Monthly Archives: April 2015

Rika’s Landing Roadhouse

1280px-Rika's_RoadhouseThe Richardson Highway, originally designed as the Valdez-to-Eagle pack trail and built in 1898 by the U.S. Army, provided an “all-American” route to the goldfields of the Klondike in Canada. The Army kept the trail open after the rush for gold ended, as it was the only direct route between Fort Liscum in Valdez and Fort Egbert in Eagle. In 1902 a westerly branch of the trail, the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, became one of the most important access routes to the Interior during the Fairbanks gold rush. The Tanana was one of the major rivers to be crossed on the Valdez-Eagle trail, and a ferry was established just upriver of the Tanana’s confluence with the Delta River, at a location then called Bates Landing, now known as Big Delta.

1280px-Rika's_Landing_Roadhouse_-_front_-_DSCN0519In 1904 a roadhouse and trading post was built at Bates Landing on 80 acres owned by a prospector named Ben Bennett. The following spring Judge James Wickersham wrote a description in his diary, dated March 4, 1905: “The trading post is on the bank of the Tanana, about 1/4 mile above the mouth of the Delta River. Nothing here except the log trading-post–building 20 x 22 foot with a tent behind–side room 16 x 30 foot and doghouse and horse shed–Indian camp near on river bank.”

1280px-Rika's_Landing_Roadhouse_-_front_-_DSCN0514A year later Bennett sold his land and the roadhouse to Daniel McCarty, and it became known as McCarty’s. By 1907 the McCarty Trading Post and Roadhouse had been transferred to another prospector, Alonzo Maxey, who had built a competing establishment he called Bradley’s Roadhouse. Around 1909, John Hajdukovich, who had come to Alaska from Yugoslavia in 1903, purchased the property from Maxey and built a newer, larger roadhouse, using logs which had been floated down the Tanana River. The new roadhouse was three stories high and could serve forty guests at a time.

Rika's Landing Roadhouse, 1975

Rika’s Landing Roadhouse, 1975

Hajdukovich was also a gold prospector, a freighter, and a hunting guide, and these pursuits led him to become an advocate for the Athabaskan natives of the area, on whose behalf he was instrumental in founding the Tetlin Indian Reserve in 1930, revoked upon passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. He was appointed U.S. Game Commissioner for the region, and around 1917 he hired Rika Wallen to manage operations at his roadhouse, which at the time was still known as McCarty’s.

Rika Wallen

Rika Wallen

Erika ‘Rika’ Wallen was born in Sweden and immigrated to the United States with her sister in 1891 to join a brother in Minnesota. After their brother died in an accident, the sisters moved to San Francisco, and Rika worked as a cook for the Hills Brothers coffee family. In 1916 Rika Wallen traveled to Valdez, reportedly because she thought Alaska would be like Sweden. She worked as a cook at the Kennecott copper mine and eventually made her way to the roadhouse at Big Delta. According to the Big Delta State Historical Park, “In 1923 she bought it from Hajdukovich for ‘$10.00 and other considerations,’ presumably in lieu of wages. The roadhouse was named ‘Rika’s’ following local custom. Rika operated the roadhouse through the 1940’s, although in later years guests were by invitation only.”

Rika Wallen lived at and ran the roadhouse until the late 1940s, raising poultry and livestock and growing fruits and vegetables which let her serve customers fresh meat, produce, eggs and milk. She passed away in 1969 and is buried on the grounds of what is now a state park. In the late 1970s the roadhouse was lovingly restored and furnished in the style of the 1920s and ’30s with antiques and artifacts donated by residents around Big Delta. The Rika’s Landing Roadhouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as the centerpiece of the Big Delta State Historical Park.

parallel_coverParallel Destinies, a book by Delta Junction author Judy Ferguson, tells the story of John Hajdukovich and Rika Wallen, and the history of the upper Tanana River area.

For more information:

Big Delta State Historical Park

Rika’s Roadhouse PDF 4-page brochure

Ray Bonnell’s Sketches of Alaska

A selection of color photos, interior and exterior

Judy Ferguson’s Parallel Destinies

Rika’s Landing Roadhouse at Wikipedia

Rika’s Roadhouse Facebook page

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Cape Nome Roadhouse

Cape Nome RH

Cape Nome Roadhouse, 1976

Jutting into Norton Sound 15 miles east of Nome lies the headland Cape Nome, which extends inland for about four miles and rises 675 feet from sea level. In 1901, British Admiral and hydrographer Sir William Wharton wrote: “The name Cape Nome, which is off the entrance to Norton bay, first appears on our charts from an original of Kellett in 1849. I suppose the town gets its name from the same source, but what that is we have nothing to show.”

are-you-going-to-cape-nome-1900When large gold deposits were discovered in 1898 the Cape Nome Mining District was formed and the Nome Gold Rush was on. Hopeful miners flocked to the area in the spring of 1899, producing the largest gold rush in Alaska, and the third largest in North America, after the 1849 California Gold Rush and the stampede to the Klondike in 1898. Over a million dollars in gold was taken from the beaches of Nome in 1899, and by 1900 a roadhouse had been built at Cape Nome, constructed with logs hauled by horses from the wooded Council area, some 80 miles to the east.

Cape Nome Roadhouse, circa 1901

Cape Nome Roadhouse, circa 1901

Cape Nome RH 1976

Cape Nome Roadhouse, 1976

Described as “sturdy, squat and convenient,” the first roadhouse was soon added onto, enlarged and reconfigured to become a building which could only be described as incongruous, resembling a New England-style saltbox, which took its name from its resemblance to a wooden lidded box in which salt was once kept. The defining characteristics of a saltbox are two stories in front and a single story behind, resulting in a long sloping roofline. They were often created when a single-story lean-to was added to an existing building.

The Cape Nome Roadhouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and documentation from 1976 notes: “In side profile this is a modified New England “salt box” design, except for the functional practicalities. For here, unlike a true salt box, the front and side elevation features (doors and prominent windows) are reversed. It is doubtful if the design was premeditated. The largest expanse of roof section, sloping from two stories to one, was probably a concession to heavy roof snow, drifting snow and prevailing winds rather than to any aesthetic consideration. The appearance is uncommon for Arctic Alaska at any time––but was even more so in the early part of this century. As an Alaska roadhouse, Cape Nome is definitely unique, atypical.”

Cape Nome Roadhouse, 1976

Cape Nome Roadhouse, 1976

In his Trail Notes for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Don Bowers wrote sobering words about the Cape Nome area: “This can be one of the most dangerous stretches on the race when the wind blows or a storm hits. Mushers have nearly died within what would normally be a few hours’ easy running to Nome. In reasonable weather, this is a pleasant five- to eight-hour run; in the worst conditions, it can be impassable.”

The National Register of Historic Places survey describes the interior of the roadhouse: “Initially the interior was barracks-like; to provide a maximum of sleeping accommodations in two large, unpartitioned rooms which ultilized most of the space; plus a smaller dining room and kitchen. Eventually more partitioning was added. Other slight modifications were made when the use changed to merchandising rather than provision of room and board; and more recently as essentially a family residence.”

jj6317For many years the Cape Nome Roadhouse was an important stopover for travelers on the Nome-to-Fairbanks Trail and later the Iditarod Trail. With the construction of the Nome-Council Wagon Road and the coming of commercial aviation the roadhouse was no longer in demand for meals and lodging, and by 1918 it had become an orphanage for the Nome Methodist Church. It was utilized as an FAA communications station during WWII and into the 1950’s, and at the time of the National Register of Historic Places survey it was a live-in grocery store.

Today the Cape Nome Roadhouse is owned by the Hahn family of Nome. There are some lovely color photos, in which it is referred to as the Old Point Nome Roadhouse, at the online ship log of the sailing yacht Tyhina, including photos of the view to sea and the fireplace inside the roadhouse.

In 1900 a report by a USGS party which included Alfred H. Brooks and Walter C. Mendenhall included a large topographic map of the Cape Nome region.

In 1900 a report by a US Geological Survey party which included Alfred H. Brooks and Walter C. Mendenhall featured a large topographic map of the Seward Peninsula; shown here is the bottom half, which includes the Cape Nome region.

For more information:

Cape Nome Roadhouse National Register of Historic Places papers

A dozen excellent photos of the roadhouse, July, 1980

Cape Nome at Wikipedia

Cape Nome Roadhouse at Wikipedia

Grandview Roadhouse

Grandview roadhouse, Mile 45 Alaska Railroad, circa 1915

Grandview roadhouse, circa 1915 [ASL]

Nellie Neal Lawing, familiar to Alaskans as the peerless “Alaska Nellie, arrived in Seward on July 3, 1915, just as construction of the Alaska Railroad was getting underway, Nellie wrote in her autobiography, Alaska Nellie, that she set out to seek a contract “to run the eating houses on the southern end of the Alaska Railroad,” and she described her effort: “On my first time out on an Alaskan trail, I had walked one hundred fifty miles and as usual was alone. This accomplishment, in itself, might have satisfied some, but I was out here in this great new country to contribute something to others, and I felt this means could best be served by becoming the ‘Fred Harvey’ of the government railroad in Alaska.”

Nellie Neal Lawing and a friend on the porch at the Grandview Roadhouse, circa 1915 (?)

Nellie Neal Lawing and a friend on the porch at the Grandview Roadhouse, circa 1915 [ASL]

Likely due in part to her plucky approach, she was awarded a lucrative government contract to run a roadhouse at mile 44.9, a scenic location she promptly named: “Grandview seemed the most appropriate name to me for Mile 45. Being without paint with which to paint a sign, I found an old blue coat, which I washed and pressed, cut letters for the sign from it and sewed them to a strip of while oilcloth. This pennant was tacked to the front porch in front of the house. Mile 45 was now Grandview.”

Nellie was the first woman to be awarded such a contract. Her agreement with the Alaska Engineering Commission was to provide food and lodging for the government employees; her skill with a rifle filled out the menu, and her gifted storytelling kept her guests highly entertained. According to the terms of her contract, Nellie could purchase supplies from the government commissary, her freight would be delivered at no charge, and she would be paid fifty cents per meal and one dollar per night for lodging. The government employees on the railroad paid her with vouchers, which she turned in monthly for payment.

Nellie described the accommodations at Grandview in her book, Alaska Nellie: “The house was small but comfortable. A large room with thirteen bunks, used as sleeping quarters for the men, was just above the dining room. A small room above the kitchen served as my quarters. To the rear of the building a stream of clear, cold water flowed down from the mountain and was piped into the kitchen. Nature was surely in a lavish mood when she created the beauty of the surroundings of this place. The timber-clad mountains, the flower-dotted valley, the irresistible charm of the continuous stretches of mountains and valleys was something in which to revel.”

Nellie relates the story in her book

Nellie relates the story in her book

One harrowing event Nellie’s life occurred in the dark cold of winter. She maintained a dog team which she used for trapping along the corridor which would later become the Seward Highway. Once during a blizzard the local contract mail carrier, Henry Collman, didn’t arrive when he was expected, so Nellie hitched up her dog team and set out to find him. She located the mail carrier badly frozen in an area which had claimed several lives. Nellie took the young man back to her roadhouse to warm up, and then set off to finish delivering his mail sacks and pouches, which she later learned contained valuable goods, to the waiting train. For her courageous efforts the town of Seward declared her a hero and awarded her a gold nugget necklace, with a diamond set in its large pendant nugget. Nellie treasured her necklace to the end of her days.

Nellie tells another dog team story in her autobiography, Alaska Nellie: “One cold winter day in December when the daylight was only a matter of minutes and the lamps were burning low, two U.S. marshals, Marshals Cavanaugh and Irwin, together with Jack Haley and Bob Griffiths, arrived at the roadhouse. The heavy wooden boxes they were removing from their sleds had been brought from the Iditarod mining district. They contained $750,000 in gold bullion. “‘Where do you want to put this, Nellie?’ called the men, carrying their precious burden.

Alaska Nellie Book Cover“‘Right here under the dining room table is as good a place as any,’ I answered. And it was as simple as that. There it stayed until the men carried it back to the sleds, next day. They were able to go to sleep, for it was as safe right there in my dining room as it would have been in the United States Mint. No one would dare to touch it.”

Alaska Nellie became known far and wide, and the foreword to a 2010 reprinting of her autobiographical book, “Alaska Nellie,” by Patricia A. Heim, sums up her legendary status and shares more about the Grandview Roadhouse:

“Nellie Neal Lawing was one of Alaska’s most charismatic, admired and famous pioneers. She was the first woman ever hired by the U.S. Government in Alaska in 1916. She was contracted to feed the hungry crews on the long awaited Alaska railroad connecting Seward to Anchorage. The conditions were harsh and supplies were limited. She delivered many of her meals by dogsled, fighting off moose attacks and hazards of the trail, often during below-zero blizzards. She always brought with her a great tale to tell of her adventures along the trail, how she had wrestled grizzlies, fought off wolves and moose, and caught the worlds largest salmon for their dinner, always in the old sourdough tradition. The workers listened and laughed with every bite. Nellie was an excellent cook, big game hunter, river guide, trail blazer, gold miner, and a great story-teller! It wasn’t long before Nellie became legendary and was known far and wide as the female ‘Davy Crockett’ of Alaska, her wilderness adventures and stories of survival on the trail spread like wildfire. Letters addressed simply ‘Nellie, Alaska’ were always delivered.”

Nellie at her Kenai Lake cabin at Lawing, circa 1941

Nellie at her Kenai Lake cabin at Lawing, circa 1941

Nellie later operated a roadhouse near the Susitna River, at a railroad camp known as Curry, and then, in 1923, she bought her final home, a roadhouse on Kenai Lake. The railroad stop along the blue-green waters was renamed Lawing when Nellie Neal married Bill Lawing, and together they built the roadhouse into a popular tourist stop on the Alaska Railroad. Vegetables from Nellie’s garden were served with fresh fish from the lake or with game from the nearby hills, and Nellie’s stories, often embellished with her rollicking tall tales, kept her audiences delighted. Celebrities, politicians, tourists and even locals came to enjoy the purely Alaskan hospitality at the Lawings’ roadhouse on Kenai Lake.

Talkeetna Roadhouse

Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures

Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures

According to local historian Roberta Sheldon in an interview for Talkeetna radio station KTNA, the Talkeetna Roadhouse was built sometime around 1916-17 by brothers Frank and Ed Lee, from Michigan, who were freighting supplies to the mines in the Peters Hills, Cache Creek, and Dutch Hills areas west of the Susitna River, in the southernmost foothills of Mt. McKinley.

photo by Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media

Photo by Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media

The 1985 book Knik, Matanuska, Susitna: A Visual History of the Valleys, published by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, states the building was constructed in 1917 by Frank Lee “as a two-story log home, and later expanded with several frame additions.” The book records the physical properties of the Talkeetna Roadhouse building:
Type of construction: Log with corner boards and vertical board and batten.

Description: Rectangular two-story log with gable ends, medium gable roof, 1-story closed frame verandah across front end with shed roof, multi-paned rectangular windows, rectangular door, 1-story frame wing on side, shed roof.

Date of construction: 1917, built as a residence, in use as a roadhouse since 1944.
Belle McDonald

Belle McDonald

Talkeetna’s first businesswoman, Isabella “Belle” Grindrod Lee McDonald, arrived in Talkeetna in 1917 and married Ed Lee, Frank’s brother, a year later. With her brother-in-law Frank Lee as her head freighter, Belle developed the Talkeetna Trading Post, a freighting service, stable, blacksmith shop, and the beginnings of a roadhouse, located half a mile west of the present-day Talkeetna Roadhouse, at the edge of the river. After Ed died in 1928, Frank and Belle continued the freighting business together, and at some point the precursor of the current roadhouse came into service.

In her 1974 book, Talkeetna Cronies, Nola H. Campbell, who owned and operated the Fairview Inn for a time with her husband John, wrote of Belle McDonald’s Talkeetna Trading Post, the forerunner of the Talkeetna Roadhouse: “Belle’s place was like home to many tired, weary and hungry men who came in from the hills. The walls were covered with hanging fur pelts of many kinds:mink, marten, weasel, lynx and wolf. Gold scales, beaver skins, blankets and kits were stacked in the corners, and traps and gear was piled around.”

 
Photo taken between 1969 and 1979. Christine McClain papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.

Photo taken between 1969 and 1979. Christine McClain papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.

In the 2013 book Talkeetna, by the Talkeetna Historical Society, the description continues with a reference to the “two meals a day” standard which would later make the Talkeetna Roadhouse a venerable institution: “Belle served two hardy meals a day, only deviating for freighters coming in late off the trail. She raised chickens and grew vegetables to supplement the wild game, fish, and fresh-baked bread she served at the roadhouse.”

Belle McDonald’s “two meals a day” tradition continued in earnest when Carroll and Verna Close bought the roadhouse in 1951. Verna had come to Alaska in 1936 from Washington state, and Carroll from Oregon five years later. They met and were married in Anchorage in 1946, and for almost 30 years, from 1951 to 1978, they were the proprietors and hosts of the Talkeetna Roadhouse. Ray Bonnell, author of Sketches of Alaska, wrote an article about the Talkeetna Roadhouse and noted the additions referenced in the Mat-Su Borough book: “The roadhouse was purchased in 1951 by Carroll and Verna Close, who promptly built a 26-foot by 48-foot wood-frame shed-roofed addition on the roadhouse’s east side to serve as a kitchen. They also enclosed the roadhouse’s front porch and sheathed the porch and addition with ship-lap siding. Some time later the Closes moved an old Civil Aeronautics Administration building, tacking it onto the back of the roadhouse.”
Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures

Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures

As was tradition at Alaskan roadhouses, dinners were served family style at a long table, with heaping platters and bowls of food passed around between strangers who served themselves. The Closes ran a tight ship: Eggs were always scrambled, only vanilla ice cream was available, and the only breakfast meat available was thinly sliced ham. No exceptions. Reservations were necessary for dinner, and punctual arrival was expected; Carroll was known to lock the front door once guests were seated and late arrivals could eat elsewhere.

LifeIn his classic book, Life at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, Ron Garrett, who worked for the Closes, provides a delightful glimpse into the era, circa 1975: “A special day, generally once a week, was when Carroll baked bread. To see him come into the kitchen wearing a white T-shirt and put on the white apron was the first announcement that it was baking day. Verna would ask how much he was going to make and he almost always said 21 loaves. I never understood the significance of 21 or if that was the number of bread pans they had but it seems as if every time he baked it was 21 loaves. Carroll did the entire operation while Verna would prepare the bread pans. Many times I watched as Carroll worked with the dough, Verna occasionally looking and perhaps making some comments, but Carroll always being in control. I wish I had a picture of him standing there almost completely covered with flour, his arms white, and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. The aroma of the bread baking in the Roadhouse was wonderful. This was plain bread, very good and tasty, without any of the gimmicks or specialties of the present yuppie bakeries.”

The Closes retired in 1978, and the Roadhouse went through good times and bad until 1996, when it was purchased by current owner Trisha Costello. Trisha brought with her an appreciation for the history and tradition of Alaskan roadhouses, and she worked hard to create an establishment which combined the best of the old with new upgrades and memorable hospitality. Dinners are still served family style, still with generous portions made from scratch, and the Talkeetna Roadhouse is still a gathering place for local friends and travelers passing through.
 
 Update April 27: KTUU Channel 2 in Anchorage launched their special feature Road Trippin’ Alaska with a visit to the Talkeetna Roadhouse:

Blix Roadhouse

 Blix's Road House, with Mount Wrangle in the background, Copper Center, ca. 1910

Blix’s Road House, with Mount Wrangle in the background, Copper Center, ca. 1910

Copper Center, near the confluence of the Copper and Klutina Rivers, about 65 miles northeast of Valdez, was founded in 1896 when Ringwald Blix, born in Norway in 1872, and his wife Frances, born in Missouri the same year, built the Blix Roadhouse, one of Alaska’s earliest, for an estimated $15,000. Featuring spring beds and a modern bath, the roadhouse was very highly regarded for its outstanding services and became a favorite among travelers.

Blix Roadhouse, date unknown

Blix Roadhouse, date unknown

The community of Copper Center was further established as a mining camp during the winter of 1898-99 when about 300 prospectors settled in to wait for spring. Seeking an all-American route to Dawson City and the Klondike gold fields, they’d crossed the Valdez Glacier, descended the Klutina Glacier to Klutina Lake, then made their way down the treacherous Klutina River to the new settlement. Of the estimated 3,000 persons who attempted traversing this route, only about 300 actually arrived at the Copper River.

With the establishment of a post office and a telegraph station by the U.S. Army Signal Corps around 1901, and being on the Fairbanks-Valdez trail, Copper Center became the principal settlement and supply center in the Nelchina-Upper Susitna Region, which serviced the rich Valdez Creek mines west of Paxson. In 1903 Copper Center was designated a government agricultural experiment station, but the station was closed in 1909, citing “…transportation of supplies very expensive, insufficient rainfall during the growing season, early frosts due to the proximity of high mountains, and the desire to develop the Fairbanks station where a larger population was already established.” (1910 Report on the Agricultural Experiment Stations, U.S. Government Printing Office)

In 1932 the original Blix roadhouse burned, but it was soon replaced by the Copper Center Lodge, which was featured on the National Register of Historic Places until it was destroyed by a fire in May, 2012.

Sketches of Roadhouses

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 6.52.39 PMRay Bonnell, author of Interior Sketches: Ramblings Around Interior Historic Sites, has sketched and written about several old Alaskan roadhouses, including the Richardson Roadhouse, the Black Rapids Roadhouse, and the Gakona Lodge/Doyle’s Roadhouse.

He wrote about the old roadside buildings at his blog, Sketches of Alaska, in 2011: “Roadhouses were an essential Alaska institution during the early historical period. Situated about 25 miles apart along main trails (and later roads), they provided shelter and food for travelers, and often served as community centers for the surrounding area. As trails and roads improved or were re-routed, some roadhouses fell into disuse. With the introduction of automobiles people could travel further without stopping for the night, and more roadhouses were abandoned or converted to other uses.”

Interior+Sjetches+cove+rfor+blogRay Bonnell’s detailed black-and-white pen-and-ink drawings capture the beauty and the history of the old roadhouses in a way photographs cannot, giving them a timeless quality which invites learning more about these historic reminders of how traveling was done in the past, when a good dogteam or one’s own feet might provide the means of transport. For over 30 years Ray has traveled the highways and backroads of Alaska, capturing the images with his camera and his artistic talents. Since 2010 he has written a column about the historic sites of Interior Alaska for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, and he is currently working on a second book, titled Interior Sketches II, which collects his writings and artwork.

photo-original-1In a later post, dated 2013, Ray wrote about the disappearance of the old roadhouses along the Richardson Highway, a reality which is being repeated on roads and highways and trails all across the state: “We drove the Richardson highway as far south as Sourdough this past week, and I was saddened by the state of most of the small commercial lodges and gas stations along the way. There is nothing left of the Richardson Roadhouse now except an old log garage. The Summit Lake lodge burned down years ago and has never been replaced. Paxson Lodge is in deteriorating condition—the gas pumps aren’t working and only the café is open. Meiers Lake gas station and café are closed. Sourdough Roadhouse is still open, but the owner told me that this summer will probably be their last. If they can’t sell the roadhouse—well, who knows.”

What Ray Bonnell writes underscores the reason I’m writing this book about the old roadhouses: Too many are being lost to time, fires, or just closing because they are no longer needed in today’s faster-paced world. I am indebted to Ray’s beautiful artwork and his informative and insightful writing for helping to preserve some of the history of the old roadhouses while we can.

The Alaska Road Commission

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 9.47.57 PMUntil the gold strikes of the late nineteenth century the Interior of Alaska was only accessible by a network of trails established by the native people of Alaska, which Russian, and later American, traders and prospectors used as well. In the 1870s and 1880s, increasing settlement and prospecting spurred the improvement of these early trails, and many sought an overland route between a year-round port in southern Alaska and the goldfields which were closer to the Yukon River in the north. The US Army began surveying, determined the best route would be north from Valdez, and started construction of a pack trail from Valdez to Eagle in 1898 which would become known as the Trans-Alaska Military Road. The first year, 93 miles of pack horse trail were constructed, and while the trail was only five feet wide in places, it made overland travel to Interior Alaska much easier.

Alaska Road Commission crew in front of the Camp Comfort Roadhouse, on the Valdez-Eagle trail, ca. 1913. [Photograph: Phinney S. Hunt]

ARC crew in front of the Camp Comfort Roadhouse, on the Valdez-Eagle trail, ca. 1913. [Photograph: Phinney S. Hunt]

The Alaska Road Commission, also known as the ARC, was created in 1905 as a board of the U.S. War Department, responsible for the construction and improvement of Alaskan roads. By 1907 the commission had upgraded 200 miles of existing trails, cleared 285 miles of new trail, flagged 247 miles of winter trails on the Seward Peninsula, and built 40 miles of improved road. A significant project was the construction of a spur trail from Gulkana on the Valdez-Eagle route to the mining camp of Fairbanks, a route which would become known as the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, and which would eventually morph into the Richardson Highway.

In 1932 the Alaska Road Commission was transferred to the Department of the Interior; in 1956 it was absorbed by the Bureau of Public Roads, then a division of the Commerce Department, which later evolved into the Federal Highway Administration. With statehood in 1959 the State of Alaska assumed road building and maintenance responsibility, but contracted to the ARC for the work until 1960, when the state ended the agreement with the Bureau of Public Roads, and the ARC was transferred to the state, becoming the Alaska State Highway Department.

Skwentna Crossing Shelter Cabin

Skwentna Crossing Shelter Cabin, circa 1930

The Alaska Road Commission annual reports are a wealth of history and information about the roadhouses which were often along routes constructed, improved, and maintained by the ARC. Detailing the work done and the expenses incurred, the reports also provide insights which may have otherwise been lost to time, such as this notation about the Skwentna Crossing Shelter Cabin on the Iditarod Trail, one of dozens of such shelter cabins constructed by the ARC over the years: “Located at Mile 218 on the Seward-Iditarod-Nome Trail, the Skwentna Crossing Shelter Cabin replaced Joe McElroy and Jack Rimmer’s roadhouse which was destroyed by fire ca. 1925. The Alaska Road Commission had this standard size (12′ x 14′) log structure built around 1930.”

By 1932 the ARC had built 32 shelter cabins to protect travelers along the territory’s roads and trails. A good example is the Brushkana Creek Cabin on the trail between Cantwell and Valdez Creek, at the headwaters of the Susitna River, where gold was discovered in 1903. Artist and historian Ray Bonnell described the cabin in a 2013 feature article for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: “The trip from Cantwell to Valdez Creek took three days, and the ARC, which assumed maintenance of the trail in the 1920s, built three shelter cabins, located 20 miles, 30 miles, and 43 miles from Cantwell. Each cabin was built of logs and had the same dimensions (about 14 by 16 feet). A slightly larger log barn to shelter dogs and horses was erected next to each cabin. The 30-mile, or Brushkana Creek Cabin, is the only remaining ARC shelter cabin along the route.”