Thursday, October 16, 2014

Roald Amundsen cabin in Eagle - a link with bygone era of Polar exploration


The small frame house shown in the drawing, located in Eagle, Alaska, is where Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) spent several months during the winter of 1905-06. He had mushed to Eagle, 400 miles south of the Arctic Ocean where Amundsen’s iced-in boat lay anchored, to send a telegram announcing that he and his crew were the first explorers to successfully sail through the Northwest Passage, the fabled ocean route traversing the Canadian Archipelago.

In contrast to earlier unsuccessful expeditions that involved large ships, scores of men, and dependence on tons of supplies carried onboard, Amundsen sailed a small shallow-draft boat with an appropriately small crew, and as much as possible lived off the resources of the area. He and his hand-picked six-man crew set sail on June 16, 1903 from Christiana (Oslo), Norway aboard the 70’ sloop Gjoa.

Several months later he sailed into the Canadian Archipelago northwest of Hudson’s Bay, searching for a location to set up scientific instruments to study the North Magnetic Pole. Aided by a group of Netsilik Inuit who settled nearby, Amundsen spent two winters at a site he christened Gjoahavn, in a protected harbor on the southeastern coast of King William Island.

During that time his party conducted systematic magnetic and meteorological observations at Gjoahavn, and made numerous forays to map the local area and take observations closer to the magnetic pole. One of the important discoveries from the expedition was that the pole had shifted about 30 miles to the north since first being located in 1831.

After his second winter at Gjoahavn, Amundsen continued his quest to navigate the Northwest Passage. Guided part way by Inuit kayakers, the Gjoa inched through the shallow, island-dotted waters until finally reaching Herschel Island in the eastern Beaufort Sea.  Because of the all-too-short navigation season, Amundsen was forced to overwinter there, along with several whaling vessels which had been plying the Arctic Ocean near the Bering Straits.

A wrecked whaling schooner was beached at Point King, near where the Gjoa was anchored. According to the book, “Amundsen, the splendid Norseman,” the ship’s captain wanted to reach San Francisco to outfit another ship for the next whaling season and contracted with Inuit guides to take him by dog sled as far as Fort Yukon.

Amundsen agreed to accompany them on the trip. Being the good Norwegian he was, Amundsen skied much of the way, helping break trail for the sled dogs. Some accounts stress Amundsen’s desire to send word of his success back to Norway, but Elva Scott, in a 1996 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article, wrote that he was also seeking medical assistance for an ill crew member.

Fort Yukon did not have the telegraph facility that Amundsen had hoped for, so he and the whaling captain decided to push on to Eagle while their Inuit guides waited for Amundsen’s return at Fort Yukon.

When Amundsen arrived in Eagle on December 5, 1905 the thermometer read -60 degrees F. Amundsen’s first stop was the Northern Commercial Company (NC Co.) store, where he was mistaken for just another bedraggled prospector until asking to send a telegram to Norway. Broke, he had to send the 3,000 word telegram collect.

While waiting for replies to his telegram and for funds to complete his voyage, Amundsen lived in Eagle as guest of the NC Company’s store manager, Frank Smith. The small gable-roofed cabin he stayed in, about 15’ square with a small shed-roofed rear extension, is located on what is now called Amundsen Street, behind the old NC. Co. store building.

Amundsen finally departed Eagle on February 3, 1906, skiing the 400 miles back to the Gjoa. Later that year he and his crew completed their historic voyage across the Arctic Ocean, arriving at Nome in the Bering Straits on September 1, 1906.


  • “Amundsen cabin.” Sandra Faulkner. Historic American Buildings Survey , National Park Service. 1986
  • Amundsen, the splendid Norseman. Bellamy Partridge. Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1929
  • “Arctic explorer leaves imprint in Eagle.” Elva Scott. In Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 10-6-1996
  • The North West Passage; the ‘Gjöa’ expedition, 1903-1907. Roald Amundsen. E.  Dutton. 1908

  • The Last Viking, the life of Roald Amundsen. Stephen R. Brown. Da Capo Press. 2012

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Colorado Creek Roadhouse used to be a welcome respite half way to Chena Hot Springs

Barn at Colorado Creek Roadhouse in Fall 2012

Today, if you drive the 60 miles from Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs, the trip only takes an hour or so. However, during the first few decades of the 20th century, 15-20 miles a day was about the most a person could travel overland through rural Alaska, and a trip to the springs normally took several days.

For years the quickest and most reliable way to reach the springs was along a winter trail blazed on the north side of the river. Old maps show the trail running from Fairbanks south of the present location of Chena Hot Springs Road (CHSR) until reaching Pleasant Valley, about 27 miles from town. From there it ran along the base of the hills north of CHSR until reaching the springs.

To serve travelers headed to and from the hot springs, three roadhouses were built along the route: Little Chena Roadhouse (at about mile 14 CHSR), Colorado Creek Roadhouse (near mile 32) and Gregg’s Roadhouse (mile 48).

Little Chena Roadhouse has long since disappeared. The remains of Gregg’s Roadhouse are reportedly still standing but I have not visited them. I have been to Colorado Creek Roadhouse, though.

The roadhouse at Colorado Creek is located about one mile north of 31 Mile CHSR, just east of a usually shallow ford across Colorado Creek. (That ford wasn’t so shallow a couple of weeks ago when I hiked out there. Most years you can easily wade across, but I had to slog across the creek through frigid thigh-high water.)

According to the 1985 book, Historic Resources of the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Colorado Creek Roadhouse was in operation by 1908. I haven’t been able to establish who built the roadhouse, but its proprietors in the 1920s were Alexander Johnston and his wife. The field notes for the Johnsons’ 1928 homestead survey shows that they had quite an operation, with a large residence/roadhouse building, two barns (including the one shown in the drawing), a storage building, greenhouse, root cellar, and chicken coop. All of the buildings were constructed of logs. The Johnsons also had six fenced acres under cultivation.

            Chena Hot Springs Road was extended as far as Pleasant Valley by the 1950s, and in the 1960s eventually reached the springs. Don Hymer, who helped stake the road right-of-way during the winter of 1959-60 told me Colorado Creek Roadhouse was abandoned when his survey crew used it as a base camp that winter.

            By 1985 there were four buildings left in fairly good condition: the roadhouse, two-story barn, small log cabin, and an outhouse. Now everything is in ruins. The walls of the roadhouse have collapsed (although the roof is still more-or-less intact) and the roof of the barn has collapsed (although the walls are more-or-less intact). The small cabin is a pile of logs and moss, with the outhouse hidden by alders.

            The drawing shows the barn as it looked just a few years ago. Like the roadhouse, it was constructed of round unpeeled spruce logs (saddle-notched at the corners), and had a wood-shake roof.  Daylight shows between most of the logs and there is no sign of chinking. Fortunately, the lack of chinking gave me a good view of the pegs holding logs together around the doors and windows and on the gable end of the building.

            The barn has sunk about four feet into the soft ground, making it hard to tell the barn’s lower-level windows from doors. Their sills are somewhere below ground level and their tops are now tickled by summer grasses. It is only a matter of time before what is left of the roadhouse buildings collapses completely and merges back into the surrounding forest.

            The 239 acre homestead is part of the Chena River State Recreation Area, which was established in 1967. One of the largest undeveloped private inholdings with the recreation area, it was acquired by the State of Alaska through its Alaska Forest Legacy Program in 2004.  


  • Conversation with Don Hymer, member of party surveying Chena Hot Springs Road right-of-way in the winter of 1959-60
  • Fairbanks North Star Borough property records
  • “Field Notes of the survey of the Boundary and Meanders of U.S. Survey No. 1683 – Homestead Claim of Alexander J. Johnston.” Fred Dahlquist. U.S. Cadastal Survey. 1928
  • Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, Janet Matheson & Bruce Haldeman, 1981
  • History of the Chena River State Recreation Area. Alaska Department of Natural Resources brochure, 2009