GAKONA, Alaska — Back around the turn of the century, when a young Billy Mitchell was leading Army Signal Corps surveyors into the wilderness of Alaska to establish a telegraph system, roadhouses already were doing a thriving business.
More than two dozen of the rough-hewn establishments were spotted every 20 or 30 miles along major trails. That was the distance covered by dog sleds in one day.
The roadhouses were a warm glow in the bitter winter night. They served as post offices and telegraph stations. They also dispensed clean beds, stiff drinks and juicy chunks of moose or caribou meat.
Part of Culture
Hospitality, Alaska style.
"Alaska roadhouses were a part of our culture much like stagecoach stops were in the Old West," says Jack Coghill, 61, an Alaska state senator who once ran a roadhouse, the Tortella Lodge, in Nenana. "The most successful operators had trading posts too. Places where people could pick up their mail, some supplies. Many communities eventually grew up around roadhouses--Tanana, Ruby, those kinds of places.
"Used to be, roadhouses were five rooms and a path. They get better with the telling. But they seemed to attract the Mother Teresa kinds of people. They were good at seeing to people's needs, cooking, doctoring, because they were dedicated."
But because of the airplane, many of the most colorful roadhouses are gone, Coghill says. "People flew over the communities, so they disappeared."
Rustic Tradition Preserved
Many, but not all. A rustic tradition has been preserved over the decades at a score or so roadhouses still operating around the state.
And today you get a bonus: history with every room. At the Gakona Lodge and Trading Post, you may even get a ghost.
Jerry and Barbara Strang appear to have inherited an invisible, pipe-smoking, foot-stomping music critic with their purchase of the roadhouse in 1975.
The ghost may be a holdover from a spirited past, but gone are the trappers, traders and adventurers who used to beat a path to the door.
Most of the people stopping at the roadhouse nowadays are tourists on the Glenn Highway, which was built over the old Valdez-to-Eagle Military Telegraph Road.
They brake for moose and mountains and midnight sunsets. There is plenty of all that around Gakona.
The roadhouse is perched on the banks of the fast-flowing Gakona River, which joins the Copper River a few hundred yards downstream.
On Historic Register
The Wrangell Mountains are on one horizon; a spruce-covered slope rises a hundred feet above the river in the opposite direction.
A small steel sign near the front door tells visitors the old log lodge is on the National Register of Historic Places.
"Scenery, curiosity, the looks of the place draws a lot of people here," says Jerry Strang, who ran an auto parts shop in Watkins Glen, N.Y., until heading for Alaska. "It's well-groomed. There's a lot of casual traffic."
There is also a lot of repeat business.
"If they're traveling to and from the Lower 48 and they've stopped here once before, they'd never go by without stopping and spending the night," he says.
One reason is the price. Roadhouses are without frills. They often charge less than nearby hotels or motels for food and lodging, Strang says. A single room at the lodge goes for $25 a night, $40 for a double. Lunch is about $6, while you can order Cornish game hen or rib-eye steak at dinner for $13 or $14.
"We don't have bathrooms or TVs in every room like at every motel," he says. "You'll get the occasional tourist who wants things the way they were when he left New York. But for the most part, they like things rustic."
Coghill recalls traveling with his parents in a Model A Ford and stopping at a roadhouse between Delta Junction and Fairbanks.
"I remember that the sanitary facilities in the kitchen consisted of getting the frying pan good and hot because the cat had been sitting in it."
And part of the appeal of the Gakona Lodge is the menu.
The Strangs' specialties are pound-plus steaks cooked on a 55-gallon drum converted into an outdoor barbecue, and ice-cream pie, a dessert recipe Barbara Strang brought with her from New York.
"We get a lot of local trade during the slow winter months, people who come out for the food and the service," Jerry says.
"We're getting the bills paid, and 1987 should be a profitable year for us. We'll have a construction camp nearby. They're going to work on the road, straighten some curves, bypass some swamps and put in a couple of new bridges."
The Strangs serve their home-cooked meals family style in the winter, when they host fewer people.
"The food is good, the rooms are clean and the price is cheap," says Chuck Ice, a construction foreman from Fairbanks, sitting with a reporter in the log-walled dining room, a converted carriage repair shed. "And they treat people like family, not customers.
"This place is almost like staying at home."
But what about that ghost?