When Alaska's Roadhouses Were More Like Bomb Shelters Than Hotels

Alaska Life & Survival
The Fairbanks-Valdez Overland Stage.

Winter Trail Travel In Turn-Of The Century Alaska On The Richardson Highway

  Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved.

Winter Was Travel Time
A hundred years ago, Alaska's tourism schedule was completely reversed from what it is today.

Today, it's the summer months -- June, July and August -- that form the core of the tourism season.
But, back in the days of trails and horse-drawn stage lines, travel through Alaska was mainly done in the wintertime.

Why? Because there were few bridges over the hundreds of rivers and streams that trails had to cross. So the optimum time to travel was winter, when the creeks and rivers were ice. Summer trails were muddy and wet. Winter was far better, in spite of the extremes of cold weather in open-air sleds. There were lots of people traveling, too.

Freight Sleds On The Valdez-Fairbanks Trail.
Sleds Along The Trail

Here's an early Alaska travel guide, describing the Valdez-to-Fairbanks trail:
"Through a part of the winter season, every day more than a hundred sleds laden with supplies and equipment would leave on their trip to the interior…"

Sleds along the trails arrived at various small lodges along the route, and travelers would pile in. Men, women, children… Some finally ending their long day out in the elements by lying on cold floors and under tables -- as more and ever more people showed up.

Made of cold mountain rock, the Summit Roadhouse at Thompson Pass had two doors. One was on the left, high in the air, and at winter snow level. The other was on ground level.

Sleeping On The Floor
There were never "too many" people in these cabin-like lodges on those subzero winter Alaskan nights. Late arrivals would accidentally kick awake the earlier folks who were snoring underfoot. Noisy latecomers scraped chairs across the floor, took off their heavy furs, and sat down to eat, drink and talk -- long into the night -- before rolling out their own well-used blankets and joining the others, piling onto the rough lodge flooring. And then, they too were awakened by even more loud and boisterous "winter tourists" coming in for the night.

​Two Doors

In a way, the lodges and roadhouses were more like bomb shelters than hotels. Their job was to protect visitors from the dangerous, raging everyday killer instincts of your basic Alaska winter, One famous roadhouse was up at the top of Thompson Pass. The Pass is well known even today as having the thickest snowpack in America. This lodge at "Summit" was made of stones.

​It had two doors. One was at tundra level. The other door was high on top of the building. The top door was used by visitors arriving in midwinter during the deepest snows. They'd drop down through a sort of chute into the frigid little rock roadhouse, joining the dozens of others who were already inside -- finding hot coffee and comfort in the gloomy, foggy heights of the Pass.

The travel season then, as now, was short. The owner of the Donnelly Roadhouse complained that his entire money-making operation was basically limited to "only six weeks." Many modern entrepreneurs in the tourism industry might agree that six weeks, even today, forms the core of the "best" part of their tourism season, too.

But, for early Alaska tourism entrepreneurs, those six weeks fell in October, November -- and perhaps in February. Not in the summertime!

References: "The Trail" by Kenneth Marsh; Historic photos of Valdez-Fairbanks Winter Stagecoach & Horses Freighting over Thompson Pass; The Alaska Road Commission's 1931 "Travelogue of the Richardson & Steese Highways.
©2016, Northcountry Communications, Inc.  Gakona, Alaska

Share this post

Post a comment

Write us at! Bearfoot Travel Magazines/Copper River Country Journal, Gakona, Alaska


Next Post
Newer Post
Previous Post
Older Post