Fire destroys historic Copper Center Lodge

Anchorage Daily NewsMay 20, 2012 

An early morning fire Sunday destroyed the historic Copper Center Lodge, one of the last surviving Alaska roadhouses.

The lodge, located off the Old Richardson Highway in Copper Center, was one of the few original roadhouses still operating, said owner Tom Huddleston.

The lodge is on the National Register of Historic Places.

"It was absolutely one of the last of its kind," he said. "They called it the jewel of the roadhouses."

The fire started sometime in the early hours of Sunday morning, Huddleston said. A maintenance worker living on site alerted him to the flames at around 3 a.m.

Firefighters from the Glenn-Rich Fire and Rescue, which serves the Copper Basin area, tried to battle the flames.

"We just couldn't get enough water on it," Huddleston said. "It's a total loss."

The building was "a tinder box," he said, built of oil-soaked logs.

Investigators have not yet determined what caused the fire, but Huddleston said he suspects that bad wiring could be the culprit.

"(A fire caused by faulty wiring) has been my fear the whole time," he said.

The lodge has played a central role in the Copper River Valley community for decades, Huddleston said.

The original roadhouse on the site was built in 1896 and served gold miners. It was rebuilt after a 1928 fire, Huddleston said.

Huddleston's family has operated the lodge, which used to be known as the Copper Center Roadhouse, since 1948.

In 2007, Huddleston's mother, Jean Ashby Huddleston, recounted her early days at the lodge to the Daily News: the scent of animal pelts (back then, roadhouse owners traded groceries for furs) competing with her mother's freshly-baked bread and Gold Rush old-timers with colorful biographies playing cribbage and spitting tobacco into the stove.

The roadhouse only closed for one year, after a freak ice jam and the Good Friday earthquake caused the Klutina River to flood into the lodge, according to Ashby Huddleston.

Tom Huddleston and his wife Kimberly bought the lodge in 2002.

In recent years, Huddleston said the roadhouse thrived even as others shut down by hosting tourists, construction crews, National Park Service employees and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. workers year-round. The lodge also became a center for community events and dinners, he said.

"It doesn't really belong to us," he said. "It belongs to the community. Lots of people are pretty shaken up."

The structure that burned included a dining room that dates back to the original 1896 construction. But firefighters were able to save out buildings, including a museum.

A sourdough starter used to make locally-beloved pancakes was destroyed, but neighbors had some to spare.

"The pancakes will be coming back," Huddleston said.

Because of the lodge's age, many of its features were not up to current building codes but were grandfathered in.

A new structure will have to be built to code, Huddleston said.

The couple plans to rebuild the lodge.

"The building is gone but the history is still there," he said.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

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