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Woodchopper Roadhouse

North elevation from northwest - Woodchopper Roadhouse, Yukon River [Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress)]

North elevation from northwest – Woodchopper Roadhouse, Yukon River [Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress)]

The Circle Mining District records a list of 320 individuals whose names appear connected to claims on Coal Creek, Woodchopper Creek and their various tributaries. Coal claims were the first claims staked in the drainages. Steamboats plying the Yukon River between St. Michael on the Bering Sea and Dawson City and Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory relied on firewood cut during the winter by individuals working as woodchoppers. Steamboats traveling upriver would burn upwards of a cord of wood each hour, and the transportation companies saw coal as a potential alternative to wood, provided it could be located in sufficient deposits, mined and transported to the riverbank.

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 1.45.54 PMThe first placer gold mining claim was filed on Coal Creek in mid-November 1901, by one Daniel T. Noonan, of Delamar, Nevada. Noonan located his 20-acre claim on the right limit of Coal Creek on August 23, 1901. The same day, Daniel M. Callahan also located a 20 acre mining claim in the vicinity of Noonan’s claim. Over the next 48 years there were 565 claims filed on Coal and Woodchopper Creeks. According to the 2003 publication, The World Turned Upside Down: A History of Mining on Coal Creek and Woodchopper Creek, Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, Alaska, by historian Douglas Beckstead (U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service), “During 1905, L.M. Prindle, of the USGS, reported that Coal Creek, Woodchopper Creek, Washington Creek and Fourth of July Creek produced at least $15,000. According to several unsubstantiated reports, the figure had a potential to rise as high as $30,000. Alfred H. Brooks, also of the USGS, reported the same year that the majority of this production came from Woodchopper Creek.”

fig5-1Woodchopper Creek was known by its name in 1898, probably derived from the woodchopping which occurred in the area to provide fuel for the 75 to 100 steamboats plying the nearby Yukon River at that time. The steamship companies contracted with woodchoppers to have the wood ready, and various woodyards were established along the Yukon River. On one upriver trip in 1905, a steamer stopped three times between Circle and Eagle to take on a total of 54 cords of wood. The cordwood piled on the bank in a 1926 photograph of Woodchopper Roadhouse indicated that Woodchopper was a regular stop on the steamboats’ route.

South elevation - Woodchopper Roadhouse [HABS, LoC]

South elevation – Woodchopper Roadhouse [HABS, LoC]

Woodchopper Roadhouse, built ca. 1910, was the oldest and largest log structure on the Yukon between Eagle and Circle. Located halfway between the two towns, on the left bank of the Yukon, approximately one mile upriver from Woodchopper Creek and 55 miles upriver from Circle, the roadhouse housed winter travelers and served as a wood stop for steamboats in the summer. In addition, the roadhouse functioned as post office and town center for the mining community on Woodchopper Creek from the early 20th century until the 1930s. No exact date can be attached to this structure, but it is thought that this building was built at about the time the mining on Woodchopper Creek began to thrive.

Northeast elevation - Woodchopper Roadhouse [HABS, LoC]

Northeast elevation – Woodchopper Roadhouse [HABS, LoC]

The two-story building is constructed of round logs, saddlenotched. The second floor was partitioned into four rooms. The interior walls and ceiling were covered with a canvas or linen material, and the board floor was covered with linoleum, which has been destroyed by flooding. Moss chinking between the logs was covered with cement sometime after construction. Outbuildings appearing in a 1926 photograph include a gable-roofed shed west of the roadhouse, a cabin west of the shed which appeared to be for residential use, dog barns west of the cabin, and a shed northeast of the roadhouse which had lapjointed corners.

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 2.01.29 PMIn the 1917-18 Polk’s Directory, Valentine Smith, a miner, was listed as running a roadhouse on Woodchopper Creek, which was probably this building. This is the last mention of him in any records, and it is assumed he left the area around that time.

Born in Germany in 1861, Valentine Smith immigrated to the U.S. in 1883, first staking a gold claim on Colorado Creek, a tributary of Coal Creek, in 1905. He later staked more claims in association with Frank Slaven and others, and in 1910 he staked his first claim on Woodchopper Creek. It is not known exactly when he began running the roadhouse, but on July 20, 1915, Art Reynolds, on a trip upriver from Circle, “stopt at Mr. Smith’s awhile. He gave us a salmon. Came about four miles above his place, camped for night.”

In 1919 Valentine Smith turned the running of the roadhouse over to Fred Brentlinger, also a miner, who, with his wife Flora, owned a number of lots in Circle, including the Tanana Hotel and Restaurant that they operated in 1911-12. They continued to become increasingly involved in the business community in Circle with Fred Brentlinger serving as a notary public. Between 1919 and 1929 the Brentlingers left Circle and ran the Woodchopper Roadhouse while staking claims on Caribou, Coal, and Woodchopper Creeks.

“U.S. mail leaving Woodchopper Creek, Alaska. January (?), 1912. Beiderman, driver.”

When Fred Brentlinger passed away in 1930, Jack Welch and his wife Kate purchased the Woodchopper Roadhouse from Flora Brentlinger. She went to Manley Hot Springs where, along with C.M. “Tex” Browning, she purchased the Manley Hot Springs farm from Frank Manley. They retained the farm until 1950 when Bob Byers, operator of Byers Airways, bought it from them.

Miner George McGregor wrote to his former partner, Frank Rossbach, in July, 1933: “A fellow by name of Jack Welch and his wife runs the roadhouse now, or at least she runs it, she is certainly the boss. Welch himself is a pretty good fellow. But different with her. She also has the post office.”

It is unclear how long the Welchs had lived in the North Country, as no record was ever located for when they arrived. Jack held the winter mail contract between Woodchopper and Eagle, and he would run his dogteam through the roughest weather to see that the mail got through. But Jack lost the mail contract sometime around the late 1930s, as airplanes were replacing dog teams for carrying mail. Undaunted, the Welchs stayed on at the roadhouse.

Woodchopper Roadhouse [HABS, LoC]

Woodchopper Roadhouse [HABS, LoC]

One spring a huge ice dam piled up in Woodchopper Canyon, five miles below Coal Creek. Miners Ernest Patty and Jim McDonald were spending the night in a cabin located at the mouth of Coal Creek, and in his book, North Country Challenge, Patty described the breakup: “At about three o’clock in the morning, loud crashing sounds woke us up and we jumped out of bed. The river had gone wild with the crushing force of the breakup. Normally the Yukon, at this point, is less than a quarter-mile wide. While we slept, the water level had risen fifteen feet. Rushing, swirling ice cakes were flooding the lowland on the opposite bank, crushing the forest of spruce and birch like a giant bulldozer. Before long ice cakes were being rafted up Coal Creek and dumped near our cabin.
“Then at the same moment we both turned and look at each other. The rapid rise of the river could only come from a gigantic ice dam in Woodchopper Canyon, some five miles downstream. Jack Welsh and his wife lived in that canyon. Their cabin must be flooded and probably it had been swept away. There is no way of knowing if they had been warned in time to reach the nearest hill, half a mile from their cabin. No outside help could possibly get to them now.”

Satellite image showing the site of Woodchopper Roadhouse.

Satellite image showing the site of Woodchopper Roadhouse in relation to the Yukon River.

The entire tragic tale of Jack and Kate Welch is told in chapter two of The World Turned Upside Down, and author Douglas Beckstead continues the story: “As it turned out, the howling of their dogs awakened the Welchs. They found ice water covering the floor of the roadhouse. Jack ran outside and cut the dogs loose allowing them to reach higher ground on their own. Some made it. Some did not. Jack returned with his boat intending to take his wife and make a run for higher ground himself At that point, the bottom floor of the roadhouse was under water and the second floor already awash. As huge cakes of ice slammed against the outside walls, Welch tied the boat to a second story window deciding that it would be better to stay with the cabin until the very last moment because the ice could crush his boat. Jack used a pole in an attempt to deflect ice cakes from hitting the cabin.

“As they waited, the water and ice continued to rise higher and higher until it finally stopped and slowly began to drop. This meant the ice dam was beginning to break. Now the ice cakes were coming with increased frequency and force. In the end, both the roadhouse and the Welchs survived. Years later, Ernest Patty noted that ‘perhaps it would have been more merciful if they had been swept away.’”

Beckstead explains why: “The terror these two elderly people experienced left deep scars. Neither fully recovered from this night of rising floodwaters and crashing ice. Consequently, Mrs. Welch became bedridden. As time passed, people began to comment that Jack was ‘getting strange.’”
Due to the terrors experienced that awful night, and perhaps exacerbated by his penchant for drinking to excess, Jack Welch began suffering from nightmares, and one night he awoke trembling, in a cold sweat, believing that the German Army was marching down the frozen Yukon River, coming for him. He decided that he was losing his mind and would be better off dead, and so attempted suicide with his .22 rifle, but only managed to wound himself. Although crippled with rheumatism, Kate hobbled two miles over the winter trail through the snow to seek help from their nearest neighbor, George McGregor.

Beckstead continues the story: “McGregor hitched up his dogs, placing Mrs. Welch in the sled they returned to help Jack. After giving him first aid, McGregor loaded Jack into the sled making a run up Woodchopper Creek to the mining camp where the winter watchman sent a radio message to Fairbanks. Several hours later a plane arrived and took Jack to the hospital in Fairbanks. Within a month Jack was up and around again. Nevertheless, the shock was too much for Mrs. Welch. She lingered on for a short time after Jack left the hospital until her tired, old heart finally gave out.”
Kate’s death further unhinged Jack’s mind. Unable to accept that she was gone, he returned to the Woodchopper Roadhouse, expecting to find her waiting for him. When she wasn’t there Jack became distraught, and his concerned friends and neighbors radioed the U.S. Marshal’s office in Fairbanks requesting that they come and take him back to the hospital.

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 2.26.25 PMBut it wasn’t to be. Before the authorities could arrive Jack disappeared down the Yukon River in his boat. Some time later reports filtered back from villages along the lower Yukon of a mysterious elderly white man drifting down the river in a small boat, unresponsive to attempts at communication. Eventually reports came back from some Natives hunting on the Yukon delta of a man standing in a boat, shielding his eyes against the harsh western sun while looking out to sea. Jack and his boat floated out into the Bering Sea and were never seen again.

After the Welches were gone the roadhouse was abandoned to the elements. The history of the roadhouse continues in outdoorsman Dan O’Neill’s book, A Land Gone Lonesome: An Inland Voyage Along the Yukon River (Basic Books, 2008): “The Woodchopper Roadhouse was salvageable when Melody Webb surveyed it for the Park Service in 1976. As the largest structure in the preserve to still have its roof on, she recommended it be restored ‘if a lodge is ever needed for the Park. A National Register would give added protection.’ But by 2003, the roadhouse lay ‘in ruins, the roof caved and the upper story fallen in,’ according to a Park Service pamphlet.”

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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.”

 

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

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

Kantishna Roadhouse

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“Horse-drawn sled loaded with freight and passengers stands in front of Eureka Road House.”

The Eureka Roadhouse, shown in the photo to the left, is titled: “Horse-drawn sled loaded with freight and passengers stands in front of Eureka Road House.”

This unusual photograph of a six-horse team is from the Alaska State Library’s William R. Norton Collection of Photographs [ASL-PCA-226 Identifier ASL-P226-776], and the location is given as Kantishna, Denali National Park and Preserve, McKinley Park Region, Interior Alaska.

Kantishna

Kantishna, 1922

The community of Kantishna was founded as a gold mining camp in 1905, and like many such camps, was originally called by the popular goldrush name “Eureka.” On the north side of Mt. McKinley, with an elevation of 1,696 feet, Kantishna was in the Kantishna Hills at the junction of Eureka Creek and Moose Creek, three miles north and west of scenic Wonder Lake. Several such camps sprouted with the discovery of gold in the area in 1904, but the settlement which would become known as Kantishna was located closest to the gold-producing creeks. As the nearby gold camps were abandoned, those who stayed in the area migrated to Kantishna, and a post office by that name was established in 1905, officially changing the name of the community.

Johnny Buscia and Bill Julian, two of the last area miners, at the Kantishna Roadhouse

Johnny Buscia and Bill Julian, two of the last miners living in the area, at the Kantishna Roadhouse

The Kantishna stampede was the result of relatively simultaneous gold discoveries by Joe Dalton on Eureka Creek and Joe Quigley on Glacier Creek. News of these discoveries in June of 1905 brought thousands of prospectors into the area. Towns such as Diamond, Glacier City, and Roosevelt were quickly established as supply points along the northern river routes used by the stampeders to reach the gold fields of the Kantishna Hills, and in very short order most of the creeks in the Kantishna Hills were staked their entire length. In 1909, a land recording office was established, with local miner Bill Lloyd serving as the first commissioner of Kantishna. In 1919 U.S. Geological Survey geologist Stephen R. Capps reported “since 1906 the population of the Kantishna district had remained nearly stationary, ranging from 30 to 50.”

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 10.05.44 AMIn 1919-20, C. Herbert Wilson became Kantishna’s commissioner, and he  constructed the two-story log building which would become the Kantishna roadhouse as a residence for his family. Over the years, the large structure became a focal point of the community, serving as the post office, commissioner’s office, a community gathering spot and a place for travelers to spend the night. The historic Kantishna Roadhouse still stands on its original site, while nearby is the modern facility and popular tourist destination of the same name.

For more information:

Kantishna Gold!

Snapshots from the Past: A Roadside History of Denali National Park and Preserve, by Jane Bryant (NPS, US Dept. of the Interior, 2011)

Kantishna Hills Pioneers, 30 minute documentary, free to watch online

Kantishna—Mushers, Miners, Mountaineers, The Pioneer Story Behind Mount McKinley National Park, by Tom Walker (Pictorial Histories Publishing, 2006)

Kantishna at Wikipedia

Fannie Quigley, longtime Kantishna resident

 

 

Grandview Roadhouse

Grandview roadhouse, Mile 45 Alaska Railroad, circa 1915

Grandview roadhouse, circa 1915 [ASL]

Nellie Neal Lawing, familiar to Alaskans as the peerless “Alaska Nellie, arrived in Seward on July 3, 1915, just as construction of the Alaska Railroad was getting underway, Nellie wrote in her autobiography, Alaska Nellie, that she set out to seek a contract “to run the eating houses on the southern end of the Alaska Railroad,” and she described her effort: “On my first time out on an Alaskan trail, I had walked one hundred fifty miles and as usual was alone. This accomplishment, in itself, might have satisfied some, but I was out here in this great new country to contribute something to others, and I felt this means could best be served by becoming the ‘Fred Harvey’ of the government railroad in Alaska.”

Nellie Neal Lawing and a friend on the porch at the Grandview Roadhouse, circa 1915 (?)

Nellie Neal Lawing and a friend on the porch at the Grandview Roadhouse, circa 1915 [ASL]

Likely due in part to her plucky approach, she was awarded a lucrative government contract to run a roadhouse at mile 44.9, a scenic location she promptly named: “Grandview seemed the most appropriate name to me for Mile 45. Being without paint with which to paint a sign, I found an old blue coat, which I washed and pressed, cut letters for the sign from it and sewed them to a strip of while oilcloth. This pennant was tacked to the front porch in front of the house. Mile 45 was now Grandview.”

Nellie was the first woman to be awarded such a contract. Her agreement with the Alaska Engineering Commission was to provide food and lodging for the government employees; her skill with a rifle filled out the menu, and her gifted storytelling kept her guests highly entertained. According to the terms of her contract, Nellie could purchase supplies from the government commissary, her freight would be delivered at no charge, and she would be paid fifty cents per meal and one dollar per night for lodging. The government employees on the railroad paid her with vouchers, which she turned in monthly for payment.

Nellie described the accommodations at Grandview in her book, Alaska Nellie: “The house was small but comfortable. A large room with thirteen bunks, used as sleeping quarters for the men, was just above the dining room. A small room above the kitchen served as my quarters. To the rear of the building a stream of clear, cold water flowed down from the mountain and was piped into the kitchen. Nature was surely in a lavish mood when she created the beauty of the surroundings of this place. The timber-clad mountains, the flower-dotted valley, the irresistible charm of the continuous stretches of mountains and valleys was something in which to revel.”

Nellie relates the story in her book

Nellie relates the story in her book

One harrowing event Nellie’s life occurred in the dark cold of winter. She maintained a dog team which she used for trapping along the corridor which would later become the Seward Highway. Once during a blizzard the local contract mail carrier, Henry Collman, didn’t arrive when he was expected, so Nellie hitched up her dog team and set out to find him. She located the mail carrier badly frozen in an area which had claimed several lives. Nellie took the young man back to her roadhouse to warm up, and then set off to finish delivering his mail sacks and pouches, which she later learned contained valuable goods, to the waiting train. For her courageous efforts the town of Seward declared her a hero and awarded her a gold nugget necklace, with a diamond set in its large pendant nugget. Nellie treasured her necklace to the end of her days.

Nellie tells another dog team story in her autobiography, Alaska Nellie: “One cold winter day in December when the daylight was only a matter of minutes and the lamps were burning low, two U.S. marshals, Marshals Cavanaugh and Irwin, together with Jack Haley and Bob Griffiths, arrived at the roadhouse. The heavy wooden boxes they were removing from their sleds had been brought from the Iditarod mining district. They contained $750,000 in gold bullion. “‘Where do you want to put this, Nellie?’ called the men, carrying their precious burden.

Alaska Nellie Book Cover“‘Right here under the dining room table is as good a place as any,’ I answered. And it was as simple as that. There it stayed until the men carried it back to the sleds, next day. They were able to go to sleep, for it was as safe right there in my dining room as it would have been in the United States Mint. No one would dare to touch it.”

Alaska Nellie became known far and wide, and the foreword to a 2010 reprinting of her autobiographical book, “Alaska Nellie,” by Patricia A. Heim, sums up her legendary status and shares more about the Grandview Roadhouse:

“Nellie Neal Lawing was one of Alaska’s most charismatic, admired and famous pioneers. She was the first woman ever hired by the U.S. Government in Alaska in 1916. She was contracted to feed the hungry crews on the long awaited Alaska railroad connecting Seward to Anchorage. The conditions were harsh and supplies were limited. She delivered many of her meals by dogsled, fighting off moose attacks and hazards of the trail, often during below-zero blizzards. She always brought with her a great tale to tell of her adventures along the trail, how she had wrestled grizzlies, fought off wolves and moose, and caught the worlds largest salmon for their dinner, always in the old sourdough tradition. The workers listened and laughed with every bite. Nellie was an excellent cook, big game hunter, river guide, trail blazer, gold miner, and a great story-teller! It wasn’t long before Nellie became legendary and was known far and wide as the female ‘Davy Crockett’ of Alaska, her wilderness adventures and stories of survival on the trail spread like wildfire. Letters addressed simply ‘Nellie, Alaska’ were always delivered.”

Nellie at her Kenai Lake cabin at Lawing, circa 1941

Nellie at her Kenai Lake cabin at Lawing, circa 1941

Nellie later operated a roadhouse near the Susitna River, at a railroad camp known as Curry, and then, in 1923, she bought her final home, a roadhouse on Kenai Lake. The railroad stop along the blue-green waters was renamed Lawing when Nellie Neal married Bill Lawing, and together they built the roadhouse into a popular tourist stop on the Alaska Railroad. Vegetables from Nellie’s garden were served with fresh fish from the lake or with game from the nearby hills, and Nellie’s stories, often embellished with her rollicking tall tales, kept her audiences delighted. Celebrities, politicians, tourists and even locals came to enjoy the purely Alaskan hospitality at the Lawings’ roadhouse on Kenai Lake.

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.