Originally published in Show Me Alaska
You might miss it if you’re not paying attention.
Past farmland and through canyon country sits Chitina, Alaska: Nearly 250 miles from Anchorage, the town is noted for being the end of the Edgerton Highway and the beginning of the historic and seldom-maintained McCarthy Road. It may be the last place to get gas before journeying the next 60 miles to McCarthy, or a place to grab snacks on the way home from a weekend exploring the historic mill town of Kennecott. Chitina may seem unimpressive to the shallow traveler. However, when you dive beneath the surface, the town of less than 150 opens up, showing you a unique Alaska you may have never experienced.
Walk into Uncle Tom’s Tavern in the center of town to meet the people who call Chitina home. An old piano greets you at the door; a wood stove, taxidermy and plenty of rocks and fossils soon follow. Quintessential bar memorabilia adorns the interior. License plates, slot machines and posters of scantily clad women hang as ornamentation in the small, smoke-filled room. Old-timers and local folk sit at the bar with pints in hand and ash trays nearby. The woman at the end of the bar turned her generator on that morning so she could watch a movie with her friends that night. She lives in a one-room cabin with no electricity, no water and no heat. In a town where people are still talking about last year’s Fourth of July celebration, movie nights and new visitors are hot topics.
When Uncle Tom himself walks into the bar, he shows us some gold he found in the area, a nice small handful, telling my friend and me that the special rock is called “leavurite,” and if we find any we should “leave-it-right” there and let him know where it is — a joke he’s probably told 1,000 times to gullible tourists. What Uncle Tom didn’t know is that my friend is a student geologist. Needless to say Uncle Tom’s joke was quickly squandered.
The ladies at the bar know all the hidden gems and are eager to tell interested passersby about the hot spots in Chitina. Liberty Falls, just north of town, is a large, rapidly cascading waterfall, just off the Edgerton Highway. This state-run park is also a campground with 10 spots available. To the south of Chitina, at the beginning of the McCarthy Road, the canyon walls open up to the west bank of the Copper River, where fish wheels and dipnetters fight for the prized Copper River sockeye.
Once a thriving railroad post, Chitina was a stop for the Copper River and Northwestern Railway. The railroad hauled copper from the mines of Kennecott to Cordova, leaving Chitina a bustling and prosperous community in the early 1900s. When the mines at Kennecott were shut down and abandoned in 1938, Chitina was left a ghost town.
Remnants of Chitina’s past can be seen today. The old tin shop, now an art gallery, is on the National Register of Historic Places, while the Chitina Emporium pays homage to the old pioneer spirit. The gateway to Kennecott, McCarthy and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park is unapologetically Alaskan. From the locals and their homesteading endeavors to the subsistence salmon fishing on the famed Copper River, Chitina leaves visitors coated in a gritty Alaska aura.