Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Sullivan Roadhouse finds rebuilt life in Delta Junction

John and Florence Sullivan (veterans of the Klondike, Nome and Fairbanks gold rushes) built a sod-roofed log roadhouse during the winter of 1905-06 midway along the Donnelly-Washburn Cut-off. It was a Valdez-Fairbanks Trail winter shortcut that crossed the Tanana River near Birch Lake and ran southeast to the Delta River, bypassing Big Delta and slicing 35 miles off the regular trail.

The Sullivan Roadhouse began as a 20-foot by 60-foot “dogtrot” cabin. Common in the southern United States, dogtrot cabins consisted of two separate structures with a breezeway or “dogtrot” between them — all sheltered beneath a common roof. According to Delta Junction resident Jeff Durham, Alaska’s version of the dogtrot allowed mushers to pull into the sheltered breezeway, unhook their dogs and leave the sled.

After one winter of use, the Alaska Road commission (ARC) realigned the winter cut-off to avoid several steep grades, stranding the Sullivan Roadhouse four miles off the trail. Undeterred, the Sullivans disassembled the roadhouse, hauled the logs to the new trail location and rebuilt the structure. This time they added a metal roof, uncommon in early roadhouses.

After the move, the dogtrot was enclosed and became the roadhouse’s front room. Later a 13-foot kitchen addition (in the drawing foreground) was tacked on to the end of the building. The roadhouse as pictured in photographs taken around 1910 is similar to what it looks like today. A cabin directly behind and perpendicular to the roadhouse (used as guest quarters), barn, blacksmith shop, cold storage cellar and outhouse completed the roadhouse complex.

The Sullivan Roadhouse was one of the most popular along the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. Margaret Murie, in her book, “Two in the Far North,” described a 1918 stop at the roadhouse thusly, “The house was low and sprawling, so comfortable looking, larger than the others so far, with a wing extending out at the back. Pa Sullivan himself and a barnman came out to greet us looking well-fed, rosy of face, both in shirtsleeves ... Ma was at the door, neat, roly-poly, pretty in a gingham dress.” (Evidently everyone called the Sullivans Ma and Pa.) Margaret goes on to describe the roadhouse as so comfortable and fancy, “that a man of the Trail would be afraid to sit down and relax, but cozy, a home.”

With steady improvements to the main trail the winter cut-off received less and less traffic, and after the Alaska Railroad was completed, winter traffic disappeared completely. Ma and Pa Sullivan abandoned the roadhouse in 1922.

The roadhouse lay vacant for much of the next 70 years. All the outbuildings collapsed after their sod roofs rotted away, but the roadhouse building survived primarily because of its metal roofing.
The land around the roadhouse was eventually annexed into Fort Greely, and the Army made some repairs to the building, using it during maneuvers. However, the building was adjacent to the Army’s Oklahoma Bombing Range, and in the 1990s local historians, the Bureau of Land Management and the Army decided to relocate the roadhouse.

In 1997 the building was disassembled, moved and reassembled in Delta Junction, this time on a new concrete foundation. The bottom three courses of logs were replaced, reproduction doors manufactured, windows re-glazed, new metal roofing installed, and the entire structure refurbished.
The building, now the Sullivan Roadhouse Historical Museum, sits next to the Delta Junction Visitor Center. Dedicated to telling the story of the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail and its roadhouses, the museum is owned and operated by the Delta Junction Chamber of Commerce, which has worked diligently to make the museum a first-class visitor attraction.

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