Chistochina Lodge Was Saved From Fire In 1986, By Surrounding Community

The Copper River Chronicles: Saving Alaska's Way Of Life

Without A Fire Department, Local People Rushed To Save Chistochina Lodge In Mid-Winter

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Chistochina Lodge, around 1986.

A Holiday Gift Of Saving An Historic Alaska Roadhouse From Fire

Terry Weston had been operating the Chistochina Lodge for 4 years on the Tok Cutoff, at the border of the Headwaters Country of Ahtna Territory. It was an old log building along the historic trail to Eagle, and was known, alternately, as a "lodge," a "trading post," and a "roadhouse."

Terry thought she knew something about the Copper River Valley. But, she learned something special in November of 1986, just in time for the holiday season.

Terry was returning from a trip to Anchorage on Friday evening, November 28th. Like so many Copper Valley people did at that time, she had called home from Eureka Lodge on the impossibly long and winding Glenn Highway. Eureka was about an hour away from Glennallen. Chistochina, which was 32 miles up the Tok Cutoff past Gakona Junction, was at least two hours from Eureka. It was 5:15 pm, and all was well. But, by 5:30 pm, the lodge's garage and generator shed were ablaze. Worse, the fire exploded an 800-gallon tank of fuel oil. 

The people of surrounding Chistochina hurtled into action as soon as the buildings caught fire. They hauled a total of six large, wheeled, fire extinguishers to the lodge. And all the hand extinguishers they could find -- even though there was no official "fire department" (volunteer or otherwise) in Chistochina.

The power was out, but neighbors brought a portable generator and all their garden hoses. Then they successfully beat back the blaze, when it jumped to the 2nd story roof of the bunkhouse that was attached to the 65-year old log structure. 

The smoke was so dense it made vision impossible. But Chistochina people are determined. They rushed into the smoke-filled lodge, and stripped the pictures off the walls. 

Then they "moved almost everything out," said Terry. "They had it sitting in the snow. If it had burned down, we would have saved everything in it."  Chistochina Lodge -- the social gathering point of the small rural community -- did not burn down in the winter of 1986, thanks to local people.

The lodge's patrons, and even passing motorists, chopped holes in the sides of the burning bunkhouse wall. And, with the string of hoses snaking down to the borrowed generator in the men's room, they put the fire out.

"I'd like to thank my neighbors," said Terry Weston, referring to the few dozen families strung along the Tok Cutoff nearby. "It was a miracle. Within an hour they had the hoses and generator to help. There isn't that many people here. The smoke was so bad in here you couldn't breathe. And still they were dragging things out. It was wonderful. It sure renews my faith in the human being. I had heard about the Alaskan people, and it sure is true. It's true that they're the first ones to help... I would like to thank the strangers who are no longer strangers."

Chistochina Lodge was one of the older lodges in the Copper Valley. Its log walls sheltered dog mushers from all over Alaska and the world, as a checkpoint for the spring Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race, a commemorative 300-mile dog sled race that's a trial run for the longer Iditarod. In its early days, the 1980's, the race was known as "The Roadhouse Race" because roadhouses like Chistochina were checkpoints.

Many -- in fact most -- of the lodges of the Copper Valley, which were once located around 8 or 10 miles apart on the road systems, had met their fates over the past century and burned down by 1986. So Chistochina Lodge, which was still standing and in use,  was known and beloved not just by locals, but by people from other parts of Alaska. It was a symbol of historic Alaska and days gone by.

The 1986 saving of Chistochina Roadhouse was a temporary one. The lodge burned to the ground exactly 13 years later. In November, 1999.

© Copper River Country Journal, 2015, Linda Weld, Editor
All rights reserved, including photographs and maps.

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