Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Fairbanks-Circle Trail gradually morphed into Steese Highway

Adams "Leaning Wheel" grader used on Steese Highway, now at Circle Distirct Museum in Central
Ever since the 1892 discovery of gold along a Yukon River tributary called Birch Creek, prospectors have been tramping the region searching for riches. Miners primarily worked streams such as Mastodon, Miller and Independence Creeks draining northward towards the Yukon, but a few hardy souls crossed Twelvemile Summit (so named because it was 12 miles from early miners’ diggings on Birch Creek) to explore the headwaters of the Chatanika River, which drains into the Tanana.

When Judge James Wickersham first visited Fairbanks in spring 1903 he mushed southwest through this region from the Yukon River community of Circle. He later wrote in his book, Old Yukon: Tales, Trails and Trials, of overnighting in a one-room log roadhouse near the mouth of Faith Creek just south of Twelvemile Summit. The cabin had been constructed in 1901 by Circle stampeders.

A system of trails from Circle to the mines was blazed during the early years of the Circle Mining District, and these became part of the Fairbanks-Circle Trail, a primary route for freighters and mail carriers. Running northeasterly from Fairbanks, the trail followed the Chatanika River, crossed Twelvemile and Eagle summits, ran along Crooked Creek to Central, and then across lowlands to Circle.

The Alaska Road Commission (ARC) was formed in 1905 and took over the responsibility for the Fairbanks-Circle Trail. By the mid 1910s it had built a rough wagon road from Circle as far south as Miller House (a popular roadhouse) just north of Eagle Summit.

As with many early trails, The Fairbanks-Circle Trail included summer and winter routes. These seasonal alternatives could be found on sections of the trail north of Central and south of Twelvemile Summit.

Some maps show the southern end of the trail wending its way northeast from Fairbanks, skirting the hills south of the Chatanika River before ascending Twelvemile Summit. However, a 1928 ARC map labels this route as a summer trail and indicates that the winter trail lay next to the Chatanika River on its north side. It was this winter route that Judge Wickersham traveled in 1903.

In the early 1920s the ARC began improving the Chatanika end of the trail, installing bridges across streams and constructing a road along a route above the old winter trail on the north side of the Chatanika River. Most of the work was in tandem with the construction of the Davidson Ditch by the Fairbanks Exploration Company (FE Co.). The initial work, however, was accomplished before the FE Co. began exploration work in the Fairbanks area. By 1926 the road reached the upper limit of the Chatanika River, just below Faith and McManus creeks, where the Davidson Ditch’s containment dam was located.

The ARC then extended the road over Twelvemile and Eagle summits, linking up with the Circle-Miller House road, and re-routed portions of the Circle to Central road. (Oscar Bredlie, an early freighter and mail carrier between Fairbanks and Circle, related in an interview with Jane Williams that the Circle to Central road used to be as “crooked as a dog’s hind leg.”) 

The ARC also upgraded the entire road to automobile standards. Bulldozers hadn’t been developed yet, and tractor-pulled scrapers and graders accomplished most of the road construction, supported by WW I-era GMC and 1920s Ford Model T trucks. The 1920s-era Adams grader shown in the drawing was used on the road and is now located at the Circle District Museum in Central.

The Fairbanks to Circle road was officially opened in 1928 although freighters utilized the brushed-out right-of-way between Central and Circle before the road was actually completed. Freighters and mail carriers also continued to travel the old “abandoned” winter trail whenever practicable since it cut 12 miles off the distance between Central and Circle.

The road was later named the Steese Highway in honor of Gen. James Steese, former president of the Alaska Road Commission. It used to be billed as the farthest-north highway in the United States, and is still an important year-round connection between Fairbanks and Circle.


  • Alaska Road Commission map of Steese Highway. In Rare Map Collection at University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives. 1928
  •  History of Alaskan Operations of United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company. John Boswell. University of Alaska. 1979
  • Old Yukon: Tales, Trails, and Trials. James Wickersham. University of Alaska Press. 2009
  •  Oscar Bredlie interview by Jane Williams. Oral History Collection at University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives. 1983
  • Paving Alaska’s Trails, the work of the Alaska Road Commission. Claus-M. Naske. University Press of America. 1986
  • Tom Long is interviewed by Harrie Hughes. Oral History Collection at University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives. 1961

Monday, February 2, 2015

Parks Highway spurred changes to Talkeetna and the Talkeetna Roadhouse

Talkeetna Roadhouse as it looked in the mid 1970s

When I first visited Talkeetna in the early 1970s it was a sleepy little hamlet. The Talkeetna Spur Road had just been paved, but Talkeetna itself still had dirt and gravel streets. There were a couple of cafes, the roadhouse, a general store, a railroad station, and an eclectic collection of log and frame residences, most of simple, utilitarian construction.

Talkeetna had only recently been joined to the rest of Southcentral Alaska’s road system. For many years Willow was the end of the road, as far up the Susitna Valley as a person could drive from Anchorage. However, by 1964, work on the Parks Highway had extended the road system as far as Talkeetna, and by 1968 the Sustina River had been bridged and the highway reached the Petersville Road.

Talkeetna was established in the early 1900s as a supply center for mines in the Susitna Basin. One of the region’s first gold discoveries was in 1906 at Cache Creek west of the Sustina River. Supplies destined for the area were boated up the Susitna River to the confluence of the Sustina, Chulitna and Talkeetna Rivers, and then freighted overland. The trail to the western mines eventually developed into the Petersville Road.

The town was an on-again off-again community during its early years. The Alaska Commercial Company operated a store there between 1907 and 1910, but abandoned it when attempts to supply the Valdez Creek mining district to the north didn’t pan out. Belmore Browne, in his book, “The Conquest of Mt. McKinley,” wrote that in the winter of 1912 Talkeetna was deserted.

Talkeetna didn’t achieve permanent status until 1915 when the Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC) selected it as divisional headquarters for construction of the Alaska Railroad. In 1916 a post office was opened. The AEC surveyed a townsite in 1918 and auctioned off lots in 1919. For a time the boisterous little community supported a U.S. Commissioner, Deputy U.S. Marshall and Alaska Road Commission office. After the railroad’s completion, Talkeetna shrank, but survived as a regional supply center.

One of the anchors of Talkeetna’s business district is the Talkeetna Roadhouse. According to National Park Service documents, in its original form it was a 21-foot wide by 42-foot long, 2½ story log structure with squared corners and a gable roof. The gable ends were finished with board and batten siding. It was built between 1917 and 1919 by brothers Frank and Ed Lee as their residence. Both brothers were freighters serving the outlying mines. Frank was the chief freighter for the Talkeetna Trading Post.

In 1944 in-door plumbing was added to the building and it was converted into a roadhouse. The roadhouse was purchased in 1951 by Carroll and Verna Close, who promptly built a 26-foot by 48-foot wood-frame shed-roofed addition on the roadhouse’s east side to serve as a kitchen. They also enclosed the roadhouse’s front porch and sheathed the porch and addition with ship-lap siding.

Some time later the Closes moved an old Civil Aeronautics Administration building, tacking it onto the back of the roadhouse. The roadhouse remained in this configuration until the Closes retired in 1978, and this iteration is shown in the drawing.

During this period the Closes ran a simple operation. Verna served two meals a day, cooked on the roadhouse’s large wood-fired stove. The roadhouse’s website relates that, “You could order your eggs ‘any way you want’ but they’d come out scrambled every time!”

Later owners rusticated the building’s exterior. Changes included removing the pole with radio antenna, opening up the front porch to expose the original logs, moving the kitchen addition’s front door and adding two four-light windows to the addition., and replacing the single-light windows on the roadhouse’s second floor with four-light windows. 

The roadhouse is part of the Talkeetna Historic District, established in 1993. The roadhouse, in addition to offering lodging, now runs a bakery and full-service restaurant, and still serves up plenty of Alaska hospitality.


  • “Historic Talkeetna.” Gillian Smythe. Alaska Association for Historic Preservation Newsletter. March 1991, V. 10, No. 1

  • “Roadhouse History.” Talkeetna Roadhouse website. 2014

  • “Talkeetna.” Talkeetna Historical Society. Arcadia Publishing. 2013

  • “Talkeetna Historic District – National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.” Fran Seeger-Boss & Lawrence Roberts. National Park Service, 1992

  • “The Conquest of Mount McKinley, the story of three expeditions through the Alaskan wilderness to Mount McKinley.” Belmore Browne. Houghton Mifflin. 1956