Monday, February 24, 2014

From Doyle's Roadhouse to Gakona Lodge--life goes on in Gakona




The National Register of Historic Places states that Gakona Lodge and its predecessor, Doyle’s Roadhouse, represent one of the oldest continuously operating roadhouse operations in Interior Alaska. It also is one of the most complete examples of a roadhouse complex, with 11 surviving buildings representing three different periods.

Gakona, a community of about 200 residents, is located two miles east of the Richardson Highway along the Tok Cut-off, and sits at the confluence of the Gakona and Copper Rivers. Ahtna Athabascan Indians have lived in the region for generations and in pre-contact times had a seasonal fish camp here.

The Trans-Alaska Military Road (Valdez-Eagle Trail), blazed in 1899-1901, followed the Copper River from Copper Center as far north as the Mentasta River, where it veered north to cross Mentasta Pass. After gold was discovered at Fairbanks, gold seekers headed for the Tanana Valley began taking off from the Valdez-Eagle Trail at the Gakona River.

In 1902 James Doyle homesteaded 160 acres at Gakona, and in 1904 he built a single-story log roadhouse (later expanded to two stories). Doyle’s Roadhouse, which is now abandoned, is still located on a corner of the property. Three other structures from the same period: an ice house, storage shed, and horse barn, stand nearby. The roadhouse’s presence contributed to Ahtna Indians permanently settling nearby.

The heyday of Doyle’s Roadhouse was relatively short. In 1906 the Alaska Road Commission (ARC) completed a new segment of the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail that bypassed Gakona. The Klondike Gold Rush was pretty much over by that time, and travel along the northern segment of the Valdez-Eagle Trail (north of Gulkana) all but disappeared.

Without the Fairbanks-bound traffic, Doyle’s saw business plummet. The roadhouse survived, but mainly as a trading post for local trappers, prospectors and Ahtna Indians. Roadhouse proprietors also kept working the homestead’s fields. (There were more than 60 acres under cultivation. Early photographs show oat and hay fields where the highway is now.)

Doyle’s went through a succession of owners in the 1910s and early 1920s, including Slate Creek Placer Mining Company, which operated along Slate Creek, a tributary of the Chistochina River. Arne Sundt, who was a manager for the mining company, eventually purchased the roadhouse.

Soon after Arndt bought the roadhouse the ARC began improving the almost abandoned segment of the Valdez-Eagle Trail from Gakona to Slana to serve a new mining operation at Nabesna, 46 miles southeast of Slana. The ARC began upgrading the trail to a wagon road in 1926, and in 1933 began work on a road from Slana to Nabesna. With increased traffic and business, Sundt built the new larger Gakona Lodge (shown in the drawing) between 1926-28.

The lodge is a two-story log structure, built in an L-shape. As built, it had nine private rooms for guests, a large open attic used as a bunkroom, and two bathrooms. It also housed a general store and post office. Arndt also built a separate owner’s residence, two small cabins, and a carriage and wagon-repair shop, all of which are still standing. 

During World War II the Army constructed a cut-off from Tok on the Alaska Highway to Slana, connecting with the Slana/Gakona Road and Richardson Highway. This gave the military access to the port at Valdez.

As part of the project, in 1942 the Army erected a garage at the lodge for road construction and maintenance equipment. A freight company that was using the lodge built a five-bay garage that same year. Both garages are still standing.

The lodge, now owned by Valori and Greg Marshall, is part of the Gakona Historic District, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The district still retains its authenticity and historical importance, even though several of the buildings have been moved, modified and re-purposed over the years. 

There are numerous pieces of old farm equipment on display, and according to a 1995 Anchorage Daily News article, the lodge purportedly even has its own resident ghost — a pipe-smoking gentleman prankster who occasionally inhabits room No. 5.

Sources:


  • “Gakona’s ‘guardian ghost.’” Doug O’Hara. Anchorage Daily News. October 29, 1996
  • “Gakona Historic District National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Barbara Strang. National Park Service. 2001
  • Photos of Gakona from the Charles Bunnell Collection and Walter W. Hodges Papers. UAF Archives
  • Roadhouses of the Richardson Highway. Walter Phillips. Alaska Historical Commission. 1984
  • The Trail, the Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. Kenneth Marsh. Trapper Creek

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