Tag Archives: Seward Peninsula

Anna Ruhl’s Deering Roadhouse

Anna Ruhl's Roadhouse

Anna Ruhl’s Deering Roadhouse

The handwritten caption on the front of this photo by early Alaskan photographer Frank H. Nowell, showing three women, five men and three dogs, reads, “Anna Ruhl’s Road House – Deering, Alaska, September 25th 03.” There are two signs on the gable end of the building (to the viewer’s right): one reads ‘Restaurant,’ the other says ‘Bunk Room.’

The village of Deering, located on a sandy spit on the Seward Peninsula where the Inmachuk River flows into Kotzebue Sound, 57 miles southwest of Kotzebue, was established in 1901 as a supply station for interior gold mining near the historic Malemiut Eskimo village of Inmachukmiut. According to Donald J. Orth‘s Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, a post office was located here in 1901 and the name came from the schooner Abbie M. Deering, which was present in the area around 1900.

Illustration from Capt. Winchester's book.

Capt. Winchester’s sketch of the Schooner Abbie M. Deering from his book: “Leaving Lynn, Nov. 10, 1897”

A first-hand account, written by Captain James D. Winchester and published in 1900, relates the story of the wooden schooner Abbie M. Deering, built in 1883, which was bought by a company of twenty men who wanted to sail to the Alaskan gold fields during the Klondike Gold Rush. They left Massachusetts in November 1897, with Winchester, a merchant marine and the only seafaring man among them, at the helm. Capt. Winchester taught his crew to sail en route, and they sailed around the tip of South America, passed through the Straits of Magellan, and arrived at San Francisco five months later. They sold the ship, which was nicknamed ‘Diver,’ according to Capt. Winchester, “for the vigorous way in which she dove into a sea, giving many of us a good wetting in spite of every precaution.”

Records kept by the U.S. Department of the Interior show the schooner did eventually make it to Alaska, and some reports say the community of Deering was settled by its crew. There are apparently no records of Anna Ruhl’s roadhouse at Deering, and an extensive search turned up only the photograph above.

On August 26th, 1903, the town’s namesake, the Abbie M. Deering, departed Nome with a cargo of thirty tons of cigar case and mats, bound for Seattle and way ports. On September 4th, the schooner met heavy currents and an early morning fog, and drifted onto a reef on a small island on the northwest side of Akutan Pass, in the Aleutian Islands. The crew worked for thirty-eight hours trying to pull the vessel off of the reef. The schooner’s master assisted the crew of the U S Revenue Cutter Manning, upon their arrival, in the removal of the thirty one passengers and eight crewmen. The mate was left in charge of the wreck, and all the passengers and crew, except a few who remained in Dutch Harbor, went on to Seattle. The ship and its cargo was reported a total loss. Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 novel Captains Courageous mentions the Abbie M. Deering by name.

Cape Nome Roadhouse

Cape Nome RH

Cape Nome Roadhouse, 1976

Jutting into Norton Sound 15 miles east of Nome lies the headland Cape Nome, which extends inland for about four miles and rises 675 feet from sea level. In 1901, British Admiral and hydrographer Sir William Wharton wrote: “The name Cape Nome, which is off the entrance to Norton bay, first appears on our charts from an original of Kellett in 1849. I suppose the town gets its name from the same source, but what that is we have nothing to show.”

are-you-going-to-cape-nome-1900When large gold deposits were discovered in 1898 the Cape Nome Mining District was formed and the Nome Gold Rush was on. Hopeful miners flocked to the area in the spring of 1899, producing the largest gold rush in Alaska, and the third largest in North America, after the 1849 California Gold Rush and the stampede to the Klondike in 1898. Over a million dollars in gold was taken from the beaches of Nome in 1899, and by 1900 a roadhouse had been built at Cape Nome, constructed with logs hauled by horses from the wooded Council area, some 80 miles to the east.

Cape Nome Roadhouse, circa 1901

Cape Nome Roadhouse, circa 1901

Cape Nome RH 1976

Cape Nome Roadhouse, 1976

Described as “sturdy, squat and convenient,” the first roadhouse was soon added onto, enlarged and reconfigured to become a building which could only be described as incongruous, resembling a New England-style saltbox, which took its name from its resemblance to a wooden lidded box in which salt was once kept. The defining characteristics of a saltbox are two stories in front and a single story behind, resulting in a long sloping roofline. They were often created when a single-story lean-to was added to an existing building.

The Cape Nome Roadhouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and documentation from 1976 notes: “In side profile this is a modified New England “salt box” design, except for the functional practicalities. For here, unlike a true salt box, the front and side elevation features (doors and prominent windows) are reversed. It is doubtful if the design was premeditated. The largest expanse of roof section, sloping from two stories to one, was probably a concession to heavy roof snow, drifting snow and prevailing winds rather than to any aesthetic consideration. The appearance is uncommon for Arctic Alaska at any time––but was even more so in the early part of this century. As an Alaska roadhouse, Cape Nome is definitely unique, atypical.”

Cape Nome Roadhouse, 1976

Cape Nome Roadhouse, 1976

In his Trail Notes for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Don Bowers wrote sobering words about the Cape Nome area: “This can be one of the most dangerous stretches on the race when the wind blows or a storm hits. Mushers have nearly died within what would normally be a few hours’ easy running to Nome. In reasonable weather, this is a pleasant five- to eight-hour run; in the worst conditions, it can be impassable.”

The National Register of Historic Places survey describes the interior of the roadhouse: “Initially the interior was barracks-like; to provide a maximum of sleeping accommodations in two large, unpartitioned rooms which ultilized most of the space; plus a smaller dining room and kitchen. Eventually more partitioning was added. Other slight modifications were made when the use changed to merchandising rather than provision of room and board; and more recently as essentially a family residence.”

jj6317For many years the Cape Nome Roadhouse was an important stopover for travelers on the Nome-to-Fairbanks Trail and later the Iditarod Trail. With the construction of the Nome-Council Wagon Road and the coming of commercial aviation the roadhouse was no longer in demand for meals and lodging, and by 1918 it had become an orphanage for the Nome Methodist Church. It was utilized as an FAA communications station during WWII and into the 1950’s, and at the time of the National Register of Historic Places survey it was a live-in grocery store.

Today the Cape Nome Roadhouse is owned by the Hahn family of Nome. There are some lovely color photos, in which it is referred to as the Old Point Nome Roadhouse, at the online ship log of the sailing yacht Tyhina, including photos of the view to sea and the fireplace inside the roadhouse.

In 1900 a report by a USGS party which included Alfred H. Brooks and Walter C. Mendenhall included a large topographic map of the Cape Nome region.

In 1900 a report by a US Geological Survey party which included Alfred H. Brooks and Walter C. Mendenhall featured a large topographic map of the Seward Peninsula; shown here is the bottom half, which includes the Cape Nome region.

For more information:

Cape Nome Roadhouse National Register of Historic Places papers

A dozen excellent photos of the roadhouse, July, 1980

Cape Nome at Wikipedia

Cape Nome Roadhouse at Wikipedia

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.”