A new book by Wasilla author Helen Hegener, Alaskan Roadhouses: Shelter, Food and Lodging Along Alaska’s Roads and Trails, explores the history of Alaska’s roadhouses. Several Delta-area roadhouses are included, such as Sullivan’s Roadhouse, Rika’s Landing, the Black Rapids Roadhouse, and Yost’s Roadhouse on the north side of Isabel Pass.
In December, 1944, the U.S. Department of the Interior published a good description of Alaska’s roadhouses in a booklet titled ‘Recreational Resources of the Alaska Highway and Other Roads in Alaska.’ The booklet noted, “Alaska roadhouses are functional necessities to travel through country populated sparsely or not at all. They are inns or taverns in the honest, Colonial sense, providing food and shelter for the traveler today as they did for his predecessor a generation ago, but now supplying oil and gasoline for the motor car instead of the hay and grain required by its equine forerunner. More, they often serve as trading posts for tributary populations, whether Native or white, sources of supply for pack trains, prospectors, and trappers, the first link in the chain of processes through which the raw pelt becomes milady’s stole. They are post offices as well as general stores, often linking enough functions to become real communities in themselves.”
Three of the local roadhouses have become national historic sites:
Rika’s Landing Roadhouse, also known as the McCarty Roadhouse, located at a historically important crossing of the Tanana River, near mile 274.5 of the Richardson Highway, is a centerpiece of Big Delta State Historical Park, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. It was named for Erika ‘Rika’ Wallen, who 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 [John] 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.”
A similarly restored historic roadhouse can be found in Delta Junction at the Sullivan Roadhouse. Hegener writes, “With welcoming owners and comfortable accommodations, the Sullivan Roadhouse was a favorite stop for the freighters on the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, and business was good until around 1920, when the main trail, by then known as the Richardson Highway, became the favored route. The Sullivans packed their belongings and moved to Fairbanks in 1923, and the old roadhouse sat abandoned for the next seven decades. In 1997 the Sullivan Roadhouse, the oldest existing roadhouse in Interior Alaska, was once again disassembled and moved, this time to Delta Junction, where it was lovingly refurbished, refurnished, and became the state’s premiere roadhouse museum, showcasing the history of the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail with a large collection of historical artifacts and photographs.”
Farther south along the Richardson Highway, the Black Rapids Roadhouse, on the Delta River, is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places. From Hegener’s book: “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.’ After covering a distance of nearly four miles, the 27-mile long glacier has since retreated, but the moraine can still be seen from the Richardson Highway pullout.”
Yost’s Roadhouse was apparently built in 1905 at the confluence of McCallum Creek and Phelan Creek, on the north side of Isabel Pass. A small one-story log building, known at that time as McCallum’s Roadhouse, it was taken over by Charlie Yost in the winter of 1906-07, enlarged with a two-story log building next to the old structure, and the name was changed to Yost’s Roadhouse. Charlie offered hot cakes and beans to travelers at two dollars a meal, and a 1908 advertisement boasted: “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.”
The roadhouse tales in Hegener’s book span the territory of Alaska, and include first-hand accounts of early travelers along the trails. The noted ecologist and environmentalist Margaret Murie, who traveled the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail as a young girl in 1918, wrote of 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.”
Today most of the roadhouses are gone, and travelers can make the entire journey in just a few hours, but those high peaks are still glistening in the moonlight above the old routes.
Alaskan Roadhouses: Shelter, Food and Lodging Along Alaska’s Roads and Trails, by Helen Hegener, published in October, 2015 by Northern Light Media. 284 pages, over 125 black/white photographs, 6″ x 9″ format. $24.95 plus $5.00 shipping and handling from Northern Light Media, PO Box 298023, Wasilla, Alaska 99629-8023. http://northernlightmedia.wordpress.com