The Day Chistochina Saved The Lodge From Burning Down

Neighbors Beat The Flames Back With Garden Hoses Chistochina Lodge in the early 1980's. (File Photo, Country Journal)  A Story F...

Neighbors Beat The Flames Back With Garden Hoses

Chistochina Lodge in the early 1980's. (File Photo, Country Journal)

 A Story From Rescue Me. Copyright © 2020 Country Journal. All Rights Reserved.

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 the Yukon River.

The Fires Of Winter
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 at that time, she had called home from Eureka Lodge, high in the mountain pass along the impossibly long and winding Glenn Highway that led to the coastal city of Anchorage. Eureka was about an hour away from the town of Glennallen.

Chistochina was 48 miles past Glennallen, up the Tok Cutoff toward the Canada border. The village was at least two hours from Eureka Lodge.

It was 5:15 pm when Terry called and all was well. But, by 5:30, 15 minutes later, the lodge’s garage and generator shed were ablaze. Worse, the fire blew up an 800-gallon tank of fuel oil.

Chistochina's Volunteers
The Native American village of Chistochina has never been particularly large. The U.S. census of 1930 listed only 32 people living at Chistochina. The 2010 census listed around three times as many: 93 residents.

And the 1990 census – around the time of this story – showed a population of only 60 men, women and children in this entire, isolated, roadside community.

When they learned of the fire at the lodge, the people of Chistochina hurtled into action. They hauled a total of six large, wheeled, fire extinguishers to the lodge. 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 a bunkhouse that was attached to the 65-year old log structure.

The smoke was so dense it made vision impossible. But the determined neighbors rushed into the smoke-filled building and stripped the pictures off the walls.

Then locals “moved almost everything out,” Terry said. “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. With a string of hoses snaking down to a borrowed generator in the men’s room, they put the fire out.

It Was A Miracle

“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,” Terry said.

Chistochina Lodge was one of the older lodges in the Copper Valley. Four years later, in 1990, its log walls would begin to shelter dog mushers from all over Alaska and the world, as a checkpoint for the yearly spring Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race, a commemorative 300-mile competition that’s a trial run for the longer Iditarod. The race was kicked off as “The Roadhouse Race.” Many of the existing historic roadhouses in the region served as checkpoints for the mushers – including the born again Chistochina Lodge, along the old trail to the Yukon River.

Going, Going Gone
Once, there were roadhouses up and down all of Alaska’s trails, every 10 or 15 miles. Trappers, miners and adventurers walked the trails – or mushed them with dogs. Eventually, they used horses, pulling wagons and sledges. And finally, they made the trek with automobiles. The Alaska roadhouse was a part of life in the early 20th century. There were hundreds of them.

In their own small ways, the modest, vital lodges were famous. Everybody knew the people who operated them – their personalities and foibles. They knew if the cooking was good. If the beds were lumpy. Or if the lodgeowner cussed like a sailor. It was a tough life, running a roadhouse, and one by one the roadhouses were abandoned. Many roadhouses collapsed in the ground from neglect – and from busted up roofs that allowed water to seep through and rot the buildings.

Some lodges soldiered on. And, as in the past, the isolation, the old log buildings, the frayed wiring, and the jerry-rigged heating systems took their toll. Many lodges burned down.

Like A Death In The Family
Local people saw the passing of the old roadhouses as a personal tragedy. Sourdough Roadhouse, one of the Copper River Valley’s nationally registered historic landmarks, went up in flames two days after Christmas in 1992, apparently due to a wood stove fire. Built in 1903, Sourdough’s picturesque log building provided refuge from the elements for nearly 90 years. A huge log beam spanned the main room. The lodge was near Sourdough Creek and had sunk into the permafrost. So, by the 1990’s, it was partially underground, in the old trapper style, and the bottom ledges of the front windows were practically level with barren Alaska soil. Sourdough was a charming reminder of what life had been like in the early days, and people loved going there. Like Chistochina Lodge, Sourdough Roadhouse was also a race checkpoint for the Copper Basin 300.

Lodge Of Firewood
But Sourdough Roadhouse wasn’t the only lodge that succumbed to fire along the Valdez-to-Fairbanks Trail around then. A year after Sourdough burned down – on November 23rd, 1993 at 3 am – Summit Lake Lodge, a rambling, casually elegant “Alaskan” style building at the northern entrance to the Copper Valley, also went up in flames.  Summit Lake Lodge was located at Mile 195 Richardson Highway, north of Paxson, overlooking the high-country beauty of Summit Lake. It was one of the most successfully marketed lodges in the Copper River region, and was heavily visited by both summer and winter travelers. The lodge was home to the Arctic Man snowmachine race, and drew thousands of visitors to that event alone. It was also one of the most scenic and popular viewing points on the 300-mile long Copper Basin 300 sled dog race.

Of course, the lodges had been disappearing for a hundred years. But modern day residents could now see this fact for themselves, firsthand.

When the Copper Basin 300 Sled Dog Race had kicked off in 1990, there were 8 local lodges on the trail. Now two of them were gone. Then, in November, 1999, the unthinkable happened. Winter had rolled around again. It was fire season. Like most of Alaska’s lodges, Chistochina Lodge was basically nothing but artfully assembled firewood. Exactly 13 years after local people so valiantly rescued their historic roadhouse, Chistochina Lodge burned to the ground.

Doing The Math
All things are not equal in Alaska.

In 1845, there was a huge fire in New York City. Surprisingly, this fire had ties to Alaska; it began in a whale-oil manufacturing plant, and coastal Alaska was America’s whaling territory, just as it’s petroleum country today. Buildings in New York were made of wood, and the fire ripped through Manhattan, taking down 345 buildings in the commercial center of America’s largest city.

Half a century later, in 1906, in the newly booming Gold Rush town of Fairbanks, Alaska, a tragedy of equal magnitude occurred, when four city blocks – the entire heart of commercial Fairbanks – went up in flames. Fairbanks was a much smaller place than New York City, but the 70 buildings that were engulfed there were equivalent in importance to the hundreds of structures lost in the far bigger city of New York.

In the same manner, in rural Alaska, one lodge lost to fire is not just a single “building.” To the surrounding small community, it’s like the 70 structures lost in Fairbanks, or the 345 lost in the larger city of New York. The math is lopsided in rural Alaska.

A single roadhouse is the heart of a community.

So, it was a sad day and enormous loss in May 2012. That’s when yet another lodge on the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, Copper Center Lodge, caught fire. And then, in spite of heroic efforts by local volunteer fire departments, it, too, ended up in a pile of ash.


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