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.


  • “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

Saturday, February 22, 2014

John Haines' cabin on a sunny February morning

We drove down the Richardson Highway to Delta this past week. It was a sunny day and we stopped briefly to take pictures of John Haines' cabin at Richardson. Photos were taken from the highway. In the summer you wouldn't be able to see the cabin at all because of the trees. Oh it would be nice to spend a weekend here!

For more posts about John Haines see:

Little remains of Richardson

An afternoon at John Haines homestead

John Haines homestead still provides inspiration

Drawing of Tanana River from John Haines homestead

Friday, February 21, 2014

Good turnout at my Tanana-Yukon Historical Society presentation

There were about thirty people in attendance at Pioneer Hall this past Wednesday for my presentation on thirty years of drawing history in Eastern Interior Alaska. The event was hosted by the Tanana-Yukon Historical Society. I saw old friends and made new ones, and hung around afterwards to talk with people. sign copies of my book, and hand out free copies of the map found in the book. Fun time had by all I think.

That's me standing in the background on the right, talking with a friend before the presentation.
Me (on the left) talking with people after the presentation. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Double sun dogs in Fairbanks - 2-10-14

Fifteen degrees below zero, sunny and double sun dogs over the Chena River. Winter as it should be.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Gilcher Building in Fairbanks displays city's last old-time storefront

Gilcher Building in Fall 2013

The Gilcher Building at 524 Third Avenue in downtown Fairbanks (where River City Café is located) is the last example in the city of the storefront style found across the United States in the early 1900s. During that period, stores typically had recessed doorways and large plate-glass windows fronting the buildings’ first floors.

Janet Matheson’s book, Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey, states that similarly configured storefronts in the early 1900s usually had ornate metal facades on the upper levels. However, by the time the Gilcher Building was constructed, architectural fashion tended towards cleaner, simpler designs. The building’s Third Avenue entrance (on its south side) reflects this, and its cornice consists of wide unadorned boards with thin, plain molding. The building did originally have a brick-patterned metal façade on its east side, though.

William H. Gilcher, who was a sheet metal worker, owned the building. Gilcher came north from California in the 1898 stampede to the Klondike. Documents in the Yukon Archives indicate he worked as a tin smith in Dawson City until 1904, when the newly established gold camp at Fairbanks beckoned. By 1907 he was operating the Tanana Sheet Metal Works on Turner Street between First and Second Avenues.

Some time later he moved his business to Third Avenue. The Fairbanks North Star Borough Historic Preservation Commission states that his building on Third Avenue was constructed in 1931. However, Janet Matheson’s book indicates that he was operating from the Third Avenue location at least as early as 1927. Matheson speculates that the building there began as a single-story structure some time before 1920, the second story was added during the 1920s, and the Third Avenue facade was constructed in the 1930s.

The Gilcher building originally stretched from Second to Third Avenue. Gilcher operated his metal working business out of the Second Avenue side and an appliance business off Third Avenue. Apartments were located upstairs.

Gilcher retired from the business and moved to California in 1948. In the years after his departure the building gradually deteriorated, and the northern half of the building (facing Second Avenue) was eventually torn down.

The Nordale Hotel used to be adjacent to the Gilcher Building. (It was where the Big Ray’s parking lot is now.) When the Nordale burned down in 1972 the Gilcher Building was in disrepair, failing to meet city fire and safety codes. The city, wanting to improve the block, prodded the building’s owners into undertaking remedial work, saving the building from destruction. The corrective measures included removing the metal siding on the east side of the building and converting the upstairs residences into offices and storage.

Vivian Stiver bought the building in 2004 and extensively renovated it for use as a cafe. She told me that during the initial renovation, workers carted off 400 to 500 pounds of sawdust that had filled the space between floors. She also said that there used to be a large side door into the building where the 1st floor windows facing the parking lot are now. When rehabbing that wall she discovered scorch marks on the structural supports, presumably where embers from the Nordale hotel fire fell through the doorway into the Gilcher Building.

Stiver replaced the building’s electrical and plumbing systems, and changed the interior layout considerably. In a nod to the building’s historic nature, she left the original timber uprights and plank flooring in the café part of the building exposed. (She laments that because of the continued deterioration of the original planking she will probably have to eventually put new flooring in.) Stiver also restored the second floor to residential space.

She has continued to make improvements to the building, most recently replacing the plate-glass windows facing Third Avenue with slightly smaller energy-efficient windows. The detailing around the Third Avenue doors is still original though. When she finishes work on the Third Avenue entrance she wants to paint the building in a “Painted Lady” style, with a multi-colored exterior that draws attention to the building’s design elements.


  • Conversation with Vivian Stiver, current owner
  • Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey. Janet Matheson. City of Fairbanks. 1985
  • Fairbanks North Star Borough Historic Preservation Commission signage at Gilcher Building
  • Fairbanks North Star Borough property records
  • Obituary for W. H. “Billy” Gilcher, in Alaska Sportsman magazine. December 1963
  • William Gilcher Collection. Yukon Archives

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"Thirty years of sketching Interior Alaska history" talk for Tanana-Yukon Historical Society on Feb. 19

Sketch of Blixt Cabin off the Elliott Highway

I'll be giving a presentation at the Tanana-Yukon Historical Society meeting on February 19th. The program will be about my historical art and writing and my 30 years of tramping Eastern Interior Alaska's road and trails.

I'll be discussing the why and how I produce my detailed pen and ink drawings, as well as what is involved with finding historic sites and researching their history. I'll also talk about my recently published book, "Interior Sketches: Ramblings around Interior Alaska historic sites. The presentation will be illustrated with photos from my sojourns as well as examples of my art.

The program will be held  in the Pioneer Room of the Pioneer Museum at (wait for it)...Pioneer Park here in Fairbanks. Show starts at 7 pm. See you there.