The Alaska Road Commission cabin

The old Alaska Road Commission cabin in Glennallen was at one time the Copper Valley Community Library. 

Glennallen, situated at the junction of the Glenn and Richardson highways, started as a highway construction camp just prior to the 1941 entry of the United States into World War II.

Relations between the United States and Japan deteriorated in the 1930s and the U.S. government cast an anxious eye toward its northern-most possession, the Alaska Territory. That anxiety was born of Alaska’s vulnerability (its defenses long neglected by the federal government) and the territory’s strategic location.

In 1939 the federal government set aside land north of Anchorage for an Army installation (construction began the next year). Anchorage’s relative isolation (its road system only reached as far as the Matanuska Valley) concerned military planners, and the Alaska Road Commission, the federal agency responsible for developing the territory’s road system, began planning a road link between Anchorage and the Richardson Highway, almost 200 miles to the northeast in the Copper River Basin. (This was before plans for the Alaska Highway were conceived in 1942.)

According to a 2016 interview with Harry Heintz, a 65-year resident of the Copper River Basin who died in 2000, Heinz was hired by the road commission (probably in 1939) to scout a route for the new road (yet un-named). On his first attempt he started from the Richardson Highway with two men and four pack horses. Heintz turned back with the horses due to marshy terrain, but the others continued, mapping a preliminary route as far as Sutton, just north of Palmer. His second attempt, in the fall of 1940, utilized a D7 Caterpillar tractor pulling two sleds, but that trip was thwarted by the steep walls of the Caribou Creek canyon.

The ARC pressed on however, receiving a million-dollar appropriation from Congress in April of 1941 (and another $500,000 the next year). In June 1941 construction crews began working from both ends of the planned road: from Moose Creek north of Palmer (the northeastern end of the Matanuska Valley road system) and from the Richardson Highway at what would become Glennallen. Plans were that the road crews would link up in the Nelchina area above Tahneta Pass.

The first 25 miles of the 20-foot-wide pioneer road were built on top of the abandoned railroad grade between Moose Creek and the Chickaloon River. Mary Cracraft Bauer, in her book, “The Glenn Highway, the Story of its Past,” writes that ties from the old railway were salvaged to build a cookhouse at the Sutton construction camp.

The narrow, bumpy road opened to limited traffic in November 1943. After the end of the war, lodges providing food, gasoline and other services began opening along the road, by this time named the Glenn Highway in honor of Capt. Edwin Glenn, leader of an 1898 U.S. Army expedition that explored parts of the Copper River Basin. The highway was paved in the 1950s.

After the end of the war, Glennallen (named for Glenn and another early Copper River Basin explorer, Lt. Henry Allen) quickly became the commercial and government center for the region.

The cabin shown in the drawing is located next to the community library in Glennallen. Built of logs felled by Harry Heintz, it began as the ARC headquarters at its highway construction camp. Its exact construction date is uncertain, but it probably dates to the establishment of the camp in 1941.

Long used by the ARC, then the federal Bureau of Public Roads, and then the Alaska State Department of Transportation, in 1962 it became the Copper Valley Community Library. It continued as the library until a new library building opened in 1976. It is now the Glennallen Legislative Information Office.

Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.

Sources:

• “Copper Valley Community Library History.” Bonnie McLead. Copper Valley Community Library website. 2006

• “How Alaska’s Glenn Highway was Built, an Interview with Harry Heintz of Slana, Alaska.” Copper River Country Journal. 2016

• “The Garrisoning of Alaska, 1939-41,” in “The United States and its Outposts.” Stetson Conn editor. U.S. Government printing Office. 1962

• “The Glenn Highway: The Story of its Past, a Guide to its Present.” Mary Cracraft Bauer. Bentwood Press. 1987