy (logs placed side-by-side), gravel and sand. When the crew came to daunting Caribou Creek, and to other major gulches, including Jackass Curve, they crossed them by building bridges made out of logs. 

The construction of what was to be known as the Glenn Highway was considered a military secret, and was completed in two years. "Most people can't comprehend what we did do. It was no contractors. Just will power," said Harry. The Copper River way.

Meanwhile, using Slana as a jumping off point, the Army Corps of Engineers punched through another pioneer road -- to the Canada border. By the winter of 1942, the Alaskan stretch of the Alcan Highway was completed, and goods could be freighted across Canada to Alaska. 

© Copper River Country Journal, October 3, 1991 to 2016, Linda Weld, Editor
All rights reserved, including photographs and maps. 

SEPTEMBER 20, 2016:
The article on Harry Heintz was sent to me by my brother who picked it up in Delta Junction.
I met Harry and Gladys 39 years ago at their cabin at 10 mile Nabesna Road. I arrived there to meet up with a buddy ( Chuck Leake of Fairbanks )  from Arizona who had settled in at Harry's with his trailer to winter there. I arrived with empty pockets and a set of carpenter tools. Harry and Gladys were very glad to see me and I was glad to meet them;  it was starting to get cold and the back of my truck was losing its appeal. They were hoping to get a small addition done before winter set in. Now Harry wasn't one to just give his things away but he graciously afforded me a pair of felt packs taken from a case of them (for $12) , and allowed me to stay in an old cabin which had a tomato can wood stove in it. He handed me an old bow saw and said " there's plenty of wood out there" ,  and you can get your water down at Rufus Creek.  My friend moved over to stay with Bill Lmb and do some trapping and then back to Arizona a few weeks later. I was alone with Harry and Gladys until I moved on to Soldotna a couple months later. I took all my meals in Gladys' kitchen and got to know Harry as we worked together everyday. I'll never forget them and the interesting people of Nabesna Road, as well as some of the old timers I got to know thru Harry. I went back to visit many times thru the years and it was always clear to me  that I was pretty lucky for my path to cross that of Harry and Gladys .
Rob Landis

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