Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Alaska Road Commission's Big Delta ferry - of roads, truckers and tolls

Ferryman's cabin at Big Delta

When the Alaska Road Commission (ARC) was created in 1905, it undertook the herculean task of building roads and trails throughout the Territory. 

One of its first projects was upgrading the winter-only Valdez-Fairbanks Trail to a year-round wagon road. With limited funds and manpower the ARC avoided building bridges along the trail if at all possible. Small streams were simply forded, larger ones crossed with wooden culverts constructed on site.

The preferred alternative for crossing large rivers during the ARC’s early years was by ferry.  Ken Marsh’s book, The Trail, the story of the historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, lists at least four ferry-crossings along the route: over Chena Slough; and across the Salcha, Tanana, and Tazlina Rivers.

A cable-ferry across the Tanana River was installed at Big Delta in 1909, and over the next few years road improvements allowed motor vehicles to begin replacing horse-drawn wagons. A 1915 report records that the ferry could accommodate two Model T Fords, or a single four-horse wagon.

The ferryman's cabin at Big Delta (shown in the drawing) was constructed in 1929 by Louis Grimsmore. (He also constructed the 1926 addition to Rika's Roadhouse.)  The cabin is made of peeled logs, and is 14' 9” wide by 18' long, with 6-foot eaves extending over the door. A 1930s photo in the UAF Archives shows the cabin much as it appears today, except with a sod roof.

Bridges gradually replaced ferries along the route, but the Tanana River ferry still operated up through the 1930s. This meant that Big Delta was a chokepoint along the trail, a situation the ARC took advantage of starting in 1935 when the federal government sought to collect tolls from road users. This was partly to equalize costs between motor freight carriers and the government-owned Alaska Railroad so the highway wouldn’t divert traffic from the railroad.

The ARC set up vehicle scales at Big Delta and began charging truckers 2.5 cents per mile per ton to cross the river. Truckers vehemently opposed the toll. Some sporadically blocked the ferry approach, others temporarily commandeered the facility. They eventually set up a competing ferry, flying the skull and crossbones as they crossed the river.

Several were arrested and a few even prosecuted, but no Fairbanks jury would convict them. Claus-M. Naske wrote in his book, Alaska Road Commission Historical Narration, that (regarding the trial of truckers for commandeering the ferry) “most Fairbanksans considered taking the ferry as a protest against the toll as a type of 'Boston Tea Party patriotism'.”

World War II brought an end to the escalating dilemma by filling Alaska Railroad cars with freight and personnel headed for war-time construction projects. Goods moving along the Richardson Highway no longer mattered and tolls were quickly eliminated.

The war brought other changes along the Richardson as well. The newly constructed Alaska Highway connected with the Richardson a few miles from Big Delta.  Wanting unimpeded access to
Fairbanks, the Army built a temporary wooden bridge across the Tanana River in 1942. Spring break-up in 1943 destroyed the bridge, but the ARC constructed a steel-truss bridge across the river the same year and realigned the highway, bypassing both the ferry and Rika's Roadhouse.

After the State of Alaska acquired the ferry location in 1976 as part of the Big Delta State Historical Park project, it renovated the scales and ferryman's cabin. The cabin's foundation, floor, and the first three courses of logs were replaced. Its sod roof (by then covered with metal roofing) was removed and new roof decking and rolled-roofing installed.

Facilities at Big Delta State Historical Park are closed for the winter, but you can still explore the park.


  • Alaska Road Commission Historical Narrative – Final Report. Claus-M. Naske. State of Alaska. 1983
  • “Big Delta Historic District, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.” Judith Bittner. National Park Service. 1991
  • Paving Alaska’s trails, the work of the Alaska Road Commission. Claus-M. Naske. University Press of America. 1986
  • The Trail, the Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. Kenneth Marsh. Trapper Creek Museum. 2008
  • Woodrow Johansen Papers. UAF Archives

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