Sunday, November 27, 2011

Historic roadhouse at Black Rapids, Alaska escapes destruction

Black Rapids Roadhouse in Fall 2011

Roadhouses were essential in Alaska during the early historical period. Situated a day’s travel apart (about 25 miles) along main trails they provided shelter and food for travelers, and often served as community centers. As trails and roads improved or were re-routed, some roadhouses fell into disuse. With the introduction of automobiles people could travel further in a day, and more roadhouses were abandoned or converted to other uses.
There used to be about 30 roadhouses along the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail (RichardsonHighway). Now only a handful are left. One of those is Black Rapids Roadhouse (shown in the drawing) about 40 miles south of Delta Junction. It is right across the highway from the Delta River and Black Rapids glacier.
The roadhouse opened around 1904, and was added onto Alaska-fashion over the years. It appears the oldest part of the roadhouse (the two-story log section at the south end) began as a single story, and the second floor was added later. Sections were gradually added to the north, south and east.
By the 1990s it was a rambling structure, and like an ancient English manor house, parts of it had fallen into decay. It finally closed in 1993 and by the end of the decade I thought it was destined for destruction. Several of the additions had collapsed, the roof on the center section was caving in and the two-story portion was propped upright with poles.
In 1999, Annie and Michael Hopper bought the property, planning to build a lodge  (the new Lodge at Black Rapids) on the ridge behind the decaying roadhouse. Convinced the old roadhouse could be saved, the couple undertook restoring the roadhouse as well as building a new lodge. After getting the structure added to the National Register of Historic Places and obtaining some grant funding, they (assisted by a small group of dedicated volunteers) tore down irreparable portions of the structure, and set about stabilizing the roadhouse’s oldest section.
After carefully raising the structure in sections, they put in concrete footings and new bottom courses of treated timbers. Salvaged or new logs replaced damaged ones and roofing was repaired. Now the building looks about like it did in 1915. The Hoppers hope to rebuild additional portions of the roadhouse with salvaged materials, finish the restoration, and eventually open it as a museum.
Of course, if the Black Rapids Glacier had its way, there might not be a roadhouse to restore. Back in 1937 the glacier, which now sits far up the valley across the river, surged forward, threatening to overrun the Delta River, Richardson Highway, and roadhouse. Experts estimated that the glacier traveled 220 feet per day. Between December 3, 1936 and March 7, 1937 it covered about four miles.
The mile and a quarter face of the glacier stopped just short of the Delta River. If the glacier had overrun the river, it wouldn’t have been the first time. Geologic evidence points to another surge about 600 years ago that dammed the river. The Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline runs along the base of the mountains behind the new lodge, and engineers were very concerned about possible threats to the pipeline from the glacier. Fortunately for the old roadhouse, new lodge and pipeline, scientists think a repeat of the galloping glacier is unlikely any time soon.