Tag Archives: Fairbanks

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.”

 

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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.

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.

 

1906 Map of Tanana River

 

Lake Salchaket Roadhouse

Lake Salchaket Roadhouse

This map, dated 1906 and part of the Rare Maps Collection, in the Alaska & Polar Regions Collections, at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, show the Tanana River and its tributaries from the Chena RIver to Delta River. Created by E. H. DeWolf, the map shows roadhouses, the telegraph line and cabins along Tanana River. Relief is shown by hachures.

Tanana_River_and_tributaries_Chena_to_Delta_River_Alaska

 

 

 

The map can be explored in large resolution at this link on the Alaska DIgital Archives site. Points of interest shown on the map, from east to west along the Tanana River, are the following roadhouses and other sites:

  • McCathy’s Trading Post
  • Maxey’s Roadhouse
  • Big Kid’s Roadhouse
  • Joe Henry’s Roadhouse
  • 1906 Fairbanks Pcard

    Fairbanks Alaska April 4th, 1906

    Little Delta

  • Salchaket Roadhouse
  • US Military Telegraph Station
  • Maloney’s Cabin
  • Loggers Cabin
  • Piledriver (Roadhouse?)
  • Moose Creek Cabin
  • 14 Mile House
  • Fish Camp Cabin
  • 10 Mile House
  • Fairbanks Telegraph Station
  • Fairbanks Portage (Roadhouse?)
  • Chena Telegraph Station