Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Little remains of Richardson, Alaska

Richardson Roadhouse in 1990, after it closed

When I moved to Fairbanks in 1983, Richardson (about 70 miles southeast of town) was a pale shadow of its former self. There were just a few year-round and seasonal residences, a scattering of abandoned cabins, and the remains of the Richardson Roadhouse.

However, in 1907 the town boasted 500 residents, a roadhouse, grocery store, post office and telegraph station. Gold had been discovered along Tenderfoot Creek in 1905, and the resulting stampede to the northwest on Banner and other creeks brought a score of drift mines. Small steamboats could easily reach Banner Creek on the Tanana River, and a town quickly sprang up there.

It was also along the Fairbanks-Valdez Trail, and the town was named in honor of Wilds P. Richardson, head of the Alaska Road Commission. Richardson was the supply center for nearby creeks and the town’s early prospects seemed promising. The Tanana Valley Railroad even planned an extension to the area, but the amount of gold in the creeks proved low and those plans were abandoned. Just as elsewhere, when the larger paystreaks played out, Richardson’s fortune’s plummeted.

The Tanana River changed course in 1915, encroaching on Richardson and forcing the town to move about a mile north, away from the river. That was when the telegraph station closed. Again in the mid-1920s the town was faced by an angry river, and again it moved north. Each time Richardson moved, it was a smaller town. Eventually all that remained were a few hardened miners, some trappers and homesteaders, and the people at the roadhouse.

Richardson has hosted three roadhouses. The remains you can see today are of the third one, started by Fred Wilkins in about 1915. He homesteaded in the area and ran Richardson’s general store. When the town relocated in the 1920s, Wilkins moved his operation to the north side of the highway. His roadhouse eventually became known as Richardson Roadhouse.

For decades the roadhouse served highway travelers and the dwindling population of Richardson. John Haines, poet and essayist, lived on a Richardson homestead for years. He mentions the roadhouse often — of sitting at tables listening to old-timers’ stories, of community gatherings there on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and of watching as the area's history silently slipped away.

In his essay “Mudding Up,” he wrote “this quiet, rural world of Richardson, with its few surviving people and its old-fashioned implements, remote and settled on a stretch of gravel road, was vanishing even as I came to know it.”

By 1980 the roadhouse consisted of a one-story log café with false front, a small motel unit and a log garage with two associated small wood-frame buildings. The cafe was destroyed by fire in 1982 but the garage operated a few years more.

By the 1990s the roadhouse was closed and vacant, the gas pumps pulled up. In July of 2011 the owners, plagued by persistent vandalism, tore down the motel unit and the two small wood-frame buildings. Little remains except the old log garage and a sign obscured by encroaching trees.

For more posts about John Haines see:

An afternoon at John Haines homestead

John Haines homestead still provides inspiration

Drawing of Tanana River from John Haines homestead

John Haines cabin on a sunny February morning

1 comment:

  1. In 1968 after wrecking our homemade raft in sweepers in the Tanana my brother and I with our dog Sam, an oar and nothing else hiked out of the bear infested woods to the roadhouse to call our father for help. I people fed and watered us for the balance of the day until help arrived. It's sad to know that it and the people are now gone.