Glennallen: From road camp to regional hub

Published October 2016

Unlike most other communities in the Ahtna region, which are sites of Native villages, Glennallen got its start as a construction camp.

Its name comes from Major Edwin Glenn and Lt. Henry Allen, both leaders in the early explorations of the Copper River region. The name was originally written as two names, but later made into one word by the post office.

The community dates back to construction of the Glenn Highway in the early days of World War II. The U.S. built a series of military bases in Alaska, primarily to supply aircraft and other war materiel to Russia as part of the Lend-Lease program. Highways were then built to supply the bases. The Glenn was one of these roads, connecting Anchorage to the Richardson Highway.

Road construction began in the spring of 1941 and the going was brutal. “While some of the work was done by a Cat, a lot of it was done by hand. These men did that work in spite of swamp, mosquitoes and weather. The Cats simply could not go over the swamp. The men could and did,” according to Florence Clayton, editor of the Copper River Current.

By 1942, the construction supervisors decided they needed a base camp. Some 300 men were working on the road, including many who would become Ahtna leaders and Elders: Ben Neeley, Fred and Pete Ewan, Gus Johnson, Harry and Hans Johns, Nick Lincoln, Johnny and Frank Billum, Adam, Lloyd and Henry Bell, Tony Jackson.

They chose a spot on Moose Creek. Harry Heintz, a transplanted Seattleite, said the water “was not too bad, even if it was a little yellow in color.” The camp first consisted of a few bunk tents, a cook tent and a tent garage. A house was built in the fall.

The highway was completed in 1945. Glennallen developed as a small community around the site of the camp, becoming a commercial center for motor traffic along the Glenn and Richardson highways.

Today Glennallen is the supply hub of the Copper River region and home to 483 residents and the headquarters for Ahtna. Local businesses serve area residents and tourism from the Glenn Highway traffic with supplies, services, schools and medical care. State highway maintenance and federal offices are in Glennallen. RV parks, lodging, fuel and other services cater to independent travelers. The National Park Service’s Wrangell-St. Elias Visitor Center and the Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge were completed in 2002 at Copper Center.