Photos inside the 100-year-old Hotel Chitina fill walls, appropriately illustrating the town’s rich history.
Current owner/operator Susan Gilpatrick and her husband Lance spent years collecting hundreds of the photos. The photos illustrate Chitina’s legacy.
There’s a picture of a group of prospectors in front of what could only be described as a boulder of copper ore, maybe the piece that sparked the copper rush that would help create the town. Going down the line, the photos change with the times.
Susan is confident there are more photos than there is available wall space to hang all of them.
The history of Chitina is intrinsically tied to its aptly named hotel and vice-versa.
In 1908 Chitina came to life as a transportation hub for the Kennicott Mine and the railroad that would support it. Copper mining turned Chitina into a boomtown and when the railroad finally reached the town in 1910, people started coming faster. It wasn’t long before Chitina’s population was exceeding thousands while Anchorage remained a tent city. As the population rose, the need to find lodging for everyone quickly became a necessity.
Now the Hotel Chitina today was not the Hotel Chitina of the early 1900s. At that time there was another Hotel Chitina at the time filling that role. The building that would come to be what is now known as the Hotel Chitina started off as the Arctic Brotherhood Hall – the predecessors to the Pioneers of Alaska – built in 1914. The building served as a community hall and later a nickelodeon-style movie theater.
By the late 1930s the hope locals had that Chitina would become Alaska’s capitol began to diminish as rapidly as the Kennicott mine’s production of copper did. By 1938 the mine closed and it wasn’t long before Chitina became a ghost town.
However, the Arctic Brotherhood Hall would survive and in the 1950s it was converted to the hotel and restaurant it is today by Wesley Kennedy.
Kennedy owned the building for only one year and the hotel would exchange ownership for years until a man named Curley Randolph purchased the building in the early 1970s.
The hotel continued to welcome guests through the days of the Trans-Alaskan pipeline’s construction. By the end of the decade Randolph would close the hotel and it would stay closed.
Over the next 30 years the population of Chitina continued to diminish. Buildings as old as the town itself were abandoned; they fell into disrepair or burned to the ground. For the most part, the Hotel Chitina survived despite being abandoned for decades.
Then something unexpected happened.
A married couple from Valdez with a passion for BBQ’d steak and adventure took a detour off the Richardson Highway heading for Chitina.
“Every year for my birthday, my husband would ask me, ‘what do you want for your birthday,’” Susan said. “I would say I want a steak cooked over an open fire.”
Susan’s birthday didn’t exactly fall in good BBQing weather for Valdez, so Lance and the rest of the family packed the car and the two made their way for Chitina, where the weather was warmer and not nearly as rainy.
Each time they would pass through town, Lance and Susan drove by the dilapidated carapace that was once the Chitina Hotel.
“Lance would say ‘someone should really do something with that old building,’” Susan said.
This went on for years, and each time Lance would say the same thing. Then one day someone really did do something with that old building.
“I finally said OK,” Susan said.
Those two syllables would change the Gilpatricks’ life forever.
The Gilpatricks purchased the building in 2001, but in the 30 years since the hotel was open, Alaskan laws had changed. It turns out the 100-year-old hotel had somehow obstructed Department of Transportation right-of-way without ever having moved. But move it the Gilpatricks would have to, if they ever wanted to actually operate the building.