Alaska: Finding Gold Rush tales and roadhouse comforts on the Richardson Highway
ALONG THE RICHARDSON HIGHWAY, Alaska--At least a dozen people died in the winter of 1913 along the old Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, lost in churning blizzards as they struggled to find Yost’s Roadhouse. The two-story log lodge in the central Alaska Range was often so buried in snow that only its stovepipe poked above the drifts. Yost’s was 200 yards back from the trail, making it even harder to find in a storm.
The summer after that deadly season, a Lt. Dougherty of the U.S. Army Signal Corps installed a wire fence across the winter trail to steer blizzard-blind trekkers toward the front door, and a 150-pound bell mounted near the roadhouse would clang whenever the wind blew. Those innovations are said to have saved many lives.
I had heard of these Alaskan roadhouses long before I arrived in Fairbanks early last spring, but I had never seen one. Now bad weather in the mountains gave me the opportunity. I was in this part of Alaska to observe research at nearby Black Rapids Glacier for a book I’m writing. But storms over the glacier had put me on hold for a few days, so I was free to roam the 366-mile Richardson Highway to reconnoiter some of Alaska’s better-known roadhouses.
At one time, the state had more than 3,000 of these inns, which ranged from dugouts to tents to more elaborate log lodges. In the days when Alaska’s trails were negotiated only by dog sled, horse sled or on foot, the roadhouses were a traveler’s haven as well as a peculiar social institution. Typically, a traveler got a hot meal for $2; another $2 got him and his dog team a snug place to sleep. Enterprising pioneers built roadhouses every 10, 15 or 20 miles, usually a day’s dog-sled journey in winter. (The harsh weather was actually easier to travel in because the snow cover made pulling heavy sleds practical. In warmer months, the sodden muskeg and open rivers were much harder to traverse with heavy mining machinery and furniture.)
The roadhouses weren’t fancy: bunk beds with spruce boughs for mattresses or a bare corner to throw your bedroll in. According to one early chronicle, guests at a dirt-floor log roadhouse were served an alleged rabbit stew from a large kerosene can that was permanently settled on an old stove. As the contents thinned with each new diner, more water, rabbit, caribou, lynx or bear--whatever was around--was tossed into the pot.
Other roadhouses were more refined. And some persevered through the early automobile years to become fishing and hunting camps.
Today, only a few of the originals survive, but their relics are easily spotted if you look for them, particularly on the Richardson Highway, which runs from Valdez to Fairbanks. Several are listed on the National Park Service’s Register of Historic Places. Some have become museums, and at least two I found still take overnight guests.
Fairbanks is a good jumping-off point for any search for Alaska’s historic roadhouses. I had already decided to stay at the modern equivalent of these old hostelries: a bed-and-breakfast. Using the Internet, I had selected what turned out to be an uninspired choice, so I soon was grilling the locals at the Miner’s Restaurant & Saloon. One big, affable guy recommended a bed-and-breakfast he knew. He and his female companion were headed that direction on their motorcycle and would show me the way. As they waved me into the driveway of the 7 Gables Inn and said goodbye from their Harley, I noticed the Hells Angels logo on his jacket.
It was a great recommendation. Immaculate, private, inexpensive, with a big greenhouse as an entryway and walls of books, the 7 Gables Inn is a favorite of visiting academics, European tourists and sophisticated Alaskans coming in from the bush to pick up supplies. Gourmet breakfasts are a big draw. One morning the menu was Chinese: egg foo yong, Eight Treasures rice pudding, sausage star won tons, Chinese almond cookies, banana fritters. The second day’s breakfast included almond raisin charoset with an apple slice, blintz souffle with mixed berries, bagel, hash browns and apricot kugel.
Heading south on the Richardson Highway from Fairbanks, the wide, two-lane road runs through stands of white birch and black spruce, often photogenically close to the Tanana River. I glimpsed remnants of original roadhouses at the old yellow Salcha roadhouse, where the Salcha River crosses the highway, as well as a wall or two of the Richardson Roadhouse, now a modest motel.
It takes a couple of hours to drive from Fairbanks to Big Delta, where the trans-Alaska pipeline crosses the river. Big Delta is the home of one of the more elaborate old inns, Rika’s Roadhouse & Landing, once a stopover for trekkers headed to the gold fields of Fairbanks. Today, Rika’s, surrounded by a 10-acre park, is one of the most beautifully restored original roadhouses in the state. The main, two-story lodge has become a museum and gift shop. There’s a modest zoo--ducks, geese and the like--and a restaurant, known in these parts for its buffet, in a newer building.
About nine miles south, at Delta Junction, is another original, the Sullivan Roadhouse, built around 1908 on the Donnelly-Washburn winter sled trail and abandoned in 1922. In 1966, the U.S. Army Legacy Fund, which preserves historic sites, moved the roadhouse across the Tanana River and into the center of Delta Junction, and it’s now a nice little museum filled with hundreds of period photographs. This roadhouse also is a good example of the original exterior construction of many of these early lodges: unpeeled white spruce logs, the spaces between chinked with moss. Sod roofs were later replaced with metal ones.
Iturned south, keeping to the Richardson Highway, and soaked up the raw beauty of the drive into the central Alaska Range. One moment you drive alongside the Delta River. The next, the trans-Alaska pipeline peeps into view. Not quite 40 miles later, I paused at the ruins of the Black Rapids Roadhouse, now aflutter with yellow construction ribbons and other signs of new life.
This inn, which was nearly overrun in 1937 by the glacier I would be visiting, was recently listed on the Park Service register and is being restored as a museum and Alaskan art shop.
“We’re one of the last remaining of the 33 original roadhouses along the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail,” Annie Hopper said over a plate of delectable halibut one evening. “That’s why it’s so important to preserve it.” We were in the kitchen of her handsome home in the woods around Fairbanks, talking about the plans that she, her husband, Michael, and Rich Landon, a co-owner from Colorado, were making to restore this 1902 roadhouse, 38 miles south of Delta Junction. The work began this summer, using volunteer labor and a $50,000 grant from Alaska’s Office of History and Archeology.
The Black Rapids Roadhouse, Hopper told me, was accommodating travelers into the 1990s, long after many of these earliest lodges had closed or burned down--dangerous old stoves and faulty wiring took a toll--or were replaced by newer structures.
The Black Rapids occupies a unique place in Alaskan history: It was nearly destroyed by what many still call the Galloping Glacier. In the stormy winter of 1936-37, a family living in the lodge was surprised to discover that the snout of Black Rapids Glacier, more than a mile wide and up to 300 feet tall, was suddenly bearing down on them. A few glaciers sometimes speed up, advancing as much as 100 times their normal rate for a brief period. Black Rapids pushed forward an estimated 220 feet (two-thirds of a football field) daily during the 1937 surge. It stopped about a mile from the roadhouse, on the other side of the Delta River. Glaciologists later learned that in ages past it had gone much farther, grinding over the river and the current roadhouse site.
I pressed on down the trail, planning to spend the evening at the Paxson Inn & Lodge, which I had been told was a “beautiful old roadhouse.”
Beauty is relative, and what is undoubtedly attractive to a fishing aficionado or hunter was a tad bedraggled to me. It turned out that the original roadhouse burned in 1966. This big, camper-casual place, with its overheated rooms, was built in 1958. The owners are slowly upgrading the place, but they have their work cut out.
I should have stayed up the road in the L.L. Bean-neat new cabins of Paxson Alpine Tours and Cabins, which have an impressive view of Mt. Paxson and are quiet except for the sound of the nearby Gulkana River. Audie Bakewell--formally, Audubon L. Bakewell IV, a geologist by training and originally from New Hampshire--handed me a cup of fresh coffee and showed me around. A respected guide and writer on birds and other local wildlife, Bakewell conducts floating tours into the Paxson Reserve to see the big guys--moose and grizzlies--as well as bird-watching hikes; dog-sled, bicycle and canoe expeditions. He cheerfully pointed out--"See, right up there on that dark branch!"--a bald eagle preening across the river.
With some reluctance, I got back in the car and again headed south. The road gets a bit rougher here, with the occasional pothole and unexpected dip, although nothing an ordinary car can’t handle. And the scenery is extraordinary.
Reminders of the old roadhouses kept popping up. About 20 miles down the road, the fairly new “rustic” cabins of the Meier’s Lake Roadhouse appear. It includes a convenience store and homey restaurant and bar catering to hikers, salmon fishers and cross-country skiers. Twenty-five more miles south is the Sourdough Roadhouse, which still has two old cabins from the original 1903 complex. The new building is now a country restaurant claiming a sourdough starter dating from 1896.
I found my first early roadhouse that still takes guests less than 20 miles farther south, a couple of miles off the Richardson Highway on the Glenn Highway, heading to Tok. (Just across the Gakona River is Gakona Lodge and Trading Post, a seven-acre historic district with 11 original buildings, including the impressive two-story log main lodge that dates from the late 1920s. The first roadhouse, ice house and storage shed from the 1904 inn still exist as well. The old carriage house has been converted to a restaurant of the same name, serving locally admired American food. The Trapper’s Den bar, built in the 1940s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as an equipment shed, is now a comfortable place for a nightcap.
I passed through before the lodge’s Memorial Day opening, but Barbara Strang, co-owner with her husband, Jerry, gave me a look at the lobby, small store and guest rooms. They have removed much of the later remodeling, exposing original log walls in many places. The rooms are small, built to frontier standards but prettily attired in bold-colored curtains and linens.
The other nicely restored roadhouse I ran across that’s still taking overnight guests is at Copper Center, back on the Richardson Highway and south of the junction with the Glenn Highway. The current Copper Center Lodge was built in 1932 on the site of the older Blix Roadhouse, a popular stop in the late 1890s. It’s a beautiful, two-story log building with a restaurant on the ground floor. Copper Center was a base for the effort at the turn of the last century to bring communications to Alaskans. The Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System, whose intrepid labor crews were known as the WAMCATS, set up a telegraph system between Valdez and Fairbanks and upgraded the vital link to the interior that would later be renamed the Richardson Highway. The WAMCATS, as had so many before them, found a warm bunk and refreshment at night at the motley collection of early roadhouses along the trail.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Guidebook: On the Roadhouses
Getting there: From LAX, connecting service (change of planes) is available on Alaska. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $552.20.
Where to stay: In Fairbanks, a comfortable jumping-off point is the 7 Gables Inn & Suites, 4312 Birch Lane; (907) 479-0751, fax (907) 479-2229, www.7gablesinn.com. Big, quiet, modern and immaculate. Breakfasts included. Doubles begin at $90 from May 21 to Sept. 1, the high season.
Individual log cabins on the Gulkana River can be had at Paxson Alpine Tours and Cabins, Milepost 185.6 Richardson Highway, Paxson; (907) 822-5972, www.alaskan.com/paxsontours. Doubles, $120.
Gakona Lodge and Trading Post, Milepost 2 on the Tok Cutoff just off the Richardson Highway in Gakona; (907) 822-3482. The lodge has eight small but clean and cheerily restored original rooms--with two bathrooms down the hall--starting at $90, double.
In the tiny Athabascan town of Copper Center, the restored, 1932 two-story log Copper Center Lodge, (907) 822-3948, (907) 822-3948, often described as the “jewel” of the remaining Alaskan roadhouses, is experiencing a change of ownership. It was reopened year-round on June 15, including the restaurant. Restaurant serves mainly American food 6 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; $7 for breakfast, $15 for dinner. Twenty rooms with private, shared or down-the-hall bathrooms, doubles starting at $99.
Where to eat: In Fairbanks, a diner near the university, Sam’s Sourdough Cafe, 3702 Cameron St., (907) 479-0523, is justifiably admired for its breakfast--particularly the wonderfully tangy sourdough flapjacks.
The Chowder House, 206 Eagle Ave., (907) 452-2882, a casual latte-and-sandwich emporium served an interesting halibut corn chowder, though I later heard that the locals prefer the New England clam chowder.
What to see: Rika’s Roadhouse & Landing, Milepost 275 Richardson Highway, (907) 895-4201, www.rikas.com. Free museum, shopping and park buildings open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily May 15 to Sept. 15. Tours every two hours from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sullivan Roadhouse, in the center of Delta Junction. Now a tidy, free museum of artifacts from the early years, run by the Delta Chamber of Commerce; (907) 895-5068 or (907) 895-4415. Open Memorial Day to mid-September, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Black Rapids Roadhouse, 40 miles south of Delta Junction on the Richardson Highway (Alaska state route 4, Milepost 227.4), (907) 455-6158. For more information: Delta Junction Visitors Information Center, P.O. Box 987, Delta Junction, AK 99737; (907) 895-5063, fax (907) 895-5141.
Alaska Travel Industry Assn., Visitor Information Center, Dept. 3126, P.O. Box 196710, Anchorage, AK 99519-6710; (907) 929-2200 or (800) 862-5275, fax (907) 561-5727, www.travelalaska.com.
Michael Parrish is an L.A.-based writer.