Messhall and Bunkhouse in Chitina among few remaining Copper River and Northwestern Railway buildings
|The CR&NW messhall and bunkhouse in Chitina in the 1980s|
The CR&NW was a 196-mile-long standard-gauge railroad connecting Cordova, on Prince William Sound, with the copper mines at Kennecott, located in the Wrangell Mountains of Interior Alaska. The railroad was built between 1906 and 1911.
From Cordova, the CR&NW ran eastward, skirting the base of the Chugach Mountains until reaching the Copper River. It then followed the Copper River northward, turning southeast at the Chitina River, ascending that until turning east up the Nizina River, and then north up the Kennicott River to McCarthy and Kennecott.
A construction/supply camp was established at what would become mile 132 of the railway (just south of the confluence of the Chitina and Copper Rivers) in about 1909, and from that camp sprang the town of Chitina. Rails reached Chitina in 1910, and the messhall and bunkhouse were constructed the same year. Chitina also hosted a depot and water tower.
The messhall and bunkhouse were near the depot, on the eastern edge of town. There is a small pond directly west of the messhall now, but in Chitina’s early days the pond was just a stream. A few buildings (including the messhall’s outhouse) were located where the pond is now.
Both the messhall and bunkhouse are of wood-frame construction with tongue-and-groove siding, and both have post-and-pad foundations. The messhall has a hipped roof while the bunkhouse is gable-roofed. The buildings originally had cedar shingle roofs, but now have metal roofing.
The messhall, the western-most of the two buildings, is 26′ x 30′ with a 6′ x 16′ enclosed porch on its north side. It has four rooms: a kitchen, dining/living room, and two small bedrooms. A root-cellar is located under the floor. The cellar is accessed by a kitchen floor trap-door, and by an exterior entrance on the building’s west side.
The bunkhouse, a few yards to the east, is composed of two sections. The structure’s northern end has one room, 23′ x 25′. The southern end also consists of a single room, 20′ x 25′, with a 4′ x 4′ enclosed porch. An interior door connects the two rooms and each room has a separate exterior entrance.
According to National Park Service documents, Albert Swalling, who worked for the CR&NW from 1929 to 1938, related that the bunkhouse could accommodate 20-22 workers, although it usually only housed 10-14 men. Trains changed crews at Chitina, so the bunkhouse was constantly in use, either by train crews or maintenance workers.
Due to declining copper reserves, the mines at Kennecott closed in 1938. The CR&NW ceased operations the same year.
Otto Adrian Nelson, who came to Alaska in 1908 as a surveyor for the CR&NW and lived in Chitina for over 50 years, bought much of the Chitina townsite from the CR&NW in 1946, including the messhall and bunkhouse. Larry Clarke’s book, Chitina Past, states that Nelson was Chitina’s postmaster. He owned the community’s drugstore (where the post office was) as well as the general store.
The U.S. Army utilized the messhall and bunkhouse during the 1940s. The buildings were then used by Nelson as cold storage for his stores, but eventually fell into disuse.
The first time I visited Chitina in the 1980s the buildings were uninhabited. They remained vacant until their owner, Carla Hilgendorf, began restoring them in 2000, She even repainted the buildings in their original Kennecott Mines Company colors, red with white trim. They were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. The buildings are now operated during the summer as Chitina House B&B.
- Chitina Past: The Late Forties. Larry Clarke. Bookmasters. 2002
- “Copper River & Northwestern Railway Bunkhouse and Messhall, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.” Carla Hilgendorf. National Park Service. 2002
- Iron Rails to Alaskan Copper, The Epic Triumph of Erastus Corning Hawkins. Alfred O. Quinn. D’Aloquin Publishing. 1995
- “Mining in the Chitina District.” Fred H. Moffit. In Mineral Resources of Alaska, 1909. U.S.G.S. 1910
- The Copper Spike. Lone E. Janson. Alaska Northwest Publishing. 1975