Category Archives: Richardson Highway

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

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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.

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

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.