Tag Archives: Alaska

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.

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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.”

 

Haly’s Roadhouse

Haly's Roadhouse, built sometime between 1900 and 1916; Jim Haly is one of the men in foreground.

Haly’s Roadhouse, built sometime between 1900 and 1916; Jim Haly, one of the men in foreground. owned and operated the roadhouse from 1901 to 1918.

Jim Haly’s Roadhouse in Fort Yukon was a popular gathering place for residents of the region and for anyone traveling through the Fort Yukon area. Jim Haly was known for keeping a huge kettle of rabbit stew going at all times, and according to Above the Arctic Circle: The Alaska Journals of James A. Carroll, 1911-1922: “During the winter months Jim Haly used to buy rabbits by the hundreds. He had rabbits stacked up like cordwood in his cache. He never took a chance of running out of stock for his famous soup.”

Jim Haly and his wife

Jim Haly and his wife

James A. Carroll, who lived in the Fort Yukon area for over fifty years, wrote a series of journals which were first published in 1957 under the title The First Ten Years in Alaska: Memoirs of a Fort Yukon Trapper, 1911-1922. They were reprinted in 2005 as Above the Arctic Circle, and Carroll wrote: “Jim Haly was a kind old French Canadian. He had married a native woman many years before. He came to Fort Yukon in 1901 and operated the same roadhouse until 1918. “Jim never turned anybody down for a meal or a bunk to sleep on. If you had no money you could stay at the Haly House as long as you wanted to. This generosity kept him more or less broke all the time. Jim’s credit was always good at the local stores and he always managed to pay his bills. Jim Haly and his wife had come into Alaska via the MacKenzie River over the Rat River portage, then down the Porcupine River to Fort Yukon.”

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The photo on the left shows the overland party from the schooner Polar Bear at Jim Haly’s roadhouse in November,1913. The Polar Bear had been chartered to collect natural history specimens, but later also became a whaling cruise because of the high demand for baleen at the time. When the ship was caught by pack ice and forced to overwinter on the exposed coast of northern Alaska, four of the men left the ice-bound ship and traveled south with dog teams, following the Kongakut River. They crossed the uncharted Brooks Range, stopped at Haly’s Roadhouse on Nov. 19th, mushed on to Circle and rode on horse-drawn sledges to Fairbanks, then south to Cordova and home to Seattle in time for Christmas. Captain Louis Lane returned to the north the following spring and met the Polar Bear at Herschell Island; the tough little schooner had come through the winter safely under the skilled handling of her crew.

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In his 1937 book Icy Hell, William E. Hudson, a professional photographer with the expedition and one of the four men who made the overland trek, wrote about their arrival at Fort Yukon: “I spotted the sign that carried the magic words! ‘Haly’s Road House.’ No sign ever gave me such a thrill. We pulled up in front of this most northern hostelry and stopped. A pack of loose dogs arrived on the run and challenged our faithful trail mates to a battle. We took a hand and stopped the fight. We quickly found the road-house kennels and soon had our dogs safely locked up.”

Will E. Hudson, author of 'Icy Hell,' in Unalaska, 1913

Will E. Hudson, author of ‘Icy Hell,’ in Unalaska, 1913

Will Hudson wrote glowingly of Haly’s roadhouse, with good descriptions of the building: “The memory of the first supper at Jim Haly’s Roadhouse will linger with me always. Jim did himself proud on that supper. Haly’s Roadhouse was an institution in that isolated territory around Fort Yukon. It was a typical log cabin such as are built for both public and private use in the Arctic northland. Built of spruce logs, closely fitted and chinked, it was a type of building that was easy to keep warm in that cold region. “Jim’s establishment was about twenty feet wide and at least a hundred feet long. Every time he had felt the need of more room he simply built on a straight line annexe. The front section was about thirty feet long and was used as a combination living-room with about a dozen bunks built two high along the sides. A drying rack was built around the stove so socks and damp clothing could be properly dried while the owner was ‘pounding his ear’ in one of the bunks. Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 6.49.25 PM“Beyond this room was the dining room. Still further back was the kitchen, and even beyond that was Jim’s own living quarters and store rooms for his ample stocks of staple foods. His place had to be stocked for the season. There was no such thing as calling up Jones or Smith, the grocer, every time you wanted a few hams or a case of canned goods. His stock had to come in once a year, from the outside, during the shore season of navigation on ‘Old Man Yukon.’ While his food supplies were shipped in at a heavy expense, Jim’s prices were reasonable and his food surprisingly good.” Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 6.49.46 PMHudson went on to describe the owner of the roadhouse as well: “While resting here I had an opportunity to learn many interesting things concerning the interior from our genial host, Jim Haly. In addition to being a marvel of a frontier cook, he was a mine of information about the northland Indians and traders. Jim was born in Scotland. He came to America as a small boy and journeyed up the Mississippi River in a steamboat, finally arriving in the Yukon in 1875. Jim’s real world was the valley of the Yukon and the Porcupine. He was a big man in that world and a credit to himself. The beds at Jim’s place were just as alluring as the food. They were clean and we were in a passable condition ourselves after scrubbing off the first layer of dirt.” Screen Shot 2015-05-23 at 7.00.37 PM

Fort Yukon is located on the north bank of the Yukon River at its junction with the Porcupine River, about 145 miles northeast of Fairbanks. It is located eight miles north of the Arctic Circle, at the confluence of the Yukon and Porcupine Rivers, in the middle of the region known as the Yukon Flats. The highest temperature ever recorded in Alaska occurred in Fort Yukon on June 27, 1915, when it reached 100 °F, and until 1971, Ft. Yukon also held the all-time lowest temperature record at -78 °F.

Haly's Roadhouse at Fort Yukon, around 1905

Haly’s Roadhouse at Fort Yukon, around 1905

Alexander Hunter Murray founded a Hudson’s Bay Co. trading post near the present site of Fort Yukon in 1847 as a Canadian outpost in Russian Territory. It became an important trade center for Gwich’in Indians of the Yukon Flats and River valleys. From 1846 through 1869, the Hudson Bay Co., a British trading firm, operated a trading post near the present site of Fort Yukon. A mission school was established in 1862. In 1869, two years after the purchase of Alaska from Russia, it was determined that Fort Yukon was on American soil.

Large ice floes on the riverbank at Fort Yukon with Haly's Roadhouse and Hudson Stuck Memorial Hospital in the background (1925).

Large ice floes on the riverbank at Fort Yukon with Haly’s Roadhouse and Hudson Stuck Memorial Hospital in the background (1925).

The Alaska Commercial Co. then took over operation of the Fort Yukon Trading Post. In 1897, the gold rush boosted both river traffic and the white population of Fort Yukon, while disease lowered the population of Gwich’in Athabascans. By 1898, a post office was established. The area became a major Yukon settlement, buoyed by the fur trade, the whaling boom on the Arctic coast and the Klondike gold rush, and provided some economic opportunity for area Natives. But epidemics of diseases introduced by incoming whites plagued Fort Yukon Indians from the 1860s through the 1920s.

Hudson Stuck, ca. 1914

Hudson Stuck, ca. 1914

The community became headquarters for the pioneer missionary and Archdeacon of the Yukon Hudson Stuck, who, along with Walter Harper and Harry Karstens, made the first ascent of Mt. McKinley in 1913. Each winter Hudson Stuck traveled between 1,500 and 2,000 miles by dogsled to visit the missions and villages. In 1908, he acquired a shallow riverboat called The Pelican, which he used on the Yukon River and its tributaries to visit the Athabascan summer camps, where they fished and hunted. He reported that in twelve seasons’ cruises, ranging from i,800 to 5,200 miles each summer, he traveled a total of up to 30,000 miles along the rivers of Alaska. Hudson Stuck died of pneumonia at Fort Yukon in 1920, and was buried in the native cemetery there according to his wishes.

For more information:

Above the Arctic Circle: The Alaska Journals of James A. Carroll, 1911-1922

Icy Hell, by William E. Gordon

Library of Congress

Early Iditarod Trail Roadhouses

Coleen Mielke has compiled the roadhouses of the early Iditarod Trail and presents them with this introduction:

The following information is part of a book called ALASKA’s HISTORIC ROADHOUSES,  a 1974 publication (pages 40-49) by the Office of Statewide Cultural Programs, Alaska Division of Parks, Department of Natural Resources. Many thanks go to its principal investigator: Michael E. Smith for making this information available.

Safety Roadhouse and dogs, on the Iditarod Trail.

Safety Roadhouse and dogs, on the Iditarod Trail.

1944 Alaska Highways

An excerpt from Recreational Resources of the Alaska Highway and Other Roads in Alaska, published December, 1944 by the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service

Sourdough Roadhouse

Sourdough Roadhouse

The Alaska roadhouse is an institution which must be encountered familiarly to be appreciated. There the term does not connote in the least the type of use or misuse which has come to be associated with it in the States. Alaska roadhouses are functional necessities to travel through country populated sparsely or not at all. They are inns or taverns in the honest, Colonial sense, providing food and shelter for the traveler today as they did for his predecessor a generation ago, but now supplying oil and gasoline for the motor car instead of the hay and grain required by its equine forerunner. More, they often serve as trading posts for tributary populations, whether Native or white, sources of supply for pack trains, prospectors, and trappers, the first link in the chain of processes through which the raw pelt becomes milady’s stole. They are post offices as well as general stores, often linking enough functions to become real communities in themselves.

Tiekel Roadhouse

Tiekel Roadhouse

The earlier roadhouses were apt to be sprawling, one-storied, log-buildings, with sod roofs perhaps strangely fitted together. Later came structures of two or even three stories, some of squared logs, others of frame construction, sometimes incongruous with their wilderness settings. In planning for the accommodation of recreational travelers, it would seem a fitting tribute to the part which these buildings have played in the development of Alaska, to adopt the better principles which they have exemplified, with such modern adaptations as would add to the comfort of the visitor without sacrificing atmosphere and precedent.

Continue reading. 

Old Alaskan Roadhouses