This article is an excerpt from the book by Helen Hegener, Alaskan Roadhouses, Shelter, Food, and Lodging Along Alaska’s Roads and Trails, published in 2015 by Northern Light Media. Ordering information below.
The Gakona roadhouse at milepost 205 on the Glenn Highway, dating from the first buildings constructed on the site in 1902, is the oldest still-operating roadhouse in Alaska.
Originally called Doyle’s Ranch, the Gakona Roadhouse was constructed by Jim Doyle, who homesteaded a site on the banks of the fast-flowing Gakona River, which joins the mighty Copper River a few hundred yards downstream. His homestead was at mile 132 of the Trans-Alaska Military Road, which was the name of the then-new Valdez-to-Eagle Trail, built by the U.S. Army to link its post at Fort Liscum, near Valdez, with Fort Egbert, at Eagle on the Yukon River. The Valdez-to-Fairbanks Trail also ran north from the site, making the junction of the two trails an excellent location for a roadhouse.
The original roadhouse was built of six- to ten-inch saddle-notched round logs, approximately 20′ by 50′, with with a 15′ by 30′ shed-roofed addition. The building included living quarters, a kitchen and dining room, a few private rooms, an upstairs dormitory and a store. A low shed which could accommodate dog teams was built, and a military telegraph station was installed nearby. In 1910, the roadhouse become the main stop for the Orr Stage Company, and Doyle added a blacksmith shop and a barn that could hold up to a dozen horses. He also raised oats and hay on over sixty acres of fields.
Jim Doyle sold the roadhouse in 1912, and the property went through several owners, including the Slate Creek Mining Company. In 1926 Arne N. Sundt, a director of the Nabesna Mining Company, discovered that the manager of the Slate Creek mine, a fellow named Elmer, was sidetracking the gold which should be going to the mine owners. In a 1993 interview for the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Oral History Program, Arne N. Sundt’s widow, Henra Sundt, explained what happened next: “Arne put on the only suit that he ever owned,” and traveled to the offices of the mining company and told them what was transpiring. They told Arne he “could just take over the place as Elmer hadn’t sent them one ounce of gold in years!”
Arne made an agreement to mine the company’s holdings on Slate Creek and send them a percentage, and they sold the roadhouse to him as part of the deal. When Arne got back to Gakona and confronted Elmer with the news, “Elmer got pretty upset and pulled a gun on him, but Arne just reached out and took the gun away from him.” Henra explained, “[Elmer] was just a little guy, but my husband was six feet tall! So Elmer left, but he stayed around the country, mining his own claims on Slate Creek.”
In her book, Sisters, Coming of Age and Living Dangerously in the Wild Copper River Valley [Epicenter Press, 2004], Aileen Gallaher described stopping at the roadhouse on her way north from Valdez in 1926: “Our next stop was Gakona, about thirty miles north of Copper Center. The Gakona Roadhouse there was a huge log building, which really could not be called a cabin. It had a second story and a high-pitched roof. The Gakona River flowed swiftly about fifty feet in front of it. The lobby was a large room without any decoration and only a few wooden benches for furniture. In one corner, a staircase led to the bedrooms upstairs, and the other corner was occupied by the Post Office. Across the front next to the lobby were the dining room and the kitchen, and behind were the owners’ quarters. The two men who lived there and operated Gakona Roadhouse were Arne Sundt from Norway and Herb Hyland, from Sweden. Both welcomed me warmly to Alaska, and made me feel at home in this new, amazing world.”
In 1929 Arne Sundt built a new roadhouse, much larger than its predecessor, in an L-shaped, gable-roofed plan, with 9 private rooms, a bunkhouse on the upper floor, two bathrooms, a general store, and a post office. He also built a separate owner’s residence, two cabins, a wagon repair shop, and other buildings. Arne and Henra, who had traveled to Alaska from Norway in 1928 to marry Arne, ran the roadhouse together for 22 years, until Arne’s untimely death from a heart attack in 1949. When he died, her friends said Henra should sell the roadhouse, but she felt running the roadhouse would provide a good living for her and her children, and she prospered, raising two sons and a daughter, finally selling the roadhouse in 1979.All of the buildings on the site – all but two of them made of logs – have been subsequently added to the National Register of Historic Places. Over the years, the roadhouse and its cabins have known many famous guests, including the venerable Judge James Wickersham, the first federal judge from Interior Alaska, who waded through overflow water to reach the roadhouse in 1905. Alaskan artists Ted Lambert, Eustace Ziegler, and Josephine Crumrine, with her artist-mother, rented cabins one summer, and each presented Henra Sundt with an original piece of their artwork. Bill Egan, the first governor of Alaska, stayed at the roadhouse often during his years in office, and the arctic explorer Hurbert Wilkins was a guest. Perhaps the most well-known guest is a pipe-smoking ghost, said to have a preference for Room 5, whose appearances have been written about in many newspaper and magazine articles over the years.
Alaskan Roadhouses, Shelter, Food, and Lodging Along Alaska’s Roads and Trails, by Helen Hegener, published by Northern Light Media. 6″ x 9″, over 100 black/white photographs, 284 pages. $24.95 plus $5.00 shipping and handling.
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