Millie Buck Grew Up In Old-Time Chitina

Looking Back At Chitina's Heyday

The Chitina Emporium was once a grand store along the railroad track. 

Memories Of Watching The Train Go By, As The Conductor Tossed Out Fresh Fruit For The Kids

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The ghost town of Chitina, located at the start of the 61-mile long McCarthy Road, was once a major small Alaskan city. 

Its heyday was between 1910 and 1938. It was a supply town; a turnaround point for the Copper River & Northwestern Railway (the "Can't Run & Never Will"). The railroad linked the copper mines at Kennecott to the seaside town of Cordova, running precariously over miles of trestles and bridges. 

Today, Chitina is known mainly as an empty stop along the road to McCarthy and Kennicott, in Wrangell-St.Elias National Park. Or as a place that Alaskans (mainly from Fairbanks) go to dipnet for salmon, or to catch salmon in fishwheels. 

An Ahtna girl, dipnetting for salmon with a traditional dipnet.

The original dipnets were made by the Ahtna Athabascans, from willow, tied together with a spruce root rope. Fishermen (or, probably most likely, fisherwomen) stood out on a platform, with their 20 inch by 30 inch nets at the end of a nine foot wooden pole. The fish were channeled to the dipnet through channeling fences. Still handmade into the 1950's, dipnets were eventually replaced by modern nets that you can buy in Anchorage, at Fred Meyer.

Back in 1910, though, Chitina was a stagestop on the Orr Stage Line. The manager of the line used the cabin that was later a visitor center for the U.S. National Park Service, which took over the Kennicott Mines as a national park in 1980. The park's name, "Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve" is a mouthful. To the Ahtna people who lived nearby, the mountains had a simpler name: "Keltaeni." Which sounds remarkably similar to that other important mountain in Alaska that recently got it's true name back: "Denali."

The Orr Stage Line manager's cabin in Chitina.

Millie Buck grew up in Chitina. Before she died, in 2011, I interviewed her about what life was like in Chitina as a little girl, of around 6 years old. Mainly, she remembered how grand it was way back then. There was the Overland Hotel, the Chitina Hotel, and Breedman's Hotel.

And, she remembered the train coming in:

"They didn't stay too long in Chitina, but went up to the mines. It was pretty exciting when they were coming in. They used to throw candy, and apples and oranges out in the snow for us. The conductor always threw something for us."

Chitina was nothing like it is today, with its empty log buildings, and frame homes, and its small population:

"They had everything. They had a pool hall, meat market, a fairly large store, a clothing store. That's what some of those movies remind me of. The Western cowboy films. (They used to have silent movies, those days.) They remind me of Chitina. It really was exciting, downtown, watching the train come in!"

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

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