Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The changing roadhouses of Richardson, Alaska


Richardson Roadhouse in the 1960s

Opening and operating a roadhouse in Interior Alaska was always a gamble. A poorly chosen location could hobble a roadhouse’s ability to attract travelers, new routes might bypass a location, or traffic along a trail might die out completely if a gold strike faded. Also, there was almost constant danger from flood, fire and other natural disasters.

Even building a roadhouse in an established community was no guarantee for success. The small community of Richardson, about 70 miles southeast of Fairbanks, is an example. The town, established in 1905 along the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail (later the Richardson Highway) on the northeast bank of the Tanana River, had three roadhouses, all apparently called the Richardson Roadhouse at one time or another.

According to the book, The Trail: The Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail that Opened Alaska’s Vast Interior, Jacob Samuelson, who operated a grocery store in early Richardson, also built the first roadhouse. Old photos show a structure built of squared logs, but little else in known about it.

The section of the Tanana River between Big Delta and Fairbanks has one of the steepest gradients along the entire river, and the river there is turbulent, often changing course. It moved against Richardson aggressively in 1915, eating away much of the town. What was left was forced to move, and Samuelson never rebuilt.

J. W. McClusky ran a trading post and also sold gasoline at the new townsite a mile inland along the re-aligned Richardson Highway, near Banner Creek. In 1916 he and his wife built a two-story log roadhouse just west of the creek, appropriately called McClusky’s Roadhouse. In 1922, they replaced that structure with a larger flat-roofed two-story log building that could accommodate 30 guests. Their operation was renamed the Richardson Roadhouse.

With increasing traffic along the highway, McClusky expanded the business again. He added a two-story section to the end of the roadhouse, doubling its size. Unfortunately, he evidently overbuilt, and the anticipated tourists never materialized. McClusky eventually closed the roadhouse and his name disappeared from the history books. The building sat vacant for several years and was eventually disassembled, moved to Fairbanks, and re-assembled as a warehouse. The roadhouse’s disappearance may have coincided with the town’s second relocation away from the turbulent river during the 1920s.

Fred Wilkins, who was a homesteader in the area, built the third roadhouse at Richardson’s second location in about 1915. When the town moved a third time, he relocated his roadhouse to the north side of the highway. After McClusky closed his operation, Wilkins renamed his business the Richardson Roadhouse.

The drawing shows this third roadhouse in about 1960. The log structure, with false front, was divided into two sections — a café on one side, and liquor store/convenience store on the other. Behind and to the sides of the roadhouse were several out buildings including barn and storage sheds. To the right of the roadhouse were small guest cabins (later replaced by a small motel unit). On the left were gas pumps, several small frame buildings used for automotive service, and a log garage.

The roadhouse was located approximately halfway between Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, and Fort Greely just south of Delta Junction. It was a convenient rest stop for Army buses shuttling soldiers between the two posts, and old photos show the buses parked in front of the roadhouse.

The structure containing the café and store burned down in 1982. The convenience store moved into one of the tiny frame buildings next to the garage and gas pumps, and, along with the motel unit, the roadhouse struggled on for a few more years before closing permanently. Now the only building remaining is the weathered log garage.

Sources:

•   Fairbanks North Star Borough Property Records

•   Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Janet Matheson & F. Bruce Haldeman. Fairbanks North Star Borough, 1981

•   Roadhouses of the Richardson Highway. Walter T. Phillips. Alaska History Commission, 1985

•   The Trail: The Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail that Opened Alaska’s Vast Interior. Kenneth Marsh. Trapper Creek Museum, 2008

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