Author Archives: Helen Hegener

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Woodchopper Roadhouse

North elevation from northwest - Woodchopper Roadhouse, Yukon River [Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress)]

North elevation from northwest – Woodchopper Roadhouse, Yukon River [Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress)]

The Circle Mining District records a list of 320 individuals whose names appear connected to claims on Coal Creek, Woodchopper Creek and their various tributaries. Coal claims were the first claims staked in the drainages. Steamboats plying the Yukon River between St. Michael on the Bering Sea and Dawson City and Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory relied on firewood cut during the winter by individuals working as woodchoppers. Steamboats traveling upriver would burn upwards of a cord of wood each hour, and the transportation companies saw coal as a potential alternative to wood, provided it could be located in sufficient deposits, mined and transported to the riverbank.

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 1.45.54 PMThe first placer gold mining claim was filed on Coal Creek in mid-November 1901, by one Daniel T. Noonan, of Delamar, Nevada. Noonan located his 20-acre claim on the right limit of Coal Creek on August 23, 1901. The same day, Daniel M. Callahan also located a 20 acre mining claim in the vicinity of Noonan’s claim. Over the next 48 years there were 565 claims filed on Coal and Woodchopper Creeks. According to the 2003 publication, The World Turned Upside Down: A History of Mining on Coal Creek and Woodchopper Creek, Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, Alaska, by historian Douglas Beckstead (U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service), “During 1905, L.M. Prindle, of the USGS, reported that Coal Creek, Woodchopper Creek, Washington Creek and Fourth of July Creek produced at least $15,000. According to several unsubstantiated reports, the figure had a potential to rise as high as $30,000. Alfred H. Brooks, also of the USGS, reported the same year that the majority of this production came from Woodchopper Creek.”

fig5-1Woodchopper Creek was known by its name in 1898, probably derived from the woodchopping which occurred in the area to provide fuel for the 75 to 100 steamboats plying the nearby Yukon River at that time. The steamship companies contracted with woodchoppers to have the wood ready, and various woodyards were established along the Yukon River. On one upriver trip in 1905, a steamer stopped three times between Circle and Eagle to take on a total of 54 cords of wood. The cordwood piled on the bank in a 1926 photograph of Woodchopper Roadhouse indicated that Woodchopper was a regular stop on the steamboats’ route.

South elevation - Woodchopper Roadhouse [HABS, LoC]

South elevation – Woodchopper Roadhouse [HABS, LoC]

Woodchopper Roadhouse, built ca. 1910, was the oldest and largest log structure on the Yukon between Eagle and Circle. Located halfway between the two towns, on the left bank of the Yukon, approximately one mile upriver from Woodchopper Creek and 55 miles upriver from Circle, the roadhouse housed winter travelers and served as a wood stop for steamboats in the summer. In addition, the roadhouse functioned as post office and town center for the mining community on Woodchopper Creek from the early 20th century until the 1930s. No exact date can be attached to this structure, but it is thought that this building was built at about the time the mining on Woodchopper Creek began to thrive.

Northeast elevation - Woodchopper Roadhouse [HABS, LoC]

Northeast elevation – Woodchopper Roadhouse [HABS, LoC]

The two-story building is constructed of round logs, saddlenotched. The second floor was partitioned into four rooms. The interior walls and ceiling were covered with a canvas or linen material, and the board floor was covered with linoleum, which has been destroyed by flooding. Moss chinking between the logs was covered with cement sometime after construction. Outbuildings appearing in a 1926 photograph include a gable-roofed shed west of the roadhouse, a cabin west of the shed which appeared to be for residential use, dog barns west of the cabin, and a shed northeast of the roadhouse which had lapjointed corners.

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 2.01.29 PMIn the 1917-18 Polk’s Directory, Valentine Smith, a miner, was listed as running a roadhouse on Woodchopper Creek, which was probably this building. This is the last mention of him in any records, and it is assumed he left the area around that time.

Born in Germany in 1861, Valentine Smith immigrated to the U.S. in 1883, first staking a gold claim on Colorado Creek, a tributary of Coal Creek, in 1905. He later staked more claims in association with Frank Slaven and others, and in 1910 he staked his first claim on Woodchopper Creek. It is not known exactly when he began running the roadhouse, but on July 20, 1915, Art Reynolds, on a trip upriver from Circle, “stopt at Mr. Smith’s awhile. He gave us a salmon. Came about four miles above his place, camped for night.”

In 1919 Valentine Smith turned the running of the roadhouse over to Fred Brentlinger, also a miner, who, with his wife Flora, owned a number of lots in Circle, including the Tanana Hotel and Restaurant that they operated in 1911-12. They continued to become increasingly involved in the business community in Circle with Fred Brentlinger serving as a notary public. Between 1919 and 1929 the Brentlingers left Circle and ran the Woodchopper Roadhouse while staking claims on Caribou, Coal, and Woodchopper Creeks.

“U.S. mail leaving Woodchopper Creek, Alaska. January (?), 1912. Beiderman, driver.”

When Fred Brentlinger passed away in 1930, Jack Welch and his wife Kate purchased the Woodchopper Roadhouse from Flora Brentlinger. She went to Manley Hot Springs where, along with C.M. “Tex” Browning, she purchased the Manley Hot Springs farm from Frank Manley. They retained the farm until 1950 when Bob Byers, operator of Byers Airways, bought it from them.

Miner George McGregor wrote to his former partner, Frank Rossbach, in July, 1933: “A fellow by name of Jack Welch and his wife runs the roadhouse now, or at least she runs it, she is certainly the boss. Welch himself is a pretty good fellow. But different with her. She also has the post office.”

It is unclear how long the Welchs had lived in the North Country, as no record was ever located for when they arrived. Jack held the winter mail contract between Woodchopper and Eagle, and he would run his dogteam through the roughest weather to see that the mail got through. But Jack lost the mail contract sometime around the late 1930s, as airplanes were replacing dog teams for carrying mail. Undaunted, the Welchs stayed on at the roadhouse.

Woodchopper Roadhouse [HABS, LoC]

Woodchopper Roadhouse [HABS, LoC]

One spring a huge ice dam piled up in Woodchopper Canyon, five miles below Coal Creek. Miners Ernest Patty and Jim McDonald were spending the night in a cabin located at the mouth of Coal Creek, and in his book, North Country Challenge, Patty described the breakup: “At about three o’clock in the morning, loud crashing sounds woke us up and we jumped out of bed. The river had gone wild with the crushing force of the breakup. Normally the Yukon, at this point, is less than a quarter-mile wide. While we slept, the water level had risen fifteen feet. Rushing, swirling ice cakes were flooding the lowland on the opposite bank, crushing the forest of spruce and birch like a giant bulldozer. Before long ice cakes were being rafted up Coal Creek and dumped near our cabin.
“Then at the same moment we both turned and look at each other. The rapid rise of the river could only come from a gigantic ice dam in Woodchopper Canyon, some five miles downstream. Jack Welsh and his wife lived in that canyon. Their cabin must be flooded and probably it had been swept away. There is no way of knowing if they had been warned in time to reach the nearest hill, half a mile from their cabin. No outside help could possibly get to them now.”

Satellite image showing the site of Woodchopper Roadhouse.

Satellite image showing the site of Woodchopper Roadhouse in relation to the Yukon River.

The entire tragic tale of Jack and Kate Welch is told in chapter two of The World Turned Upside Down, and author Douglas Beckstead continues the story: “As it turned out, the howling of their dogs awakened the Welchs. They found ice water covering the floor of the roadhouse. Jack ran outside and cut the dogs loose allowing them to reach higher ground on their own. Some made it. Some did not. Jack returned with his boat intending to take his wife and make a run for higher ground himself At that point, the bottom floor of the roadhouse was under water and the second floor already awash. As huge cakes of ice slammed against the outside walls, Welch tied the boat to a second story window deciding that it would be better to stay with the cabin until the very last moment because the ice could crush his boat. Jack used a pole in an attempt to deflect ice cakes from hitting the cabin.

“As they waited, the water and ice continued to rise higher and higher until it finally stopped and slowly began to drop. This meant the ice dam was beginning to break. Now the ice cakes were coming with increased frequency and force. In the end, both the roadhouse and the Welchs survived. Years later, Ernest Patty noted that ‘perhaps it would have been more merciful if they had been swept away.’”

Beckstead explains why: “The terror these two elderly people experienced left deep scars. Neither fully recovered from this night of rising floodwaters and crashing ice. Consequently, Mrs. Welch became bedridden. As time passed, people began to comment that Jack was ‘getting strange.’”
Due to the terrors experienced that awful night, and perhaps exacerbated by his penchant for drinking to excess, Jack Welch began suffering from nightmares, and one night he awoke trembling, in a cold sweat, believing that the German Army was marching down the frozen Yukon River, coming for him. He decided that he was losing his mind and would be better off dead, and so attempted suicide with his .22 rifle, but only managed to wound himself. Although crippled with rheumatism, Kate hobbled two miles over the winter trail through the snow to seek help from their nearest neighbor, George McGregor.

Beckstead continues the story: “McGregor hitched up his dogs, placing Mrs. Welch in the sled they returned to help Jack. After giving him first aid, McGregor loaded Jack into the sled making a run up Woodchopper Creek to the mining camp where the winter watchman sent a radio message to Fairbanks. Several hours later a plane arrived and took Jack to the hospital in Fairbanks. Within a month Jack was up and around again. Nevertheless, the shock was too much for Mrs. Welch. She lingered on for a short time after Jack left the hospital until her tired, old heart finally gave out.”
Kate’s death further unhinged Jack’s mind. Unable to accept that she was gone, he returned to the Woodchopper Roadhouse, expecting to find her waiting for him. When she wasn’t there Jack became distraught, and his concerned friends and neighbors radioed the U.S. Marshal’s office in Fairbanks requesting that they come and take him back to the hospital.

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 2.26.25 PMBut it wasn’t to be. Before the authorities could arrive Jack disappeared down the Yukon River in his boat. Some time later reports filtered back from villages along the lower Yukon of a mysterious elderly white man drifting down the river in a small boat, unresponsive to attempts at communication. Eventually reports came back from some Natives hunting on the Yukon delta of a man standing in a boat, shielding his eyes against the harsh western sun while looking out to sea. Jack and his boat floated out into the Bering Sea and were never seen again.

After the Welches were gone the roadhouse was abandoned to the elements. The history of the roadhouse continues in outdoorsman Dan O’Neill’s book, A Land Gone Lonesome: An Inland Voyage Along the Yukon River (Basic Books, 2008): “The Woodchopper Roadhouse was salvageable when Melody Webb surveyed it for the Park Service in 1976. As the largest structure in the preserve to still have its roof on, she recommended it be restored ‘if a lodge is ever needed for the Park. A National Register would give added protection.’ But by 2003, the roadhouse lay ‘in ruins, the roof caved and the upper story fallen in,’ according to a Park Service pamphlet.”

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Black Rapids Roadhouse

Black Rapids RHOf the more than thirty roadhouse which operated on the Valdez Trail, later the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, the Black Rapids Roadhouse was one of the first to open. The nomination form for the National Park Service National Register of Historic Places, filed in December, 2000, notes the period of significance for this roadhouse as 1904 to 1923. The form includes a lengthy narrative description of the complex site and notes the uncertainty of the roadhouse’s beginings: “One source says Peter Findler opened the roadhouse in 1902, but it seems more likely that Joe Hansen and his two sons built the roadhouse in 1904.”

Orr Stage Company wagon on the Chitina-Fairbanks road, 1906

Orr Stage Company on the Chitina-Fairbanks road, 1906

The history, as described by the nominating form, is fascinating. “The Orr Stage Company was one of the first businesses to carry passengers and freight over the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. Rapids Roadhouse was described as a crucial stop for the company’s stages. At the roadhouse, southbound travelers changed from four- and six-horse stages to double-ender sleds pulled by single horses to go over Isabel Pass to Paxson. At some time the roadhouse was said to be a Northern Commericial Company (NCC) store. Later, hunters frequently stayed at the roadhouse. It was described in an early travel guide to the highway as ‘the hunter’s paradise , , ,”

Original main building

Original main Black Rapids Roadhouse building

“The original building has two stories and measures 19 by 25 feet. It is constructed with unpeeled spruce logs. The roof appears to have been covered with sod originally. It is now covered with metal. The roof rests on spruce pole rafters supported by three purlins and ridgepoles on each of the sides of the gable roof. There is a low door opening centered in the facade and a small window opening in the gable of the facade. The shed-roofed arctic entry visible in a 1920 photograph no longer exists. Remains of a stovepipe indicate a stove once was in the center of the lodge. A narrow staircase leads up to the second story at the southwest corner. The second story is divided into two rooms.

“Most of the additions are of unpeeled white spruce logs chinked with moss. Some logs were squared with an axe. Most have saddle corner construction. The additions have, or had, low to medium gable-sod roofs, some covered with corrugated metal roofing. Window and door trims are of hand sawn lumber, hand planed on the exposed sides. Window sashes are hand made and double glazed.

1982 National Park Service photo by Jet Lowe

1982 National Park Service photo by Jet Lowe

“On the north side of the original building is an 82-foot-long series of connected, single-story buildings. The first, about 15 feet long, was probably a kitchen. Its fenestration includes a six pane window measuring 24″ x 24″ in front, a six pane window measuring 33″ x 26″ in the rear, and a small doorway measuring 26″ x 51″ in the southeast corner.”

The description continues in this descriptive vein for paragraph after paragraph, detailing the original lodge, the additions, and the garage, workshop, and storage areas. The current description circa 2000 noted the original building was still standing: “The roof has been braced. Its second floor sags and the staircase is unsound. Much of the wood floor is gone. Some walls are covered with layers of painted canvas and some of the canvas is still intact. The southwest corner has subsided two to three feet and the west wall has buckled. The dirt floor has sunk two to three feet in the center. Logs on the north and east walls appear sound; most on the south wall are deteriorated.”

The report noted that the additions and outbuildings were in various stages of disrepair and added, “the present owners plan to stabilize the parts of the roadhouse standing in 1920. They plan to remove the 1950s addition. Although deteriorated, the building still conveys the sense of a typical roadside business in Alaska in the early 1900s.”

FrankGlaserIn his book Alaska’s Wolf Man: The 1915-55 Wilderness Adventures of Frank Glaser (Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 1998), based on interviews with Frank Glaser done forty years earlier, author Jim Rearden describes the area around the Black Rapids Roadhouse in Glaser’s own words: “From Miller Roadhouse to Black Rapids Glacier Roadhouse I became very excited. This was the kind of country I had dreamed about. With binoculars I spotted white sheep skirting the high mountain crags. A yellow-backed brown-legged grizzly swaggered across a snow field high above timberline. Fresh caribou tracks pocked bars of the nearby Delta River.

“Black Rapids Roadhouse lies opposite 29-mile-long hugely crevassed Black Rapids Glacier; the roaring glacial Delta River separates them. Victor Columbo,  Frenchman everyone called ‘Victor Columbus,’ owned the roadhouse, but he spent most of his time hunting and trapping.

“I remained at Rapids, as this roadhouse is commonly called, for five days, hiking into the mountains and peering through binoculars at distant caribou and at white sheep high on the greening peaks. I saw several more grizzlies, and checked out tracks of foxes, lynx, and other furbearers on sandy stretches of the river bar. This spectacular country, with its on-end sky-scraping rocky peaks tempted me to settle there immediately, but I went on, for I was determined to see Fairbanks, now only 145 miles distant; I could always return to Rapids.”

The intrepid pioneer Fannie Quigley visiting Rapids Roadhouse

Fannie Quigley of Denali Park at Rapids Roadhouse

Frank Glaser did return to the Black Rapids Roadhouse in the fall of 1916 and built a log cabin at Darling Creek, just below the roadhouse. After a stint as an ambulance driver at Fort Dodge, Iowa during the First World War, he once again returned to the Black Rapids area in 1919, and finding the roadhouse for sale, purchased it. With traffic on the Valdez Trail greatly slowed due to the nearly-completed Alaska Railroad garnering increasing freight and passenger business between the coast and Fairbanks, Glaser hired mangers to run his roadhouse while he continued hunting and trapping.

Over the years the roadhouse had a number of owners and operators including Hugh and Lloyd Beckel (1912), Henry Colombon (1916), Russell Robinson (1918), Frank Glaser (1922), Charles Nevilius (1925), Grace Lowe and Evelyn Mahan (1930s), H. E. Revell (1930s), J.B. Coble (1946), Edith Acres (1947), Bert and Mary Hansen (1958-1974), Jerry and Wanda McMillian (1974-at least to the mid-1980s), Earl Tourgeau, and Annie and Michael Hopper.

Looking across the Delta River at Black Rapids Glacier

Looking across the Delta River at Black Rapids Glacier

For three months in 1937 the Black Rapids Glacier made national news by advancing across the valley at the rate of a mile a month, winning the nickname the “galloping glacier.” Otto William Geist, pioneer Alaskan archeologist, paleontologist and naturalist, made the only accurate observations of the Black Rapids Glacier’s 1937 advance, and in an article for the Fairbanks Daily News Miner Geist wrote, “Early in April, four of us, outfitted with heavy survey instruments as well as barometers, cameras, thermometers, bedding, food, and a tent, were landed by plane on the glare ice of the river two miles above the face of the glacier. The next day Harry Revell brought our equipment to the foot of the glacier with his dogs and we pitched our tent less than 300 feet from the face of the glacier. The vast river of ice that stretched for a mile and a half across the valley, twenty-five mile sor more back, and 400 to 500 feet high, seemed to be a living, sinister mass. It rumbled and crashed and shook the earth until we could easily imagine we were in front line trenches. Even the dogs barked at it. While we were there, the glacier’s advance was a little over 25 feet per day. Since it began to move nearly a year ago, it has covered a distance of approximately four miles.”

The old roadhouse and the new Black Rapids Lodge

The old roadhouse and the new Black Rapids Lodge

The 27-mile long glacier has since retreated, but the moraine can still be seen from Richardson Highway pullout. After 10 years of construction Michael and Annie Hopper opened a new 7,300 square foot timber framed, handmade lodge in 2009, on the bluff overlooking the Black Rapids Glacier and Delta River, and began the restoration of the the 100 year old Black Rapids roadhouse located on the road below the lodge. A year-by-year report on the progress of the roadhouse restoration is available at the lodge’s website.

Deadhorse Roadhouse

Dead Horse RH circa 1922In his 2003 book Lavish Silence (Trapper Creek Museum/Sluice Box Productions), about the now-vanished railroad community of Curry, author Kenneth L. Marsh explained that the name of this roadhouse was based on a railroad construction camp beside the Susitna River at mile 248 of the Alaska Railroad: “This, of course, meant it was 248 miles north of Seward, the starting point of the railroad. It also put this camp 22 miles north of the recently reserved townsite of Talkeetna and approximately halfway to Fairbanks. Deadhorse Hill was the name first given the remote camp. It is said that the name was given early on in 1916 when a team of horses fell to their death from the top of a nearby steep hill after being frightened upon seeing a bear.”

Officials in front of the Talkeetna District Headquarters at Deadhorse Hill, August, 1918 [AEC Collection]

Officials in front of the Talkeetna District Headquarters at Deadhorse Hill, August, 1918 [AEC Collection]

The Alaska Engineering Commission constructed a good-sized community at Deadhorse Hill, comprised of several buildings and the Talkeetna District Headquarters for the railroad construction project. In the 1919-1920 Alaska Railroad Record (Vol. IV. No. 14, page 106) it was noted by Col. Frederick Mears, Chairman and Chief Engineer, “…a great deal of work will be required in repairing the old grade constructed in 1917 and 1918 along this 24-mile section as some of it has gone to pieces very badly at several points owing to its abandonment when work was shut down.

“Deadhorse Hill Camp … will be the headquarters for the construction forces during the early spring and summer operations. This is one of the old camps remaining from the early period of construction operations, and it is well laid out and well built from cottonwood lumber sawed at the site.”

Mears Memorial Bridge, completed in 1923, crossing the Tanana River at Nenana [LoC photo taken shortly after completion in 1923]

Mears Memorial Bridge over the Tanana River at Nenana [LoC photo taken shortly after completion in 1923]

Deadhorse Hill became a prominent staging point for supplies and equipment on the northern half of the railroad construction project, which included three important bridges. The first one crossed the upper Susitna River; the second spanned the deep-walled Hurricane Gulch; and the third was at Nenana, where a long trestle approach led to the crossing of the Tanana River. At 700 feet long, the Tanana River bridge was the longest truss span in the United States and its territories, and the bridge still ranks as the longest span of any kind in Alaska and the third-longest simple truss bridge in North America. In July, 1923 President Warren G. Harding drove the ceremonial Golden Spike at the north end of this bridge.

Alaska Nellie Neal with her trophies at Deadhorse Roadhouse

Alaska Nellie Neal with her big game trophies

Because Deadhorse Hill was such a key location, a large roadhouse was built at the site in 1917 to accommodate the construction workers, officials, and occasional visitors. Management of the new roadhouse was given to a woman who was already a much-loved figure on the Alaska Railroad, an intrepid big game hunter and sled dog musher who, for three years, had held the contract for the Grandview Roadhouse at mile 45, at the southern end of the tracks near Seward. Nellie Neal’s gift for storytelling and entertaining her guests, along with her notable skill with a rifle (which assured plenty of meat on the tables), and her selfless bravery in rescuing a lost mail driver with her dog team had elevated her to near-legendary status along the railroad.

Wiry and independent, Nellie took on running the Deadhorse Roadhouse with all the pluck and dedication she’d shown at Grandview, cooking meals on two large ranges for the dining room which seated 125 hungry workers at a time, and filling 60 lunch-buckets each night for the construction crews to take on their jobs the following day. In Lavish Silence Kenneth Marsh described the roadhouse accommodations: “…spring-less wooden bunks, straw mattresses and oil-drum wood-burning stove, all in one large room at the top of a flight of rickety stairs, held together by a warped wooden shell (which, at times, put up an uneven fight against the elements).”

President and Mrs. Harding, 1923

President and Mrs. Harding in Alaska, 1923

In July, 1923, President Harding, his wife, and Secretary of State Herbert Hoover stayed at the Deadhorse Roadhouse on their way to the Golden Spike-driving ceremony at Nenana. The next morning Nellie served heaping plates of sourdough pancakes in her warm kitchen, commenting, “Presidents of the United States like to be comfortable when they eat, just like anyone else!”

With the completion of the railroad came significant changes to the little community, largely in the form of a luxury resort hotel built across the tracks from the roadhouse by the Alaskan Engineering Commission. In 1922 the name of the community was changed to Curry, to honor Congressman Charles F. Curry of California, chairman of the Committee on Territories, who was a strong supporter of the Alaska Railroad.

"At Curry, Alaska, 6/23/'22." [Angier family papers, UAF-1969-89-117]

“At Curry, Alaska, 6/23/’22.” [Angier family papers, UAF-1969-89-117]

Kenneth Marsh included an article from the December 2, 1922 issue of The Pathfinder of Alaska, newsletter of the Pioneers of Alaska, which described the impending demise of the Deadhorse Roadhouse: “The famous old roadhouse located at Mile 248 on the Government Railroad is now singing its Swan Song and will soon cease to function as a hostelry. The camp’s name has also been changed to Curry–named in honor of Senator Curry, Alaska’s friend.

Curry Hotel

The modern and elegant Curry Hotel

“The Alaskan Engineering Commission now has a large railroad hotel nearing completion, which will be modern in every detail. Electricity, steam heat, hot and cold water systems are being installed, telephones, baths, laundry, big dining room and other conveniences all under the same roof as the depot, will ensure comfort to all guests.

“Old timers, however, will always think of the place as Deadhorse and in the same flash of memory will recall the days when Nellie Neal, the proprietor and domineering spirit of the place, reigned supreme.”

 

Sizeland’s Roadhouse

Photo caption: "Sizeland's Roadhouse, 6/20/'22." Bottom left corner of this photo is torn off along with some writing. This photo is a side view of Sizeland's property shown in UAF-1969-89-108 and UAF-1969-89-109. Cabin closest to the camera has a sawhorse in front of the door. A cache with a painted door is located to the left of the cabin; a flat-roofed building sits to the left of the cache. [UAF-1969-89-110]

Photo caption: “Sizeland’s Roadhouse, 6/20/’22.” Bottom left corner of this photo is torn off along with some writing. This photo is a side view of Sizeland’s property shown in UAF-1969-89-108 and UAF-1969-89-109. Cabin closest to the camera has a sawhorse in front of the door. A cache with a painted door is located to the left of the cabin; a flat-roofed building sits to the left of the cache. [UAF-1969-89-110]

I haven’t had much luck finding information about the roadhouse known as Sizeland’s, which was somewhere near Nenana; the only real information I have found is from three fascinating photographs at the VILDA archives, but if my connection of the dots is correct, it’s a chilling story with a sad ending. Like all of the other roadhouse tales, I’m still researching Sizeland’s, but here’s what I have so far:

The 1923-24 edition of Polk’s Gazetteer and Directory includes an interesting description of the village of Nenana:

NENANA. Pop 1000. Situated on the left limit of the Yukon River near its confluence with the Nenana. 60 m sw of Fairbanks, banking point. With the advent of the U S Government railroad this place has grown from a trading post of a few people to one of the progressive cities of the North. Being the first point in Central Alaska where the Government railroad reaches navigable water, immense docks, which were constructed by the Alaskan Engineering Commission, line the waterfront. Has Presbyterian and Catholic churches and Episcopal church and school. A weekly newspaper, The Nenana News, is published. The opening up and developing of the Nenana coal fields, which lie but a short distance south, means a great deal to this town, as well as the whole Tanana district. The Mount Mc-Kinley National Park lies 75 m sw of Nenana, which is the outfitting point for touring parties into this great natural park. Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System. Am Ry Express.

Photo caption: "Sizeland's Roadhouse, Nenana - Fairbanks [Trail? Train?], 6/20/21 [6/20/22]" Surrounding photographs in this collection are dated in year, 1922, so 1921 may be incorrect. This photo shows a man standing with his hands on his hips by the doorway of a cabin facing two other men sitting down. There's a chair to the right of the doorway. Two smaller cabins are located to the left. A dirt path leading up to the larger cabin has been worn away through a dense patch of brush. [UAF-1969-89-108]

Photo caption: “Sizeland’s Roadhouse, Nenana – Fairbanks [Trail? Train?], 6/20/21 [6/20/22]” Surrounding photographs in this collection are dated in year, 1922, so 1921 may be incorrect. This photo shows a man standing with his hands on his hips by the doorway of a cabin facing two other men sitting down. There’s a chair to the right of the doorway. Two smaller cabins are located to the left. A dirt path leading up to the larger cabin has been worn away through a dense patch of brush. [UAF-1969-89-108]

In the directory section there are listings of trappers, miners, longshoremen, fishermen, dozens of Alaska Railroad officials and workmen, and, oddly, a name identified as the “city scavenger.” What is not included, oddly enough, is any listing for the name of Sizeland, or Sizeland’s Roadhouse. Since the photos of the roadhouse are from 1922, this glaring omission a year later struck me as rather odd.

A search for Sizeland and Nenana turns up some interesting and potentially related records.The 1930 Census Record for Nenana, in the Fourth Judicial District, Alaska, United States, includes the following: “James Sizeland lived in Fourth Judicial District County, Alaska in 1930. He was the head of the household, 54 years old, and identified as white. James was born in England around 1876, and both of his parents were born in England as well. In 1930, James was not married. He immigrated to the United States in 1909.”

Could this be the same Sizeland the roadhouse is named after? The dates align properly, and the name is unusual enough that mere coincidence is unlikely.There’s a short mention of James Sizeland in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on January 10, 1930: “James Sizeland, who has a homestead between Fairbanks and Nenana, arrived here on yesterday’s train.”

Photo caption: "Sizeland + horses, 6/20/'22." Bottom left corner of this photo is torn off along with some writing. This photo shows a man on the left side of a fence with his right arm extended, hand upright, feeding two horses fenced in on the other side. Behind the horses are a cache with a painted door, and a flat-roofed log building. [UAF-1969-89-109]

Photo caption: “Sizeland + horses, 6/20/’22.” Bottom left corner of this photo is torn off along with some writing. This photo shows a man on the left side of a fence with his right arm extended, hand upright, feeding two horses fenced in on the other side. Behind the horses are a cache with a painted door, and a flat-roofed log building. [UAF-1969-89-109]

If this is the same person, his fate seems to have been an unhappy one. In the archives of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner there is a brief comment in the April 7, 1932 issue which notes: “With Oscar Luckman in his custody, Deputy TJ. S. Marshal Pat O’Connor left for Seward on today’s train. Luckman, who was adjudged insane yesterday, will be taken to Morningside Sanitarium. At Nenana Deputy H.I. Miler was to board the train with James Sizeland, who also has been committed to the sanitarium. At Seward Luckman and Sizeland will be turned over to Marshal Lynn Smith.”

A 1955 Department of the Interior report still listed James Sizeland as a patient at the infamous Morningside Sanitarium in Portland, Oregon. He would have been 79 years old. A further search, of the hospital’s patient records, shows he passed away the following year.

Tonsina Roadhouse

View of Tonsina Roadhouse, a group of log buildings in a clearing, a sign hanging over the smaller log building reads, in part: "Fred and Jake Tonsina Road House" and a horse stands next to the building. A canvas tent is visible in the background and a dog stands near building at right. [Frederick John, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage UAA-hmc-0379-series2-v2-63a]

View of Tonsina Roadhouse, a group of log buildings in a clearing, a sign hanging over the smaller log building reads, in part: “Fred and Jake Tonsina Road House” and a horse stands next to the building. A canvas tent is visible in the background and a dog stands near building at right. [Frederick John, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage UAA-hmc-0379-series2-v2-63a]

The Tonsina Roadhouse was built around 1900 by Jim Donaldson, and for the first few years it carried his name, the Donaldson Roadhouse. It was located at the junction of the Government trail from Valdez, built by Capt. William R. Abercrombie’s men in 1899, with the Nizina Indian Trail, which accessed the rich Kennicott copper country to the east of the broad Copper River. Utilizing only hand tools, Abercrombie’s soldiers built a 93-mile packhorse trail from the coastal community of Valdez to the Tonsina River, and then built a bridge across the river. The Army Signal Corps constructed a telegraph station at the site in 1902, and a post office was established in 1903. It was discontinued in 1916, re-established in 1930, and discontinued again in 1933.

In 1902 Jake Nafstad and Fred A. Martin added onto the main roadhouse building, added a second livestock barn, and changed the name to the Tonsina Roadhouse. It would later be changed again, to the Upper Tonsina Roadhouse, and it could provide accommodations for up to 60 guests.

Tonsina Roadhouse, 1903

Tonsina Roadhouse, 1903

Historian and author Kenneth L. Marsh shared a few early travelers’ comments in his book about the early days the of the Richardson Highway, The Trail (Sluice Box Productions, 2008). In 1904 one noted “At supper (Tonsina Roadhouse) we had fresh red radishes, lettuce and turnips out of the only garden in Alaska we saw. They were fine.” Two years later another traveled reported “….the one bright spot beyond the Copper River valley was the night we spent at the Tonsina Roadhouse. We had bunks with blankets on them; we had good meals and everything (except the travelers) was clean… Prices were $2 per meal and the same for a bunk.”

Tonsina Lodge, 1920's

Tonsina Lodge, 1920’s

A 1931 travelogue brochure has been uploaded to Murray Lundberg’s expansive ExploreNorth website for travel and history fans, and it includes an interesting entry for what was by then known as the Tonsina Lodge, at mile 80: “Here you may be assured of an excellent meal, or night’s lodging, and should you have the time, good trout fishing is found in the stream by the roadside.”

A footnote: There’s an interesting entry at the Wikipedia page for Tonsina: “The centerpiece of Tonsina valley is the Tonsina River Lodge. This roadhouse alongside the Richardson Highway consists of a bar, restaurant, gas station, convenience and liquor store, laundromat and showers. There is also a camping area, RV park and motel. A main attraction of the roadhouse is the historic hotel. The Tonsina River Lodge is a rambling, shambling, gravel-covered spread, with weatherbeaten buildings. The historic hotel is an orange, three story Army barracks with a red tin roof. It once was a brothel. The lodge is at the end of an airplane runway. The lodge sits in the foothills of several towering, snow-capped mountain ranges, next to a stream.”

This seems in conflict with the current TripAdvisor and Yelp reviews for the Tonsina River Lodge, which give the roadhouse four and five stars and consistently good reports on service and accommodations.

Tonsina River Lodge

Tonsina River Lodge, 2015

Yost’s Roadhouse

Young Margaret Murie

Young Margaret Murie, who would become an ecologist, environmentalist, author, and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor awarded in the US.

In her classic memoir Two in the Far North (Knopf, 1962), about finding love and adventure in Alaska with the great naturalist Olaus Murie, Margaret Murie tells of traveling via dog team and horse-drawn wagon in 1918, over the trail which would become the Richardson Highway. The future author, ecologist, and environmentalist, who would be called ‘the Grandmother of the Conservation Movement’ by both the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, was only fifteen years old, but she was making the trip from her home in Fairbanks to Cordova, where she would meet her father and her brother. At one point she is riding in the sled of a dog driver named French John, and after dinner and a few hours of sleep at the Black Rapids roadhouse, he awakens her to continue the journey south.

“I was tucked into a big wolfskin robe in John’s basket sled sometime around midnight. For now the snow even high in the mountains was thawing and we must still travel at night. But not silently, for John poured forth one story after another of the North, of his dogs, even while he struggled to keep the sled on the thawing, sliding trail which led up and around and ever up, with the high peaks glistening above us.

A dogteam on the Fairbanks-Valdez trail.

A dogteam on the Fairbanks-Valdez trail.

Sometimes John talked to his seven beautiful Huskies in French, and I almost drowsed, snug in the furs, in spite of the bouncing and sliding of the sled on the soft trail. Once I roused suddenly with John’s face close to mine; he was crouching under the side of the sled, his shoulder under the rim of the basket, his voice exhorting the dogs. He was fairly holding the sled by main strength from turning over and rolling down the mountainside, for here the way led across a steep mountain face and the trail had thawed away. ‘Jus’ sit still, don’ be scare. We soon get to Yosts now; dis place here de worse one. Ah! Dere’s de bell!’

Yost's Roadhouse, 1916

Yost’s Roadhouse, 1916

“Bell? I sat up. We had come onto a level pass, and out in the middle hung a large bell in a framework of heavy timbers. A few yards away there was a black hole in the snow, and above the hole, smoke.

“‘Funny places in dis world, eh?’ said John. ‘You know, snow still very deep up here, roadhouse mostly covered. Dis is top of Alaska Range–summit. And dat bell, she is save much people since early days. Wind, she blow like son of gun here in winter–roadhouse always cover in snow. Bell, she only ting to tell us where Yost’s is, see? Wind so strong she ring bell. Whoa, Blackie–don’ you know roadhouse when you right dere?'”

This first-person exchange is echoed in an article written in 2002 for the Los Angeles Times, titled Finding Gold Rush Tales and Roadhouse Comfort on the Richardson Highway. Writer Michael Parrish opens his article with some chilling history: “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.”

Yost's Roadhouse. The tall pole hold the bell which would guide lost travelers to the roadhouse.

Yost’s Roadhouse. The tall pole on the left holds the bell which would guide lost travelers to the roadhouse.

He shares the story of the bell which would help lost travelers find safety and comfort: “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.”

Author Ken Marsh’s epic 406-page history of the Richardson Highway, The Trail (Sluice Box Productions, 2008) shares more about Yost’s Roadhouse. Apparently built in 1905 at the confluence of McCallum Creek and Phelan Creek, on the north side of Isabel Pass, it was a small one-story log building operated by a Mrs. McCallum during the summer and winter of 1905-06. Known at that time as McCallum’s Roadhouse, it was, according to Marsh, “at a pivotal spot… as well as a treacherous area during the winter.” Marsh continues: “Charlie Yost took over McCallum’s in the winter of 1906-07 and enlarged it with a two-story log building next to the old structure. The name was changed to Yost’s Roadhouse, and Charlie was said to have dispensed a basic menu of hot cakes and beans to travelers at two dollars a meal.”

1908 advertisement. "No Better Accommodations for Ladies or Gentlemen on the Trail. Everything Obtainable in the Market is Served at our Tables. Can Accommodate 40 Head of Horses and Have Good Dog House."

1908 ad: “No Better Accommodations for Ladies or Gentlemen on the Trail. Everything Obtainable in the Market is Served at our Tables. Can Accommodate 40 Head of Horses and Have Good Dog House.”

Ken Marsh shared an excerpt from Hallock C. Bundy’s 1910 guide to the Valdez-Fairbanks trail: “The roadhouse at Yost’s is built right on the bank of the Delta River, at one of the most exposed portions of the winter trail, but at the place where it is most needed. At night the big light that is hung outside the door can be seen for a long distance by the travelers coming from Fairbanks and is a welcome beacon in stormy weather.”

A flood of the Delta River in March, 1916 overran the roadhouse. The Alaska Road Commission reportedly used the site as a camp for their men and equipment while working on improvements to the Richardson Highway during the 1920’s and ’30’s, but nothing remains at the site today.

Anderson’s Roadhouse

Pass Creek Roadhouse, Rainy Pass. Photo by Irving McKinney Reed, 1920. [UAF-1968-21-217]

Pass Creek Roadhouse, Rainy Pass. Photo by Irving McKenny Reed, 1920. [UAF-1968-21-217]

Researching roadhouses can be confusing at times, particularly when the same roadhouse is identified by reliable resources as having more than one name. Such is the case with Anderson’s Roadhouse in Rainy Pass, which is identified as the Pass Creek Roadhouse in this 1920 photo by Irving McKenny Reed. Mr. Reed was traveling the Iditarod Trail via dogteam in the winter of 1920 in the company of George Glass and his 17-year-old son, Ophir. In a magazine article about their expedition, written by Mr. Reed for the October, 1965 issue of Alaska Sportsman, he described the roadhouse: “…a long ramshackle log building facing south with a big cache on pilings behind.”

Anderson's Roadhouse, Rainy Pass 1914

Anderson’s Roadhouse, Rainy Pass 1914

Compare that photograph with this earlier one, taken from a slightly different angle, titled “Anderson’s Roadhouse log cabin near creek on approach to Rainy Pass, Alaska, August 1914.” Note the construction and placement of the buildings and the cache behind them. The file for this photograph at the University of Washington explains the origin: “Photograph from album created in circa 1914 by James Lennox McPherson, a civil engineer, that documents the activities of the Kuskokwim Reconnaissance survey party (known as Party No. 11 of the Alaska Railroad Commission expedition). The A.E.C. had assigned McPherson to research the feasibility of building a branch railroad from Anchorage west to the mining districts on the Kuskokwim and Iditarod Rivers.”

Outline of the Anderson's Roadhouse site features, from the Society for Historic Archeology newsletter

Outline of the Anderson’s Roadhouse site features, from the Society for Historic Archeology newsletter

An article in the Winter, 2012 issue of the newsletter for The Society for Historical Archeology explains how new research has uncovered details about the Anderson Roadhouse, citing the 1914 photograph above: “Recent historical research has brought to light archived collections of engineering survey photographs from 1914 and maps associated with a proposed railroad route along portions of the (Iditarod) Trail, which would have opened southwest Alaska to year-round transportation and supplies. One of the archived photos, found at the University of Washington, contributed to the field identification of the Anderson’s Roadhouse site due to the topography visible behind the building that was not evident in other historic photographs. Based on the 1914 photograph, the roadhouse consisted of a log structure with two main volumes and a lean-to addition built onto the south wall. A large cache made of logs and elevated on four posts is visible behind the house. Historic narratives indicated that the site included a ‘kennel’ for 100 dogs, and that the abandoned roadhouse burned to the ground in 1936 during a hunting expedition.”

The file note for Mr. Reed’s 1920 wintertime photo states: “The roadhouse was owned by the Anderson brothers at the time.” So did the name of the roadhouse change at some point between 1914 and 1920? Apparently not, as it was still referred to as Anderson’s Roadhouse in this 1922 Alaska Road Commission report:

Alaska Road Commission Annual Report 1922

Alaska Road Commission Annual Report 1922

For more information:

Article in the Winter, 2012 Society for Historic Archeology newsletter

Anderson Roadhouse, University of Washington digital collection

Pass Creek Roadhouse, 1920, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Irving McKenny Reed at Alaska Mining Hall of Fame