You meet all kinds of characters [in tourism]. Lena Howard
Tourism has played an important role in the history of Denali National Park and Preserve since the 1920’s, when the only way to reach the park was by railroad. Just as today, to be successful, the companies providing services to visitors need a dedicated and adventurous staff.
This is the story of Lena Howard, one woman who came to Alaska on a whim and ended up staying; who worked to provide hospitality services to some of the park’s earliest visitors, and ended up becoming a pillar of the local community.
Lena Lentz (Howard) visited Alaska with a friend, “just tourists,” in the summer of 1922. After hearing so much about Alaskan winters, they returned in the fall of 1926 to experience a winter in Fairbanks.
Not yet satiated, the two women decided to travel around the state and “have Alaska out of our system.” As part of Lena’s hobby of visiting national parks, their travels included a visit to Mt. McKinley National Park.
Lena did not get Alaska out of her system, and like other visitors who sometimes become locals, Lena’s ﬁrst summer working at the Mt. McKinley Tourist & Transportation Company’s (MT&T) camp by the Savage River in 1928 commenced a lifetime in the area. Her recorded reﬂections and photographs provide a window into the early days of tourism in the Denali area.
Savage Camp, where Lena worked long hours as a cook and housekeeper for 12 summers between 1928 and 1938, was the destination for visitors to Mt. McKinley National Park during the park’s earliest years.
The camp, located adjacent to today’s Savage River Campground, housed visitors in the relative luxury of tent cabins and provided a dance hall, a dining hall, ranger talks, and opportunities to travel deeper into the park by horseback, stagecoach, or automobile.
Visitors started each day with sourdough hotcakes and most spent 24 or 48 hours at the camp before returning to the McKinley Park Station depot to continue their travels.
Until 1957, the only way to reach the park was by railroad or in a small airplane. The majority of visitors arrived by train, just as today. Lena’s reﬂections on the early park visitor assumptions, some which may still be true today, included expectations of seeing year-round snow, odd forms of clothing, and lines of dog teams.
As today, many visitors to Savage Camp decried the mosquitoes, left piles of insect repellant behind, and hinged their contentment on whether they were able to view Denali.
Lena and her co-workers chuckled at visitors’ misperceptions yet worked hard to provide a terriﬁc experience, going so far as to keep a night-watch for “the mountain” to come out during cloudy stretches. In tourism, Lena reﬂects, “You meet all kinds of characters.”
Making a Life
One of the perks for staff working at Savage Camp was the opportunity to explore the park in their free time by hiking, picking berries, and horseback riding. And much like today, seasonal employment also provides opportunities to meet new people which is how Lena met her future husband, Johnny Howard, who was a horse handler, trip guide, driver, and general maintenance man for MT&T.
Most individuals who come to work in Alaska tourism move on after a couple of seasons, but Lena and Johnny got married in 1937 and stayed, living near the town of Healy, just outside the park.
Lena was known for giving cookies to local children and their home was where, for many years, the couple hosted wear-your-best annual holiday gatherings for their neighbors.
She lived in the area, until her husband’s death in 1971, and played a lasting role in the community. Lena embodies the spirit of early tourism in Alaska which required a pioneering and adventurous character.
This spirit lives on in many of the people who work and live in the area of the Denali National Park and Preserve today.
- Lena Howard Oral History, DENA #506, August 4, 1972, Denali National Park and Preserve Museum Collection.
- Mercer, Baxter, personal interview, Healy, Alaska, March 17, 2014.