Former superintendent’s office is one of oldest buildings at Denali National Park
According to Jane Bryant’s book, Snapshots from the Past, a Roadside History of Denali National Park and Preserve, in 1914 a frontier settlement coalesced near the present-day visitor center (at that time outside the park) at Denali National Park and Preserve.
The community, eventually called McKinley Park Station, initially served prospectors, hunters and trappers. After the Alaska Engineering Commission erected a small depot and built a camp to support construction of the Riley Creek railroad bridge (completed in 1922), the community boomed.
Enterprising individuals, eager to capitalize on the railroad’s presence and the newly-created park, established businesses on benches above Riley and Hines Creeks near the depot. Several roadhouses, restaurants and trading posts operated there.
The land around the depot, except for the railroad right-of-way, was eventually absorbed into the park, but when Harry Karstens, the park’s first superintendent, arrived in 1921, the best land was already claimed. Karstens had to build park headquarters near the confluence of Riley and Hines Creeks, where it was damp, prone to flooding, and extremely cold during winter.
Karstens, dissatisfied with the site, tried fruitlessly to move headquarters closer to the depot. In 1924 he opted to move away from the railroad entirely.
Construction on the park road had begun in 1923, and Karstens decided park headquarters should be along that road. In a 1924 letter to the Park Service director he described a site just west of Rock Creek that he hoped to move to. “There is a beautiful spot, with ample room for expansion, [along the road] one and two-thirds miles from the railroad … Building headquarters at this point will simplify the work of checking persons entering the park or leaving it.”
Approval came in February 1925, and Karstens and his rangers began moving that summer. With no relocation funds available, their early efforts centered on erecting buildings at the new site using salvaged materials from the Riley Creek site and the abandoned railroad construction camp. None of those buildings survive.
The superintendent’s office (shown in the drawing) was built in 1926 adjacent to the park road. The one-room, 20-foot, 6-inch by 19-foot, 6-inch single-story cabin is built of locally-cut, peeled spruce logs. It has a low-gabled roof covered with metal roofing, with the gable extending over an 8’-deep front porch. The cabin’s double six-lite windows are similar to those in other cabins constructed during that period.
The cabin served as the superintendent’s office until 1941, when it was converted into the first park museum. The building was moved a short distance south to the headquarters utility area in 1950, and in 1952 it was moved to the north side of the park road. It was converted to employee housing in 1960.
At some point the gable extension over the front porch was cut back and replaced with a shed roof, and after the cabin became a residence, a room was added at the rear.
During renovations of the cabin between 2013 and 2016, the addition was removed, and the drywall and studs were pulled from the cabin’s interior walls. The revealed logs had been hand-hewn flat on their interior side and were still in good condition Also discovered were items like old uniform scraps used as chinking.
Unwilling to re-cover the interior log work, and because of the cabin’s association with Karstens and its significance as the oldest surviving headquarters building, the Park Service changed plans and restored the cabin to its original appearance. This included rebuilding the gable extension over the front porch. The Park Service also moved the cabin to a site more accessible to visitors, next to the park’s administrative offices south of the park road, all in time for Denali National Park and Preserve’s 2017 centennial.
- A History of Mount McKinley National Park Alaska. Grant H. Pearson. National Park Service. 1953
- Correspondence with Erik Johnson, historian at Denali National Park and Preserve
- Crown Jewel of the North: An Administrative History of Denali National Park and Preserve, Volume I. Frank Norris. National Park Service. 2006
- “Mount McKinley National Park Headquarters District, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Gail Evans. National Park Service. 1987
- “Park staff fight to preserve cabin hand built by Denali’s first superintendent 90 years ago.” Erin Kirkland. In Anchorage Daily News. 6-19-2016
- Snapshots from the Past, A Roadside History of Denali National Park and Preserve. Jane Bryant. National Park Service. 2011