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Roadhouses in Alaska, the Yukon Territory, and northern BC

by Murray Lundberg

      Surely one of the most colourful of the institutions in the history of the Yukon and Alaska is the roadhouse. Few pioneers' memoirs don't have fond recollections of this vital aspect of life on the Northern frontier. Whether they were acting as restaurant, saloon, hotel, community hall, general store, or just a warm place to escape the frozen wilderness for a few hours, roadhouses were found along virtually every route that prospectors traveled on a regular basis. Despite that, little beyond anecdotal mentions has been written about them.

      A precise definition of what is meant by the term "roadhouse" is impossible - they ranged from dugouts and dirty tents to relatively luxurious 2-storey complexes, from boomtown main streets to wilderness riversides. Due to the fact that a roadhouse was generally the first business to open in a new mining area, towns often grew up around those buildings, blurring the definition even more. They might be called either "Roadhouse" or "Hotel", without regard to the type or quality of accommodation provided. Rooms and meals were offered by barbers, bath-houses, freighters, and just about any other business that might be located along a transportation route of any kind.

      For some, operating a temporary roadhouse could supply the cash needed for a special project, and in some cases seems to have happened without planning - people just started dropping in at someone's cabin and staying overnight. During the rush from the Klondike to Nome in 1900, many of the wood camps along the Yukon River opened their doors to travelers, although the conditions were sometimes appalling. The "Muskrat Roadhouse", 8 miles upriver from Circle, was a 10 x 10- foot dugout covered with muskrat skins, and served "caribou" stew with strangely small bones in it! The cash derived from these woodcamp-roadhouses would allow at least one of the woodcutters to get to Nome to stake claims.

      In March 1906, John A. Clark visited several roadhouses along the Valdez Trail while bicycling to Fairbanks, and recorded his impressions:

      Road houses on that trail that year were much alike. They had been built in a hurry to meet an emergency and were spaced from fifteen to twenty miles apart - too short generally for a one-day journey, yet so far apart that for the ordinary horse-drawn rig it was difficult to make two road houses in a day.
      Meals at the Valdez end - that is, for the first hundred miles, were $1.50 and beds $1.50 to $2. 'Beds' is a misnomer, for generally they were only bunks built against the wall, usually in tiers of two or four, depending upon the height of the roof. The bunks were constructed of round spruce poles and the mattresses and springs of the same material. Some of the road house keepers, having evidently been accustomed to luxuries before they came to Alaska, sprinkled a few spruce boughs over the poles, and some of them actually had a few blankets to spread over the boughs. After sleeping on one of them, I concluded that the blankets were for the purpose of concealment.

Dawson Hotel, Lindeman Lake, 1898
Julius Price, From Euston to Klondike

      It appears from studying the ownership records of the roadhouses that running a roadhouse was generally a temporary situation for the owners - most people owned their roadhouse for less than 2 years, and then moved into other businesses or jobs. There were, of course, exceptions to that. The most famous roadhouse owner is certainly Belinda Mulrooney, who between 1897 and 1900 parlayed a $5,000 shipment of hot-water bottles and silk and cotton into a Dawson lunch counter, then the Grand Forks Hotel, and finally the Fairview Hotel, the finest in Dawson. "Big Bill" Anderson and his wife Emma owned no fewer than 7 roadhouses and hotels in Bennett, the Atlin area, Carcross, Dawson and Wynton between 1899 and 1907, when Bill left for Victoria (Emma stayed in Dawson, operating the Celtic Hotel).

     The roadhouses which were built along the mining stampede routes were generally intended to be transient affairs, operating from tents which could be relocated quickly, or wooden buildings which were hastily erected and then abandoned when the rush had moved on. It was unusual to see any of these businesses for sale - the $80 asked for Mr. Burt's "well outfitted" roadhouse on Lake Bennett (below), was basically the value of the lumber.

The Bennett Sun, January 20, 1900

     By the 1920s, roadhouse meals were generally highly regarded. There were, however, exceptions. One stopping-place on the road to the Keno silver mines was described as being run by two men who were

      ...indescribably filthy with long, greasy uncombed hair, unshaven faces, grease-ringed mouths and short, dirty mackinaws. Snow containing sawdust, rabbit turds and occasional urination was melted for water and black moosemeat, coated with dirt and gravel from the floor was cut into a greasy pan without cleaning and served with a cup of muddy coffee.(Aho)

      Most roadhouses were individually owned; it was not common for companies to be involved in operating several. The White Pass & Yukon Route, however, ran some of the best roadhouses in the North, along the winter road between Whitehorse and Dawson. Some of these establishments were owned outright by the company with hired staff, others were leased to the operators, while others were privately owned, with service contracts with the White Pass.

      In the Yukon and Alaska, there were possibly 3,000 businesses which offered meals and/or lodging prior to World War I. My inventory of such businesses in Skagway, Dyea, Atlin and the Yukon lists 1,447 to which I can put a date, and location, name or owner. I've posted an index to this database in the genealogy section.

     Few of these original roadhouses survive in either the Yukon or Alaska - fire destroyed many, and neglect allowed Nature to reclaim the rest. However, thousands of people fondly remember the atmosphere and characters surrounding places like the Miller Roadhouse, which was built near Circle City in 1896. In the Yukon, the government has restored the Carmacks Roadhouse, and stabilized the Montague and Robinson Roadhouses; in Alaska, private enterprise has thankfully been more productive, with several roadhouses having been rebuilt, either as businesses of various kinds, or as private residences. Original buildings such as Rika's Landing Roadhouse, the Cape Nome Roadhouse, the Gakona Lodge and the Copper Center Lodge offer people a genuine look back at life in a pioneer roadhouse.

©2001-2017 Murray Lundberg: Use for other than research purposes must be approved by the author.

References & Further Reading:
  • Aho, Aaro: unpublished manuscript at the Yukon Archives (MSS 11, #82/161)
  • Clark, John A.: "A Bike Ride From Valdez to Fairbanks in 1906," in Wheels on Ice, 1985.
  • Phillips, Walter T.: Roadhouses of the Richardson Highway: The first quarter century, 1898 to 1923 (Alaska Historical Commission, 1984)
  • Price, Julius M., From Euston to Klondike (London: Sampson, Low, Marston & Co., 1898)

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