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Alaska: Finding Gold Rush tales and roadhouse comforts on the Richardson Highway

July 28, 2002|MICHAEL PARRISH

ALONG THE RICHARDSON HIGHWAY, Alaska--At least a dozen people died in the winter of 1913 along the old Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, lost in churning blizzards as they struggled to find Yost's Roadhouse. The two-story log lodge in the central Alaska Range was often so buried in snow that only its stovepipe poked above the drifts. Yost's was 200 yards back from the trail, making it even harder to find in a storm.

The summer after that deadly season, a Lt. Dougherty of the U.S. Army Signal Corps installed a wire fence across the winter trail to steer blizzard-blind trekkers toward the front door, and a 150-pound bell mounted near the roadhouse would clang whenever the wind blew. Those innovations are said to have saved many lives.

I had heard of these Alaskan roadhouses long before I arrived in Fairbanks early last spring, but I had never seen one. Now bad weather in the mountains gave me the opportunity. I was in this part of Alaska to observe research at nearby Black Rapids Glacier for a book I'm writing. But storms over the glacier had put me on hold for a few days, so I was free to roam the 366-mile Richardson Highway to reconnoiter some of Alaska's better-known roadhouses.

At one time, the state had more than 3,000 of these inns, which ranged from dugouts to tents to more elaborate log lodges. In the days when Alaska's trails were negotiated only by dog sled, horse sled or on foot, the roadhouses were a traveler's haven as well as a peculiar social institution. Typically, a traveler got a hot meal for $2; another $2 got him and his dog team a snug place to sleep. Enterprising pioneers built roadhouses every 10, 15 or 20 miles, usually a day's dog-sled journey in winter. (The harsh weather was actually easier to travel in because the snow cover made pulling heavy sleds practical. In warmer months, the sodden muskeg and open rivers were much harder to traverse with heavy mining machinery and furniture.)

The roadhouses weren't fancy: bunk beds with spruce boughs for mattresses or a bare corner to throw your bedroll in. According to one early chronicle, guests at a dirt-floor log roadhouse were served an alleged rabbit stew from a large kerosene can that was permanently settled on an old stove. As the contents thinned with each new diner, more water, rabbit, caribou, lynx or bear--whatever was around--was tossed into the pot.

Other roadhouses were more refined. And some persevered through the early automobile years to become fishing and hunting camps.

Today, only a few of the originals survive, but their relics are easily spotted if you look for them, particularly on the Richardson Highway, which runs from Valdez to Fairbanks. Several are listed on the National Park Service's Register of Historic Places. Some have become museums, and at least two I found still take overnight guests.

Fairbanks is a good jumping-off point for any search for Alaska's historic roadhouses. I had already decided to stay at the modern equivalent of these old hostelries: a bed-and-breakfast. Using the Internet, I had selected what turned out to be an uninspired choice, so I soon was grilling the locals at the Miner's Restaurant & Saloon. One big, affable guy recommended a bed-and-breakfast he knew. He and his female companion were headed that direction on their motorcycle and would show me the way. As they waved me into the driveway of the 7 Gables Inn and said goodbye from their Harley, I noticed the Hells Angels logo on his jacket.

It was a great recommendation. Immaculate, private, inexpensive, with a big greenhouse as an entryway and walls of books, the 7 Gables Inn is a favorite of visiting academics, European tourists and sophisticated Alaskans coming in from the bush to pick up supplies. Gourmet breakfasts are a big draw. One morning the menu was Chinese: egg foo yong, Eight Treasures rice pudding, sausage star won tons, Chinese almond cookies, banana fritters. The second day's breakfast included almond raisin charoset with an apple slice, blintz souffle with mixed berries, bagel, hash browns and apricot kugel.

Heading south on the Richardson Highway from Fairbanks, the wide, two-lane road runs through stands of white birch and black spruce, often photogenically close to the Tanana River. I glimpsed remnants of original roadhouses at the old yellow Salcha roadhouse, where the Salcha River crosses the highway, as well as a wall or two of the Richardson Roadhouse, now a modest motel.

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