Tag Archives: Alaska Road Commission

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.

Advertisements

Slana Roadhouse

1280px-Slana_Roadhouse,_Slana_AlaskaThe 40-mile long Nabesna Road is a spur of the Glenn Highway’s Tok Cut-Off, leaving the highway almost midway between Chistochina and Mentasta and providing access to the northern reaches of Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Originally constructed in 1933 to provide access to the Nabesna Gold Mine in the northeastern corner of the broad Copper River Valley, the road passes one of the oldest existing roadhouse sites in the state.

The original Slana Roadhouse was built in 1912 by a freighter, miner, mail carrier and fur trader, Lawrence DeWitt, to serve travelers on the trail to Chisana, the site of the last great gold rush in Alaska. The first small log roadhouse no longer exists, but the second, larger roadhouse, built in1928, is still owned by DeWitt’s descendents.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 9.59.20 PMWhen gold was discovered along the Chisana River in the spring of 1913, one of the routes to the area was an 80-mile trail which left  the Valdez-Eagle Trail at the mouth of the Slana River and traveled southeast to Chisana. The gold ran out and Chisana dwindled within a few years, but the Nabesna Gold Mine opened 50 miles southeast of Slana in the 1920’s. The mine employed 60 to 70 men, and most of their food, tools and equipment arrived by way of Slana, encouraging DeWitt to build a second, much larger roadhouse.

Born around 1890, Lawrence DeWitt made his way to Alaska around 1910 and settled in with the Ahtna Athabascan tribe of Chief Nikolai, marrying his daughter Belle. DeWitt got the contract to carry mail between Slana and Nabesna, by pack horse in summer and dog team in winter, and he staked a homestead claim where the Slana River ran into the great Copper River, several miles east of the Valdez-Eagle Trail.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 9.58.42 PMIn 1926 the Alaska Road Commission began improving the Eagle-to-Valdez Trail from Gulkana to Slana, and two years later Lawrence Dewitt hired Charlie Smelzer to construct a large spruce log roadhouse, 32 by 45 feet and two-and-a-half stories high. The National Register of Historic Places notes the foundation was rock with vertical wood posts at the corners. The structure’s first two floors are built of three-sided logs nailed into the wood posts, and vertical board siding covers the gable ends of the attic. All of the logs and dimensional lumber used in the roadhouse, including the 10′ 1″ x 6″ flooring planks, were cut on DeWitt’s homestead. He received patent to the land in 1932, and the small community of Slana grew up around his roadhouse. DeWitt provided meals and lodging for travelers, and he supplied horses when needed, keeping a stable of 24 horses and a kennel of 35 sled dogs.

The National Register of Historic Places file, written in October, 2004, describes the interior of the roadhouse. “The first floor has an open room, 19 by 44 feet, that served as a combination sitting and dining room. Wood stoves, including the cook stove, heated the building. The kitchen is at the rear. A hand pump supplied water to the kitchen and to a washroom. Four rooms open off the open room. One room has a stairway to the second floor. A room adjacent to it served as the post office. There is a rear exit centered in the back wall and a small shed roof porch. The second floor is divided into eight rooms, four on each side of a six foot wide hall. Each room has a door and a window. The attic is undivided. Toilets are out back.”

The notes go on to describe other structures which were historically associated with the roadhouse, including a 10 x 15 foot log garage, a 12 by 15 foot log storehouse, a cache, a dogyard with several log doghouses, and a fishwheel anchored to the bank of the Slana River.

Lawrence DeWitt disappeared during the winter of 1937, and was assumed to have drowned in either the Slana or Copper River. After his death, his wife leased the roadhouse to a series of individuals, but in 1953 the Slana-Tok section of the Glenn Highway was realigned and moved a mile to the north, bypassing the Slana Roadhouse entirely. The roadhouse and outlying structures have been used as a private residence by the DeWitt family since that time.

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.”

 

 

 

A Book About the Roadhouses

Draft of a possible cover

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

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

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

Faith Creek Roadhouse

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

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

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