Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Venerable Central Roadhouse almost made it to 21st century

The Central Roadhouse as it looked in the mid 1980s

In the summer of 1896, Josiah Spurr, Frank Schrader and Harold Goodrich floated the Yukon River, investigating mining areas for the U.S. Geological Survey. One of their objectives was the “Birch Creek Diggings” (now called the Circle Mining District) 50 miles southwest of Circle. In Spurr’s book, Through the Gold Diggings, he relates that during their Birch Creek side-trip they patronized four roadhouses.


The first was 12-Mile Roadhouse, located where the trail crossed Birch Creek. From there the trail branched, with one segment heading south-southwest to Deadwood Creek (then called Hog’em Gulch) approximately seven miles east of Central. Hog’em Junction Roadhouse was located where Deadwood Creek emptied into Crooked Creek.

The other branch veered west through what we now call Central, roughly following the current route of the Steese Highway. Mammoth Junction Roadhouse (later called Miller House) was located on Mammoth Creek just north of Eagle Summit, about 32 miles from 12-Mile roadhouse. Central Roadhouse was situated where the trail from Mammoth Creek crossed Crooked Creek, about midway between Miller House and 12-Mile Roadhouse.

With the 1902 discovery of gold in the hills north of the Chena River, a route linking the Circle-Miller House trail to Fairbanks developed. In Judge James Wickersham's book, Old Yukon: Tales, Trails and Trials, he mentioned lunching at Central Roadhouse on his way from Circle to Fairbanks in the spring of 1903.

The Hog’em Junction Roadhouse eventually disappeared, probably after the Alaska Road Commission finished upgrading the Circle-Miller House trail into a wagon road in the early 1910s. Central Roadhouse survived and prospered though, and a small community grew up around it, providing shelter for travelers, and goods and services for miners in the surrounding hills.

Little is known of the roadhouse’s earliest owners, but by the 1920s it was owned by Henry “Old Man” Stade. During this period Alf “Riley” Erickson (who eventually took over the roadhouse) began working there. (Erickson was also the Central postmaster from 1925-42.)

When the roadhouse burned down in 1925, Stade and Erickson immediately began rebuilding. According to National Register of Historic Places documents, by 1926 they had replaced the original one-story roadhouse with a larger two-story 20-by-52-foot log structure (shown in the drawing). The new roadhouse had a shallow gable roof insulated with dirt and covered with galvanized metal roofing.

The roadhouse, which was situated south of and directly adjacent to the road, originally had a small arctic entry on its north, road-facing side, and a large storage shed tacked on to the south side. There were also numerous outbuildings, including a residence next to the roadhouse, barn and several warehouses across the road.

The Steese Highway was completed in 1928, and while it brought more traffic through Central, it also reduced the need for overnight lodging. Circle Hot Springs Hotel, opened in 1930, offered more luxurious accommodations, and travelers between Fairbanks and Circle often bypassed the roadhouse.

The roadhouse served as a community center for many years, but that wasn’t really enough to keep it solvent. In 1948, several months after the owner, Riley Erickson, died, the roadhouse closed and never re-opened. New owners used it for storage after that, and garage doors were installed on the east end of the building.

The outbuildings gradually disappeared, but the roadhouse itself was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Its owners hoped to rehabilitate the structure into a community center and museum, but decades of neglect made the project too expensive. However, when the Circle District Historical Society Museum was constructed about a half mile down the road, many of the roadhouse's furnishings and accoutrements were moved there.

According to Central resident Al Cook, repeated vandalism and trespassing forced the building’s owners to raze it in the early 1990s. All that is left is a pile of logs beside the Steese Highway, just east of the Crooked Creek.

Sources:

  • “Alaska’s historic roadhouses.” Michael Smith. Alaska Division of Parks, 1974
  • “Central Roadhouse - National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form.” Jane Williams & Patricia Oakes. National Park Service. 1977
  • Conversation with Al Cook, resident of Central
  • Jane Williams interview by Laurel Tyrrel. Oral History Collection at University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives. 1995. Jane was a long-time resident of Central and co-owner of the Central Roadhouse.
  • “Old Yukon: Tales, Trails, and Trials.” James Wickersham. Washington Law Book Company. 1938
  • Ruth Olson interview by Laurel Tyrrel. Oral History Collection at University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives. 1995. Ruth was a long-time resident of Central.
  • “Through the Yukon Gold Diggings.” Josiah Edward Spurr. Eastern Publishing. 1900.

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