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The McKinley Park Hotel

a building on fire
McKinley Park Hotel fire on Sept 3, 1972

Photo courtesy of Wally Cole

1972 Hotel Fire

As seen in the 2019 fire that damaged Notre Dame Cathedral, fire often destroys important pieces of history. Denali witnessed such an event when its own important piece of history burned down in 1972.

Just after 7pm on September 3, 1972, a fire was reported at the McKinley Park Hotel. Healy and National Park Service firefighters arrived to suppress the fire but not before the 84-room main section of the hotel was destroyed. A 1970 wing addition, with 48 rooms, sustained heavy smoke and water damage. Hotel staff safely evacuated the 265 hotel guests as well as 200 other visitors.

An investigation into the fire determined that faulty wiring started the fire in a false ceiling above the basement tavern and it slowly spread. Fire alarms went off several hours earlier but no fire was located and previous false fire alarms made hotel staff think there was nothing wrong.
a small hotel situated among spruce trees
McKinley Park Hotel in in 1950

DENA Museum Collection 12-26

History


In July 1937, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes used Works Progress Administration funds to begin building the McKinley Park Hotel. The hotel facility was located about 300 yards west of the train station and opened on June 1, 1939. The new hotel could accommodate up to 200 overnight guests and contained a large lobby, dining room, cocktail lounge, snack bar, facilities for rangers to conduct programs, an employee dormitory, and a power plant.[1]

Initially, the government-owned Alaska Railroad was in charge of managing the hotel, but from 1942 until 1945, the Army took over and used the facility as a year-round rest and recreation center. After World War II, the hotel continued to operate year-round. During the Korean War in the early 1950s, the Army and then the Air Force helped manage the hotel and again used it as a year-round rest camp [2]
lobby of a hotel
Lobby of the McKinley Park Hotel in 1946

USGS Library hca00205

In 1953, the National Park Service took over the hotel and quickly hired a concessionaire to carry out operations. The hotel lost money as a year-round operation so after the winter of 1953-54, the hotel was only open during the summer season. As access to the park entrance developed, tourism and hotel visitation increased. The Denali Highway was completed in 1957 and connected the park to Alaska’s road system. High demand for hotel rooms and anticipation of the George Parks Highway completion led to the hotel’s 48-room wing expansion in 1970.[3]
people in formal attire in a hotel lobby
Alaska Day party at the McKinley Park Hotel in 1953

DENA Museum Collection 30-22

The 1972 fire at the McKinley Park Hotel occurred at the end of a busy summer that saw a substantial jump in visitation due to the new highway. The 1970 wing addition, the powerhouse, and the employee dormitory survived the fire, and the NPS vowed to immediately begin rebuilding so that a hotel would be ready for the 1973 season. A temporary hotel that included the surviving structures and an assortment of primarily railroad cars, along with some new modular units, opened in 1973 and could accommodate 250-300 guests. The “temporary” hotel was in operation nearly as long as the original hotel, and was removed after the 2001 season.
people ice skating outside a hotel
Ice skating at the McKinley Park Hotel

DENA Museum Collection 30-13

Today, if you look next to the northeast side of the Denali Visitor Center parking lot you can see the McKinley Park Hotel Powerhouse that was determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The building is the only structural evidence remaining of the original hotel that hosted so many of the park’s visitors and contributed to so many memories of visitors and employees during the middle of the 20th century. [4]

Footnotes


[1] The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program that carried out public works projects and employed millions of people. The hotel was located where the Denali Visitor Center parking lot is today.

[2] By the winter of 1950-51, an ice skating rink was built adjacent to the hotel, and a ski tow rope near the hotel pulled skiers up the south side of Mount Healy.

[3] Visitation went from 5,205 in 1956 to 25,906 in 1958. The George Parks Highway, which connected Anchorage and Fairbanks, was completed in the fall of 1971 and it cut the drive time to the park considerably. Between 1971 and 1973 visitation jumped from 44,528 to 137,300.

[4] The Hotel Powerhouse is also visible from the Park Road if you look southeast from the Murie Science and Learning Center crosswalk.

Last updated: June 24, 2019