Tag Archives: Richardson Highway

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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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

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.

Rika’s Landing Roadhouse

1280px-Rika's_RoadhouseThe Richardson Highway, originally designed as the Valdez-to-Eagle pack trail and built in 1898 by the U.S. Army, provided an “all-American” route to the goldfields of the Klondike in Canada. The Army kept the trail open after the rush for gold ended, as it was the only direct route between Fort Liscum in Valdez and Fort Egbert in Eagle. In 1902 a westerly branch of the trail, the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, became one of the most important access routes to the Interior during the Fairbanks gold rush. The Tanana was one of the major rivers to be crossed on the Valdez-Eagle trail, and a ferry was established just upriver of the Tanana’s confluence with the Delta River, at a location then called Bates Landing, now known as Big Delta.

1280px-Rika's_Landing_Roadhouse_-_front_-_DSCN0519In 1904 a roadhouse and trading post was built at Bates Landing on 80 acres owned by a prospector named Ben Bennett. The following spring Judge James Wickersham wrote a description in his diary, dated March 4, 1905: “The trading post is on the bank of the Tanana, about 1/4 mile above the mouth of the Delta River. Nothing here except the log trading-post–building 20 x 22 foot with a tent behind–side room 16 x 30 foot and doghouse and horse shed–Indian camp near on river bank.”

1280px-Rika's_Landing_Roadhouse_-_front_-_DSCN0514A year later Bennett sold his land and the roadhouse to Daniel McCarty, and it became known as McCarty’s. By 1907 the McCarty Trading Post and Roadhouse had been transferred to another prospector, Alonzo Maxey, who had built a competing establishment he called Bradley’s Roadhouse. Around 1909, John Hajdukovich, who had come to Alaska from Yugoslavia in 1903, purchased the property from Maxey and built a newer, larger roadhouse, using logs which had been floated down the Tanana River. The new roadhouse was three stories high and could serve forty guests at a time.

Rika's Landing Roadhouse, 1975

Rika’s Landing Roadhouse, 1975

Hajdukovich was also a gold prospector, a freighter, and a hunting guide, and these pursuits led him to become an advocate for the Athabaskan natives of the area, on whose behalf he was instrumental in founding the Tetlin Indian Reserve in 1930, revoked upon passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971. He was appointed U.S. Game Commissioner for the region, and around 1917 he hired Rika Wallen to manage operations at his roadhouse, which at the time was still known as McCarty’s.

Rika Wallen

Rika Wallen

Erika ‘Rika’ Wallen was born in Sweden and immigrated to the United States with her sister in 1891 to join a brother in Minnesota. After their brother died in an accident, the sisters moved to San Francisco, and Rika worked as a cook for the Hills Brothers coffee family. In 1916 Rika Wallen traveled to Valdez, reportedly because she thought Alaska would be like Sweden. She worked as a cook at the Kennecott copper mine and eventually made her way to the roadhouse at Big Delta. According to the Big Delta State Historical Park, “In 1923 she bought it from Hajdukovich for ‘$10.00 and other considerations,’ presumably in lieu of wages. The roadhouse was named ‘Rika’s’ following local custom. Rika operated the roadhouse through the 1940’s, although in later years guests were by invitation only.”

Rika Wallen lived at and ran the roadhouse until the late 1940s, raising poultry and livestock and growing fruits and vegetables which let her serve customers fresh meat, produce, eggs and milk. She passed away in 1969 and is buried on the grounds of what is now a state park. In the late 1970s the roadhouse was lovingly restored and furnished in the style of the 1920s and ’30s with antiques and artifacts donated by residents around Big Delta. The Rika’s Landing Roadhouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as the centerpiece of the Big Delta State Historical Park.

parallel_coverParallel Destinies, a book by Delta Junction author Judy Ferguson, tells the story of John Hajdukovich and Rika Wallen, and the history of the upper Tanana River area.

For more information:

Big Delta State Historical Park

Rika’s Roadhouse PDF 4-page brochure

Ray Bonnell’s Sketches of Alaska

A selection of color photos, interior and exterior

Judy Ferguson’s Parallel Destinies

Rika’s Landing Roadhouse at Wikipedia

Rika’s Roadhouse Facebook page

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.”