Tag Archives: Valdez Creek

Blix Roadhouse

 Blix's Road House, with Mount Wrangle in the background, Copper Center, ca. 1910

Blix’s Road House, with Mount Wrangle in the background, Copper Center, ca. 1910

Copper Center, near the confluence of the Copper and Klutina Rivers, about 65 miles northeast of Valdez, was founded in 1896 when Ringwald Blix, born in Norway in 1872, and his wife Frances, born in Missouri the same year, built the Blix Roadhouse, one of Alaska’s earliest, for an estimated $15,000. Featuring spring beds and a modern bath, the roadhouse was very highly regarded for its outstanding services and became a favorite among travelers.

Blix Roadhouse, date unknown

Blix Roadhouse, date unknown

The community of Copper Center was further established as a mining camp during the winter of 1898-99 when about 300 prospectors settled in to wait for spring. Seeking an all-American route to Dawson City and the Klondike gold fields, they’d crossed the Valdez Glacier, descended the Klutina Glacier to Klutina Lake, then made their way down the treacherous Klutina River to the new settlement. Of the estimated 3,000 persons who attempted traversing this route, only about 300 actually arrived at the Copper River.

With the establishment of a post office and a telegraph station by the U.S. Army Signal Corps around 1901, and being on the Fairbanks-Valdez trail, Copper Center became the principal settlement and supply center in the Nelchina-Upper Susitna Region, which serviced the rich Valdez Creek mines west of Paxson. In 1903 Copper Center was designated a government agricultural experiment station, but the station was closed in 1909, citing “…transportation of supplies very expensive, insufficient rainfall during the growing season, early frosts due to the proximity of high mountains, and the desire to develop the Fairbanks station where a larger population was already established.” (1910 Report on the Agricultural Experiment Stations, U.S. Government Printing Office)

In 1932 the original Blix roadhouse burned, but it was soon replaced by the Copper Center Lodge, which was featured on the National Register of Historic Places until it was destroyed by a fire in May, 2012.

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.”