Tag Archives: Tanana RIver

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.”

 

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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

1906 Map of Tanana River

 

Lake Salchaket Roadhouse

Lake Salchaket Roadhouse

This map, dated 1906 and part of the Rare Maps Collection, in the Alaska & Polar Regions Collections, at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, show the Tanana River and its tributaries from the Chena RIver to Delta River. Created by E. H. DeWolf, the map shows roadhouses, the telegraph line and cabins along Tanana River. Relief is shown by hachures.

Tanana_River_and_tributaries_Chena_to_Delta_River_Alaska

 

 

 

The map can be explored in large resolution at this link on the Alaska DIgital Archives site. Points of interest shown on the map, from east to west along the Tanana River, are the following roadhouses and other sites:

  • McCathy’s Trading Post
  • Maxey’s Roadhouse
  • Big Kid’s Roadhouse
  • Joe Henry’s Roadhouse
  • 1906 Fairbanks Pcard

    Fairbanks Alaska April 4th, 1906

    Little Delta

  • Salchaket Roadhouse
  • US Military Telegraph Station
  • Maloney’s Cabin
  • Loggers Cabin
  • Piledriver (Roadhouse?)
  • Moose Creek Cabin
  • 14 Mile House
  • Fish Camp Cabin
  • 10 Mile House
  • Fairbanks Telegraph Station
  • Fairbanks Portage (Roadhouse?)
  • Chena Telegraph Station