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.
Of the more than thirty roadhouse which operated on the Valdez Trail, later the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, the Black Rapids Roadhouse was one of the first to open. The nomination form for the National Park Service National Register of Historic Places, filed in December, 2000, notes the period of significance for this roadhouse as 1904 to 1923. The form includes a lengthy narrative description of the complex site and notes the uncertainty of the roadhouse’s beginings: “One source says Peter Findler opened the roadhouse in 1902, but it seems more likely that Joe Hansen and his two sons built the roadhouse in 1904.”
The history, as described by the nominating form, is fascinating. “The Orr Stage Company was one of the first businesses to carry passengers and freight over the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. Rapids Roadhouse was described as a crucial stop for the company’s stages. At the roadhouse, southbound travelers changed from four- and six-horse stages to double-ender sleds pulled by single horses to go over Isabel Pass to Paxson. At some time the roadhouse was said to be a Northern Commericial Company (NCC) store. Later, hunters frequently stayed at the roadhouse. It was described in an early travel guide to the highway as ‘the hunter’s paradise , , ,”
“The original building has two stories and measures 19 by 25 feet. It is constructed with unpeeled spruce logs. The roof appears to have been covered with sod originally. It is now covered with metal. The roof rests on spruce pole rafters supported by three purlins and ridgepoles on each of the sides of the gable roof. There is a low door opening centered in the facade and a small window opening in the gable of the facade. The shed-roofed arctic entry visible in a 1920 photograph no longer exists. Remains of a stovepipe indicate a stove once was in the center of the lodge. A narrow staircase leads up to the second story at the southwest corner. The second story is divided into two rooms.
“Most of the additions are of unpeeled white spruce logs chinked with moss. Some logs were squared with an axe. Most have saddle corner construction. The additions have, or had, low to medium gable-sod roofs, some covered with corrugated metal roofing. Window and door trims are of hand sawn lumber, hand planed on the exposed sides. Window sashes are hand made and double glazed.
“On the north side of the original building is an 82-foot-long series of connected, single-story buildings. The first, about 15 feet long, was probably a kitchen. Its fenestration includes a six pane window measuring 24″ x 24″ in front, a six pane window measuring 33″ x 26″ in the rear, and a small doorway measuring 26″ x 51″ in the southeast corner.”
The description continues in this descriptive vein for paragraph after paragraph, detailing the original lodge, the additions, and the garage, workshop, and storage areas. The current description circa 2000 noted the original building was still standing: “The roof has been braced. Its second floor sags and the staircase is unsound. Much of the wood floor is gone. Some walls are covered with layers of painted canvas and some of the canvas is still intact. The southwest corner has subsided two to three feet and the west wall has buckled. The dirt floor has sunk two to three feet in the center. Logs on the north and east walls appear sound; most on the south wall are deteriorated.”
The report noted that the additions and outbuildings were in various stages of disrepair and added, “the present owners plan to stabilize the parts of the roadhouse standing in 1920. They plan to remove the 1950s addition. Although deteriorated, the building still conveys the sense of a typical roadside business in Alaska in the early 1900s.”
In his book Alaska’s Wolf Man: The 1915-55 Wilderness Adventures of Frank Glaser (Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., 1998), based on interviews with Frank Glaser done forty years earlier, author Jim Rearden describes the area around the Black Rapids Roadhouse in Glaser’s own words: “From Miller Roadhouse to Black Rapids Glacier Roadhouse I became very excited. This was the kind of country I had dreamed about. With binoculars I spotted white sheep skirting the high mountain crags. A yellow-backed brown-legged grizzly swaggered across a snow field high above timberline. Fresh caribou tracks pocked bars of the nearby Delta River.
“Black Rapids Roadhouse lies opposite 29-mile-long hugely crevassed Black Rapids Glacier; the roaring glacial Delta River separates them. Victor Columbo, Frenchman everyone called ‘Victor Columbus,’ owned the roadhouse, but he spent most of his time hunting and trapping.
“I remained at Rapids, as this roadhouse is commonly called, for five days, hiking into the mountains and peering through binoculars at distant caribou and at white sheep high on the greening peaks. I saw several more grizzlies, and checked out tracks of foxes, lynx, and other furbearers on sandy stretches of the river bar. This spectacular country, with its on-end sky-scraping rocky peaks tempted me to settle there immediately, but I went on, for I was determined to see Fairbanks, now only 145 miles distant; I could always return to Rapids.”
Frank Glaser did return to the Black Rapids Roadhouse in the fall of 1916 and built a log cabin at Darling Creek, just below the roadhouse. After a stint as an ambulance driver at Fort Dodge, Iowa during the First World War, he once again returned to the Black Rapids area in 1919, and finding the roadhouse for sale, purchased it. With traffic on the Valdez Trail greatly slowed due to the nearly-completed Alaska Railroad garnering increasing freight and passenger business between the coast and Fairbanks, Glaser hired mangers to run his roadhouse while he continued hunting and trapping.
Over the years the roadhouse had a number of owners and operators including Hugh and Lloyd Beckel (1912), Henry Colombon (1916), Russell Robinson (1918), Frank Glaser (1922), Charles Nevilius (1925), Grace Lowe and Evelyn Mahan (1930s), H. E. Revell (1930s), J.B. Coble (1946), Edith Acres (1947), Bert and Mary Hansen (1958-1974), Jerry and Wanda McMillian (1974-at least to the mid-1980s), Earl Tourgeau, and Annie and Michael Hopper.
For three months in 1937 the Black Rapids Glacier made national news by advancing across the valley at the rate of a mile a month, winning the nickname the “galloping glacier.” Otto William Geist, pioneer Alaskan archeologist, paleontologist and naturalist, made the only accurate observations of the Black Rapids Glacier’s 1937 advance, and in an article for the Fairbanks Daily News Miner Geist wrote, “Early in April, four of us, outfitted with heavy survey instruments as well as barometers, cameras, thermometers, bedding, food, and a tent, were landed by plane on the glare ice of the river two miles above the face of the glacier. The next day Harry Revell brought our equipment to the foot of the glacier with his dogs and we pitched our tent less than 300 feet from the face of the glacier. The vast river of ice that stretched for a mile and a half across the valley, twenty-five mile sor more back, and 400 to 500 feet high, seemed to be a living, sinister mass. It rumbled and crashed and shook the earth until we could easily imagine we were in front line trenches. Even the dogs barked at it. While we were there, the glacier’s advance was a little over 25 feet per day. Since it began to move nearly a year ago, it has covered a distance of approximately four miles.”
The 27-mile long glacier has since retreated, but the moraine can still be seen from Richardson Highway pullout. After 10 years of construction Michael and Annie Hopper opened a new 7,300 square foot timber framed, handmade lodge in 2009, on the bluff overlooking the Black Rapids Glacier and Delta River, and began the restoration of the the 100 year old Black Rapids roadhouse located on the road below the lodge. A year-by-year report on the progress of the roadhouse restoration is available at the lodge’s website.
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.
$24.95 plus $5.00 S&H
Click on the book image to order your copy!
Available at Amazon, eBay, and your local independent bookstores.
Postal orders can be mailed to Northern Light Media, Post Office Box 870515, Wasilla, Alaska 99687-0515.