Tag Archives: Ray Bonnell

Talkeetna Roadhouse

Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures

Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures

According to local historian Roberta Sheldon in an interview for Talkeetna radio station KTNA, the Talkeetna Roadhouse was built sometime around 1916-17 by brothers Frank and Ed Lee, from Michigan, who were freighting supplies to the mines in the Peters Hills, Cache Creek, and Dutch Hills areas west of the Susitna River, in the southernmost foothills of Mt. McKinley.

photo by Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media

Photo by Helen Hegener/Northern Light Media

The 1985 book Knik, Matanuska, Susitna: A Visual History of the Valleys, published by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, states the building was constructed in 1917 by Frank Lee “as a two-story log home, and later expanded with several frame additions.” The book records the physical properties of the Talkeetna Roadhouse building:
Type of construction: Log with corner boards and vertical board and batten.

Description: Rectangular two-story log with gable ends, medium gable roof, 1-story closed frame verandah across front end with shed roof, multi-paned rectangular windows, rectangular door, 1-story frame wing on side, shed roof.

Date of construction: 1917, built as a residence, in use as a roadhouse since 1944.
Belle McDonald

Belle McDonald

Talkeetna’s first businesswoman, Isabella “Belle” Grindrod Lee McDonald, arrived in Talkeetna in 1917 and married Ed Lee, Frank’s brother, a year later. With her brother-in-law Frank Lee as her head freighter, Belle developed the Talkeetna Trading Post, a freighting service, stable, blacksmith shop, and the beginnings of a roadhouse, located half a mile west of the present-day Talkeetna Roadhouse, at the edge of the river. After Ed died in 1928, Frank and Belle continued the freighting business together, and at some point the precursor of the current roadhouse came into service.

In her 1974 book, Talkeetna Cronies, Nola H. Campbell, who owned and operated the Fairview Inn for a time with her husband John, wrote of Belle McDonald’s Talkeetna Trading Post, the forerunner of the Talkeetna Roadhouse: “Belle’s place was like home to many tired, weary and hungry men who came in from the hills. The walls were covered with hanging fur pelts of many kinds:mink, marten, weasel, lynx and wolf. Gold scales, beaver skins, blankets and kits were stacked in the corners, and traps and gear was piled around.”

Photo taken between 1969 and 1979. Christine McClain papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.

Photo taken between 1969 and 1979. Christine McClain papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.

In the 2013 book Talkeetna, by the Talkeetna Historical Society, the description continues with a reference to the “two meals a day” standard which would later make the Talkeetna Roadhouse a venerable institution: “Belle served two hardy meals a day, only deviating for freighters coming in late off the trail. She raised chickens and grew vegetables to supplement the wild game, fish, and fresh-baked bread she served at the roadhouse.”

Belle McDonald’s “two meals a day” tradition continued in earnest when Carroll and Verna Close bought the roadhouse in 1951. Verna had come to Alaska in 1936 from Washington state, and Carroll from Oregon five years later. They met and were married in Anchorage in 1946, and for almost 30 years, from 1951 to 1978, they were the proprietors and hosts of the Talkeetna Roadhouse. Ray Bonnell, author of Sketches of Alaska, wrote an article about the Talkeetna Roadhouse and noted the additions referenced in the Mat-Su Borough book: “The roadhouse was purchased in 1951 by Carroll and Verna Close, who promptly built a 26-foot by 48-foot wood-frame shed-roofed addition on the roadhouse’s east side to serve as a kitchen. They also enclosed the roadhouse’s front porch and sheathed the porch and addition with ship-lap siding. Some time later the Closes moved an old Civil Aeronautics Administration building, tacking it onto the back of the roadhouse.”
Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures

Photo by Albert Marquez/Planet Earth Adventures

As was tradition at Alaskan roadhouses, dinners were served family style at a long table, with heaping platters and bowls of food passed around between strangers who served themselves. The Closes ran a tight ship: Eggs were always scrambled, only vanilla ice cream was available, and the only breakfast meat available was thinly sliced ham. No exceptions. Reservations were necessary for dinner, and punctual arrival was expected; Carroll was known to lock the front door once guests were seated and late arrivals could eat elsewhere.

LifeIn his classic book, Life at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, Ron Garrett, who worked for the Closes, provides a delightful glimpse into the era, circa 1975: “A special day, generally once a week, was when Carroll baked bread. To see him come into the kitchen wearing a white T-shirt and put on the white apron was the first announcement that it was baking day. Verna would ask how much he was going to make and he almost always said 21 loaves. I never understood the significance of 21 or if that was the number of bread pans they had but it seems as if every time he baked it was 21 loaves. Carroll did the entire operation while Verna would prepare the bread pans. Many times I watched as Carroll worked with the dough, Verna occasionally looking and perhaps making some comments, but Carroll always being in control. I wish I had a picture of him standing there almost completely covered with flour, his arms white, and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. The aroma of the bread baking in the Roadhouse was wonderful. This was plain bread, very good and tasty, without any of the gimmicks or specialties of the present yuppie bakeries.”

The Closes retired in 1978, and the Roadhouse went through good times and bad until 1996, when it was purchased by current owner Trisha Costello. Trisha brought with her an appreciation for the history and tradition of Alaskan roadhouses, and she worked hard to create an establishment which combined the best of the old with new upgrades and memorable hospitality. Dinners are still served family style, still with generous portions made from scratch, and the Talkeetna Roadhouse is still a gathering place for local friends and travelers passing through.
 Update April 27: KTUU Channel 2 in Anchorage launched their special feature Road Trippin’ Alaska with a visit to the Talkeetna Roadhouse:

Sketches of Roadhouses

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 6.52.39 PMRay Bonnell, author of Interior Sketches: Ramblings Around Interior Historic Sites, has sketched and written about several old Alaskan roadhouses, including the Richardson Roadhouse, the Black Rapids Roadhouse, and the Gakona Lodge/Doyle’s Roadhouse.

He wrote about the old roadside buildings at his blog, Sketches of Alaska, in 2011: “Roadhouses were an essential Alaska institution during the early historical period. Situated about 25 miles apart along main trails (and later roads), they provided shelter and food for travelers, and often served as community centers for the surrounding area. As trails and roads improved or were re-routed, some roadhouses fell into disuse. With the introduction of automobiles people could travel further without stopping for the night, and more roadhouses were abandoned or converted to other uses.”

Interior+Sjetches+cove+rfor+blogRay Bonnell’s detailed black-and-white pen-and-ink drawings capture the beauty and the history of the old roadhouses in a way photographs cannot, giving them a timeless quality which invites learning more about these historic reminders of how traveling was done in the past, when a good dogteam or one’s own feet might provide the means of transport. For over 30 years Ray has traveled the highways and backroads of Alaska, capturing the images with his camera and his artistic talents. Since 2010 he has written a column about the historic sites of Interior Alaska for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, and he is currently working on a second book, titled Interior Sketches II, which collects his writings and artwork.

photo-original-1In a later post, dated 2013, Ray wrote about the disappearance of the old roadhouses along the Richardson Highway, a reality which is being repeated on roads and highways and trails all across the state: “We drove the Richardson highway as far south as Sourdough this past week, and I was saddened by the state of most of the small commercial lodges and gas stations along the way. There is nothing left of the Richardson Roadhouse now except an old log garage. The Summit Lake lodge burned down years ago and has never been replaced. Paxson Lodge is in deteriorating condition—the gas pumps aren’t working and only the café is open. Meiers Lake gas station and café are closed. Sourdough Roadhouse is still open, but the owner told me that this summer will probably be their last. If they can’t sell the roadhouse—well, who knows.”

What Ray Bonnell writes underscores the reason I’m writing this book about the old roadhouses: Too many are being lost to time, fires, or just closing because they are no longer needed in today’s faster-paced world. I am indebted to Ray’s beautiful artwork and his informative and insightful writing for helping to preserve some of the history of the old roadhouses while we can.

The Alaska Road Commission

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 9.47.57 PMUntil the gold strikes of the late nineteenth century the Interior of Alaska was only accessible by a network of trails established by the native people of Alaska, which Russian, and later American, traders and prospectors used as well. In the 1870s and 1880s, increasing settlement and prospecting spurred the improvement of these early trails, and many sought an overland route between a year-round port in southern Alaska and the goldfields which were closer to the Yukon River in the north. The US Army began surveying, determined the best route would be north from Valdez, and started construction of a pack trail from Valdez to Eagle in 1898 which would become known as the Trans-Alaska Military Road. The first year, 93 miles of pack horse trail were constructed, and while the trail was only five feet wide in places, it made overland travel to Interior Alaska much easier.

Alaska Road Commission crew in front of the Camp Comfort Roadhouse, on the Valdez-Eagle trail, ca. 1913. [Photograph: Phinney S. Hunt]

ARC crew in front of the Camp Comfort Roadhouse, on the Valdez-Eagle trail, ca. 1913. [Photograph: Phinney S. Hunt]

The Alaska Road Commission, also known as the ARC, was created in 1905 as a board of the U.S. War Department, responsible for the construction and improvement of Alaskan roads. By 1907 the commission had upgraded 200 miles of existing trails, cleared 285 miles of new trail, flagged 247 miles of winter trails on the Seward Peninsula, and built 40 miles of improved road. A significant project was the construction of a spur trail from Gulkana on the Valdez-Eagle route to the mining camp of Fairbanks, a route which would become known as the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, and which would eventually morph into the Richardson Highway.

In 1932 the Alaska Road Commission was transferred to the Department of the Interior; in 1956 it was absorbed by the Bureau of Public Roads, then a division of the Commerce Department, which later evolved into the Federal Highway Administration. With statehood in 1959 the State of Alaska assumed road building and maintenance responsibility, but contracted to the ARC for the work until 1960, when the state ended the agreement with the Bureau of Public Roads, and the ARC was transferred to the state, becoming the Alaska State Highway Department.

Skwentna Crossing Shelter Cabin

Skwentna Crossing Shelter Cabin, circa 1930

The Alaska Road Commission annual reports are a wealth of history and information about the roadhouses which were often along routes constructed, improved, and maintained by the ARC. Detailing the work done and the expenses incurred, the reports also provide insights which may have otherwise been lost to time, such as this notation about the Skwentna Crossing Shelter Cabin on the Iditarod Trail, one of dozens of such shelter cabins constructed by the ARC over the years: “Located at Mile 218 on the Seward-Iditarod-Nome Trail, the Skwentna Crossing Shelter Cabin replaced Joe McElroy and Jack Rimmer’s roadhouse which was destroyed by fire ca. 1925. The Alaska Road Commission had this standard size (12′ x 14′) log structure built around 1930.”

By 1932 the ARC had built 32 shelter cabins to protect travelers along the territory’s roads and trails. A good example is the Brushkana Creek Cabin on the trail between Cantwell and Valdez Creek, at the headwaters of the Susitna River, where gold was discovered in 1903. Artist and historian Ray Bonnell described the cabin in a 2013 feature article for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: “The trip from Cantwell to Valdez Creek took three days, and the ARC, which assumed maintenance of the trail in the 1920s, built three shelter cabins, located 20 miles, 30 miles, and 43 miles from Cantwell. Each cabin was built of logs and had the same dimensions (about 14 by 16 feet). A slightly larger log barn to shelter dogs and horses was erected next to each cabin. The 30-mile, or Brushkana Creek Cabin, is the only remaining ARC shelter cabin along the route.”