Talkeetna, Alaska

Gateway to Denali

On a recent trip to Alaska with my brothers, we spent some time in the small town of Talkeetna. A neat, artsy town nestled within eye-shot of the largest peak in North America, Denali. The drive along the Parks Highway was incredible, even saw a bald eagle. We took the route from Fairbanks, all the way to Talkeetna in one day, quite a fun and snowy drive. Upon arrival we were impressed to see our lodge for the night, the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge. Upon walking in you see a massive fireplace, at least 50 feet, all made of stone.

With respect and awe of the mountains, I obviously wanted to see the peak of Denali. Unfortunately, the only way to reach the mountain this time of year is to fly in. Second to this, you can view it from various points around Talkeetna. Even though the peak is only visible on days few and far between, we were able to see the peak of Denali! More about viewing the mountain coming up.

Check out my drone footage from the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge. In the distance, middle of the screen you can see Mount Denali.


Mount Denali

Why is Viewing Denali So Elusive?

Visitors of Denali National Park can be broken up into two groups: the 30% club and everyone else. The 30% club is made up of the people who were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of Denali, the tallest mountain in North America.

The weather changes constantly in Denali National Park, and we often recommend to guests that they dress for sun, rain, wind, and sometimes even snow all in the same day. There’s an old saying that sums it up nicely: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” The weather is so varied in the park that about 7 out of 10 days the mountains are out of sight because the Alaska Range is often shrouded in clouds.

Denali Peeking Through The Clouds
Denali Peeking Through The Clouds

But why do clouds cover the summit of Denali so often? Much of the answer has to do with where the Alaska Range sits in relation to the ocean. Mountain ranges throughout the state play a big role on influencing the weather and climate. When low pressure systems move northward from the Gulf of Alaska, that moist cold air hits the mountain ranges and condenses while rising upward. This results in clouds and precipitation in the mountains that often obstructs the view of Denali.

This weather pattern means the south side of the Alaska Range, also known as the windward side, receives more precipitation than many other parts of the state. As a result this area is home to large scale glaciers and ice fields. The north side of the Alaska Range, where most visitors stay in Denali National Park, is actually in the rain shadow of the Alaska Range. The weather on the northern side is much more forgiving than the southern side of the mountain, but it is still often varied and unpredictable.

Dramatic Clouds In Denali National Park
Dramatic Clouds In Denali National Park

While the weather changes often in Denali National Park, this fact alone should not dissuade you from visiting. Rain, snow, and wind are all part of the experience of Alaska. Often, clouds can add a dramatic look to the already breathtaking landscapes of the park. Even so, the elusiveness of the view makes it that much more special. Whether you are lucky enough to spot the mountain or not, there are tremendous views in almost every direction in Denali National Park. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to see the mountain on your first trip to the park. If not, there’s that much more reason to visit again! [1]

Talkeetna history

The town takes its name from the Den’aina word for “place where food is stored near the river. Today, you can visit some of its earliest buildings, like the Nagley store, opened in 1916 by Horace Nagley, or the house of his employee, Tom Weatherell, who arrived to mine in 1921! There’s also the Three German Bachelors Cabin, founded by Frank Moennikes, who had just escaped the German draft for World War II (lucky him!), and the brothers, Tony and Henry Meise. All three mined for gold near here!

Nowadays, Talkeetna’s most famous resident isn’t a miner at all! It’s Stubbs the cat, who was elected honorary mayor of Talkeetna in 1997 and has held the position ever since! In the polarized world of politics, may the best “catidate” win!

The historic village of Talkeetna is nestled at the base of North America’s tallest peak Mt. Mckinley (Denali). Talkeetna has an outstanding panoramic view of the Alaska Range that can be enjoyed and photographed from several places as you wander through our town and discover what this unique locate has to offer: Flightseeing, fishing, riverboat tours, float trips, hiking, nordic skiing, mushing, mountain climbing, ATV tours, snowmachine tours, and zipline tours, unique lodging, art galleries and gift shops, places to dine and have a locally brewed beer…and of course, year-round frontier hospitality! [2]

In 1916, forty-three years before Alaska would become a state, President Woodrow Wilson declared Talkeetna to be the Engineering Commission Headquarters for the Alaskan railroad, connecting Seward to Fairbanks! This railroad would provide easy transportation for miners and food across great distances! It took 19 hours to travel between Talkeetna and Anchorage![3]

Talkeetna is situated on the confluence of three wild, glacially fed rivers: the Susitna, Chulitna, and Talkeetna. An important location for fishing and trading by the Dena’ina, a subset of theAthabaskan people, the village’s name comes from the Athabaskan word , K’Dalkitnu or ‘food is stored river’. As early as 1896, a gold rush in the Susitna River area brought prospectors here. Talkeetna was the site for a riverboat steamer station  that brought supplies to prospectors heading northwest to mining claims.In 1915, Talkeetna was chosen as a divisional headquarters for the Seward to Fairbanks government railroad route, approved by President Woodrow Wilson. During the railroad’s construction, Talkeetna’s population peaked near 1,000. A number of businesses opened in 1916 and a post office was built. The town grew and in 1919, after urging by townspeople, the government sold 80 town lots, 41 of which already had permanent structures. The 1918 Influenza epidemic and 1923 completion of the railroad decreased the town’s population. However, it remained a supply center for area miners until  many of the richest mines’ production declined. Talkeetna continued to survive through the years with a combination of miners, trappers, homesteaders, and railroad workers who called this place home.   In 1962 Talkeetna connected to the George Parks Highway (Route 3) by the 14 mile Talkeetna Spur road, opening up the area to vehicle access and development.In 2010, the census recorded Talkeetna’s population to be 876 people.  However, the overall population of the area surrounding Talkeetna is much more than that.Today, THS is ever-active with running the museum, preserving and maintaining its historic buildings, fundraising endeavors, and educating local residents and visitors alike as to the significance and value of Talkeetna’s 1993 placement on the National Register of Historic Places.


Talkeetna’s Main Street, circa 1930s.

OTHER HISTORY:

The Talkeetna Roadhouse: The building that is now the Roadhouse was originally built by Frank and Ed Lee as their home in 1916-17.  At the time, it was the largest house in Talkeetna.  Frank ran a freighting business and his horses were housed in the barn behind his home.  Ed married Belle Grinrod in 1918 and they lived closer to the riverfront. Belle opened up a Roadhouse not far from DeVaults Roadhouse near the river. Ed died 10 years later.   Belle married ‘Mac’ McDonald in 1932 and continued her own business. Frank finally sold his house in 1944. The new owners, the Darch family, turned into into a Roadhouse. There were additions over the years. The building has stayed a roadhouse since that time, changing ownership a few times. Before 1944, Talkeetna had had several roadhouses: Belle Lee ran a roadhouse, the DeVault family had a roadhouse and others in the early years had tried to make a success of running bunkhouses and roadhouses. Belle, DeVaults and the Birch Roadhouse finally all closed and Talkeetna Roadhouse became THE one Roadhouse in Talkeetna. The Roadhouse became popular with mountain climbers starting in the early 60s.  It was also used as a boarding house for long term renters until the mid 70s.

The Fairview Inn:  The original name when it was built in 1923, was the Fairview Hotel.  German born Ben (Bruno) Nauman built the hotel. He sold it in 1939 to the Campbells. It was sold again a year  later to Horace W. Nagley. There have been numerous owners over the years.  The bar/inn is a museum in and of itself and if the walls could talk, there would be hundreds of stories to tell! The business is currently owned by Phillip Wiedner.  It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.  It continues to be a center of activity in Talkeetna.  Zoning regulations state no building in downtown can be taller than the Fairview.

Nagley’s Store:  Horace Nagley was a businessman before his time.  He built and opened a store on the shores of the Susitna River at a place called Susitna Station in 1908.  Gold was discovered just to the north and west in 1905.  A few  years later, he had the foresight to open a branch store north on the Yentna River in McDougall. In 1916, when it was announced that Talkeetna was to be the next district area for railroad construction, Nagley jumped at the chance to open a third branch store there that year. According to news reports in 1916, it was an immediate success.  The other 2 stores closed around 1920-22, and there is evidence that Nagley might have actually built a second store in Talkeetna around 1920.   When Horace was ready to retire and realized his son did not want to take over the business, they sold it in 1947.  Barrett and Kennedy were the new owners and re-named the store B&K Trading Post. Almost immediately, they moved the store up Main Street to its current day location. It took 3 days to roll the store along Main Street…it stayed open the entire time.  The business sold several times.  It wasn’t until the mid 90s when yet another owner took over that the named changed back to Nagley’s.  New Years Day 1997, disaster struck and fire damaged the second story and roof.  Firefighters fought the blaze in 30 below temperatures. The townspeople helped repair the damage.  It was then that a restaurant, the West Rib Pub, was also added.  The business has likely had too many changes to ever be listed on the National Register of Historic Places (as well as being moved), but it is a contributing building to the historic district — a 3 block by 2 block area in downtown.

Belle’s Historic Site   The property that Belle Lee MacDonald owned is now owned by the Talkeetna Historical Society and is on the historic walking tour of Talkeetna.  Her barn, roadhouse and other buildings no longer exist, but if one walks along the trail, the remains of the old barn are still around.  Belle was the first known business WOMAN in Talkeetna and she lived here until 1960.  She may be one of the most important individuals of Talkeetna for that time period. She moved to the Sitka Pioneer Home after living over 40 years in Talkeetna. She died at the age of 97.

The Museum

The Talkeetna Historical Society’s museum, located in downtown Talkeetna, in the original Territory of Alaska Talkeetna School building,  opened in the 1936-37 school year.

ph-history2

Our museum exhibits introduce you to our very personal history–native peoples, aviators, gold seekers, trappers–many ordinary people made a name for themself and are now an important part of Talkeetna’s past.
The museum’s other buildings–historic railroad buildings, circa 1920s, that were relocated here–offer  more historic photos and exhibition pieces from the old days. One of the Museum buildings holds the Mountain Exhibit, showing Denali (Mt. McKinley) and its surrounding peaks of the Alaska Range as a room-size model. The model is owned by the National Park Service and the museum houses it.  Here you can learn about the history of mountaineering.  Ask about lectures that are held in this building regularly throughout the summer.

MUSEUM HOURS

Winter: from mid September to mid May we are open on weekends only. Saturdays and Sundays 11 AM – 4 PM.  Or check with us to see availability. We have been known to open up for groups and events. The manager is known to keep odd hours in winter!

Summer: open every day from the first of May thru about Sept. 20  from 10 AM to 6 PM. Yes, we are open Memorial Day, Labor Day, Fourth of July.

Admission:  $5 per person/$4 seniors & military.  Children age 10 and under are free. Members of the society are free.  In summer, members can park for free in our parking area (otherwise parking comes with the price of admission). [4]

Sources:

[1] Kantishna Roadhouse. “Why Is Viewing Denali So Elusive?” Kantishna Roadhouse, 23 Oct. 2018, http://www.kantishnaroadhouse.com/weather-climate/why-viewing-denali-elusive/.

[2] “Welcome to Talkeetna, Alaska.” Talkeetna Chamber of Commerce,www.talkeetnachamber.org/.

[3] Bill. “Talkeetna Historic District!” The Bill Beaver Project, 28 Feb. 2018, thebillbeaverproject.com/2015/08/21/talkeetna-historic-district/.

[4] http://www.talkeetnahistoricalsociety.org/

I hope you enjoyed the read!

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