Glenn Highway’s King Mountain Lodge was once an essential stop
The Glenn Highway, which winds along the Matanuska River before climbing over Tahneta Pass to the Copper River Basin, opened in 1943. In the late 1940s the roughly 145-mile section of narrow, gravel-surfaced road from Palmer to Glennallen could easily take most of a day to drive. By the 1950s there were eight lodges operating along the highway to serve the weary traveler.
Most of those lodges, while accommodating through-traffic along the road, also catered to niche clientele, generally hunters. King Mountain Lodge, located at Mile 78 of the Glenn Highway, one mile south of the confluence of the Chickaloon and Matanuska Rivers, was one of the early Glenn Highway Lodges.
“Lou Jacobin’s Tourists and Sportsmen’s Pictorial Guide to Alaska,” one of the earliest Alaska Highway travel guides, indicates that the lodge in its earliest incarnation was called the Chickaloon Roadhouse.
The earliest mention that I can find for the Chickaloon Roadhouse (in the 1949 Jacobins’s guide) states that the roadhouse, operated by Ray Grasser, specialized in guided hunts up the Chickaloon River into the Talkeetna Mountains. It also stated that roadhouse facilities included private cabins, dining room, cocktail lounge, gas and oil service.
The roadhouse changed its name in about 1955 to King Mountain Lodge — named after a prominent nearby peak, Kings Mountain. The mountain, and adjacent Kings River, are named for Al King, a local prospector.
In 1957 Jack Betts took over the lodge’s operation, eventually buying the lodge from Ray Grasser. Betts’ wife, Cecille, in her 2003 book, “Reluctant Pioneer,” writes that in its early years, the lodge building included a small cafe; a larger bar room decorated with trophy heads of sheep and goats and an enormous brown bear rug; and four small rooms in the back for the living quarters. There were also five small rental cabins behind the lodge. A five-Kw generator provided electricity to pump water from a well, operate the lodge’s lights and appliances, and run the one gas pump in front of the lodge. Cecille also related that when pumping gas, none of the appliances in the lodge could be used.
Betts gradually expanded the lodge facilities to include a full-service garage, a small motel unit and trailer park, an airstrip on the north bank of the Matanuska River behind the lodge, a cable-crossing of the river, and a small cabin on the river’s south side. The Quonset hut shown in the drawing was constructed in 1959 as a dining hall for a construction crew staying at the lodge while working on the microwave facility at Lion Head Mountain, 30 miles to the north.
Betts sold the lodge in 1968 and it was operated by a series of owners until the early 2010s when it finally closed, victim of the long-term decline of Alaska’s rural highway economy. Now the lodge and service station are vacant; the motel unit, trailer park and the river cable-crossing are gone; and the airstrip sits abandoned.
The last successful owner/operator, Judy Nix, was able to prosper by hosting special events, and in the mean time the lodge served as the de facto social center for the highway community strung out between Sutton and Chickaloon. For a time the lodge had the only water well in the area, and the only phone (now there is a cell-phone tower behind the lodge).
Improvements in vehicle power, fuel efficiency and reliability; coupled with road improvements and higher speed limits; and the rise of self-contained recreation vehicles, have meant that travelers are less and less likely to stop on their journeys to somewhere else. Unless lodge operators can re-create themselves as niche destinations their businesses often wither away, just as Kings Mountain Lodge has,
“Lou Jacobin’s Tourists and Sportsmen’s Pictorial Guide to Alaska.” Alaska Tourist Guide Company. 1946-1960
Matanuska-Susitna Borough property records
“Owner makes King Mountain Lodge more than just burger joint.” Ed Bennett. In Alaska Journal of Commerce. 7-1-2001
“Reluctant Pioneer.” Cecille Betts. Privately printed. 2003
“The Milepost.” Alaska Northwest Publishing. 1949-2005
“Times are tough for Glenn Highway tourism businesses.” Rindi White. In Anchorage Daily News. 7-21-2009