Tag Archives: Nenana

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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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.