Monthly Archives: March 2015

Documenting the Roadhouses

Haly's Roadhouse, Ft. Yukon, 1900

         Haly’s Roadhouse, Ft. Yukon, 1900

The first challenge in writing a book about the old roadhouses is just finding out which roadhouses existed and where they were. That’s not as difficult as one might at first imagine, because the histories of the trails, the roads they became, and the highways which followed have in most cases been well-documented. Perhaps the best example is the Iditarod Trail, for which documentation is extensive, and quite a lot of it is available online at the Bureau of Land Management Alaska website. In addition to a historic overview of the trail, the site presents old newspaper articles about the trail, information about the modes of travel such as dogteams, riverboats and airplanes, and a chronology of the trail from pre-European contact through the designation of the Iditarod Trail as a National Historic Trail in 1978. The roadhouses of the Iditarod Trail appear in a 1974 publication by the Office of Statewide Cultural Programs, Division of Parks, Department of Natural Resources, and is made available online by Coleen Mielke at this site.

Rika's Landing Roadhouse brochure

Rika’s Landing Roadhouse brochure

Some of the old roadhouses have become historic sites, such as Rika’s Landing Roadhouse, also known as the McCarty Roadhouse, located at a historically important crossing of the Tanana River, near mile 274.5 of the Richardson Highway. The roadhouse, a centerpiece of Big Delta State Historical Park, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. A similarly restored historic roadhouse can be found in Delta Junction at the Sullivan Roadhouse, and many others, such as the Talkeetna Roadhouse, the Manley Roadhouse, and the Meier’s Lake Roadhouse in Paxson, are still functioning businesses, and their histories have also been saved.

Old maps, books, interviews, photograph collections and other sources can all be utilized to help locate and identify the roadhouses, and bringing them all together will be the goal of this new book.

Roadhouse Registers

wpeF7The Alaska and Polar Regions Collections at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, includes photocopies of guest registers from two roadhouses which were located in Knik, on Knik Arm near Anchorage, on the northeastern tip of Cook Inlet.

Pioneer Roadhouse, Knik, 1916

Pioneer Roadhouse, Knik, 1916

The register for the Pioneer Roadhouse covers the time period from December 16, 1910 through December 28, 1913, when the proprietor was F. B. Cannon. At the end of the register are entries for November 1 through December 4, May 8, and September of unknown years, as well as February, 1930 and January through February, 1931. The register for the Knik Roadhouse covers the period from April 1, 1909 through October 5, 1918. The proprietors were Mrs. J. C. Murray (April through November, 1909 and again after August 14, 1911) and Mr. and Mrs. J. B. Smith (December 29, 1909 through June, 1911).

Manley Roadhouse circa 1908. Charles Spicer Collection, 2003-007-08, Archives, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Manley Roadhouse circa 1908. Charles Spicer Collection, 2003-007-08, Archives, University of Alaska Fairbanks

The Manley-Hot Springs Resort Records consist of photocopies of six ledgers dating from 1907 to 1911, relating to Frank Manley’s Hot Springs Resort at Manley Hot Springs. These include one daily log of occurrences at the resort (February to June, 1909); one ledger (1906) and one time book (1907-1908, 1911) relating to Manley’s other business enterprises in the Manley Hot Springs region; and a small book of accounts outstanding (1901-1902) that may relate to Manley’s affairs elsewhere in Alaska. The resort ledgers include a hotel register for 1907-1908, three double-entry account books (1907-1911), a mess account (1907-1909), and a trial balance for 1910-1911. In addition to providing insights into the resort’s expenses, income, and operations and Frank Manley’s involvement in local mining, the various ledgers list many individuals whose names are not found in such common reference works as Polk’s Alaska-Yukon Gazetteer and Business Directory.

Also in the collections are registers and accounting records from the Ferry Roadhouse (1928-1959) located at Ferry, Alaska, approximately 39 miles south of Nenana; and the Kobe Roadhouse (1927-1949; also known as the Rex Roadhouse, at Rex, Alaska, approximately 48 miles south of Nenana.


A Book About the Roadhouses

Draft of a possible cover

Draft of a possible cover for the book. The top image is Mclean;s Roadhouse at Tacotna, 1914. Bottom image is a sign on the old Talkeetna Roadhouse.

For at least two years I’ve been considering a book about the old roadhouses of Alaska, and I have been collecting photographs, maps, interviews, books, videos, and much more in preparation for taking on the huge task of cataloging and describing these historic structures across the state. At first the attempt seemed nearly impossible, a daunting task made even more difficult by the complexities of time and the relentless elements which have utterly destroyed the remains of so many early roadhouses.

I long ago decided there was no way a complete compilation would ever be possible, as the vagaries of time have swallowed up numerous once notable roadhouses. Trails have been shifted and moved by rivers changing course, or by men doing the same, and the roadhouses have shifted and moved with them. Locations have been reported for many years which eventually proved to be wrong, confusing historians and those who would record the often very sparse details. Names have been changed so many times that ascertaining the proper names for many old roadhouses becomes a complex mystery to be solved, often with minimal success.

Faith Creek Roadhouse

Faith Creek Roadhouse, Jack’s Drop Inn, Steese Highway.

And yet there are moments which make the whole process golden and worth pursuing. On a recent winter afternoon some friends and I were privileged to enjoy the very unique museum in Central, arranged to be open for us because friends knew we would be in town for the Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race. They had also arranged for a local historian to be present and talk to us about the old roadhouses of the Steese Highway, which runs northeastward 160 miles from Fox, north of Fairbanks, to Circle, on the Yukon River. The Steese Highway passes through some of the richest gold-mining areas of Alaska, and at one time there were dozens of roadhouses along its length.

Al Cook, the historian for the Central Mining District, spent the afternoon telling us about the old roadhouses of the area. He brought out old maps made in the 1920’s when the Alaska Road Commission had constructed the Steese Highway, and there, in vivid detail and at regular intervals, were the names of the old roadhouses which had once graced the route. It was there in Central, while looking at the old carefully preserved maps, that I realized this book was not only possible, but if done properly it would be a splendid addition to the history of Alaska.