Tag Archives: Talkeetna

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.”


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:

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.