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

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