Closed for the past 18 months, Haines hotel opens for a community in need

Hundred-year-old hotel with lighted windows in the snow in Haines, Alaska.
Light pours from the entrance of the Halsingland Hotel on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Haines, Alaska. The hotel had been closed this winter, but with all of the town’s hotels full of evacuees and workers who have come to Haines to search for missing residents and help repair damage from flooding and landslides, the owners opened up rooms to help. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Some 50 families had been displaced in Haines due to mudslides and evacuations Saturday. Every hotel in town was full. Except for one: the 60-room Hotel Halsingland, closed for the last year and a half, and currently on the market. 

Rain turned to snow Saturday afternoon in Haines, but that didn’t deter dozens of volunteers and former employees from opening the century-old hotel in the dead of winter. They chopped wood. They dusted, disinfected and vacuumed. They fluffed pillows.

“Today has been hectic,” said Gina Randles as she sat at the front desk, organizing to-do lists while a volunteer chopped wood to feed the stove that warms the lobby.

“It has been amazing, though. It’s been really wonderful. We decided we were going to open up some of the buildings here to try and get people in so they’ve got places to stay. And I put the word out that I needed volunteers and an army showed up.”

The hotel is typically open seasonally for tourists. Owner Jeff Butcher is in the Lower 48, but he and his wife plan to be in Haines on the next ferry, scheduled to arrive Tuesday.

“We didn’t open this summer, but I guess we’re opening this winter instead,” he said.

Butcher said he is working directly with the borough Emergency Operations Center rather than opening the reservation line directly. But if there is an emergency need, he said, resident shouldn’t hesitate to call.

“I must say, our hearts and thoughts and prayers go out to everyone in Haines. This is pretty, pretty terrible. And we’re happy to do what we can to help. And we do have resources. And if someone thinks that we can be of assistance in another way, feel free to contact me. We’re glad to help wherever we can. And however we can,” Butcher said.

The rooms were guest-ready by mid-afternoon, but a few maintenance volunteers worked into the evening. Under the guidance of a long-time former employee, volunteer Michael Calloway lent a hand.

He and Nolan Woodard helped coax the hundred-year-old hotel’s plumbing and heating to life. Woodard works as a carpenter, and said he’s been careful to ask for help so he doesn’t break anything.

“Just kind of helpin’ and trying to give support to the people who actually know what’s going on, and gather up some crews that are just, you know, hammer swingin’ dudes that are ready to help and fix and just kind of be there if we could be supportive,” he said.

He said he feels pretty lucky his own home is outside the evacuation zones. Walking through the old building’s maze-like hall, he pointed out one restroom that’s a particular challenge.

“This is the furthest point from the boiler, this room is, so we turn the water on downstairs real slowly, filling the system, and then we’ve just been going through and slowly opening valves trying to get air pressure out of it and looking for leaks,” Woodard said.

Despite the challenge of jump-starting an old system in freezing weather, there haven’t been major issues so far.

Upstairs at the Halsingland, former employee Brandi Peters ran a final check of toiletries, bedding, plumbing and lightbulbs before shutting off the lights for the evening. She found one tub leaking slightly, and fixed it. The rooms were ready for emergency workers arriving from around the state. Randles popped in from the front desk for a final sweep with the vacuum.

The next day, the borough issued an evacuation warning that displaced roughly a third of the town. The hotel was ready.