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.
Jim Haly’s Roadhouse in Fort Yukon was a popular gathering place for residents of the region and for anyone traveling through the Fort Yukon area. Jim Haly was known for keeping a huge kettle of rabbit stew going at all times, and according to Above the Arctic Circle: The Alaska Journals of James A. Carroll, 1911-1922: “During the winter months Jim Haly used to buy rabbits by the hundreds. He had rabbits stacked up like cordwood in his cache. He never took a chance of running out of stock for his famous soup.”
James A. Carroll, who lived in the Fort Yukon area for over fifty years, wrote a series of journals which were first published in 1957 under the title The First Ten Years in Alaska: Memoirs of a Fort Yukon Trapper, 1911-1922. They were reprinted in 2005 as Above the Arctic Circle, and Carroll wrote: “Jim Haly was a kind old French Canadian. He had married a native woman many years before. He came to Fort Yukon in 1901 and operated the same roadhouse until 1918. “Jim never turned anybody down for a meal or a bunk to sleep on. If you had no money you could stay at the Haly House as long as you wanted to. This generosity kept him more or less broke all the time. Jim’s credit was always good at the local stores and he always managed to pay his bills. Jim Haly and his wife had come into Alaska via the MacKenzie River over the Rat River portage, then down the Porcupine River to Fort Yukon.”
The photo on the left shows the overland party from the schooner Polar Bear at Jim Haly’s roadhouse in November,1913. The Polar Bear had been chartered to collect natural history specimens, but later also became a whaling cruise because of the high demand for baleen at the time. When the ship was caught by pack ice and forced to overwinter on the exposed coast of northern Alaska, four of the men left the ice-bound ship and traveled south with dog teams, following the Kongakut River. They crossed the uncharted Brooks Range, stopped at Haly’s Roadhouse on Nov. 19th, mushed on to Circle and rode on horse-drawn sledges to Fairbanks, then south to Cordova and home to Seattle in time for Christmas. Captain Louis Lane returned to the north the following spring and met the Polar Bear at Herschell Island; the tough little schooner had come through the winter safely under the skilled handling of her crew.
In his 1937 book Icy Hell, William E. Hudson, a professional photographer with the expedition and one of the four men who made the overland trek, wrote about their arrival at Fort Yukon: “I spotted the sign that carried the magic words! ‘Haly’s Road House.’ No sign ever gave me such a thrill. We pulled up in front of this most northern hostelry and stopped. A pack of loose dogs arrived on the run and challenged our faithful trail mates to a battle. We took a hand and stopped the fight. We quickly found the road-house kennels and soon had our dogs safely locked up.”
Will Hudson wrote glowingly of Haly’s roadhouse, with good descriptions of the building: “The memory of the first supper at Jim Haly’s Roadhouse will linger with me always. Jim did himself proud on that supper. Haly’s Roadhouse was an institution in that isolated territory around Fort Yukon. It was a typical log cabin such as are built for both public and private use in the Arctic northland. Built of spruce logs, closely fitted and chinked, it was a type of building that was easy to keep warm in that cold region. “Jim’s establishment was about twenty feet wide and at least a hundred feet long. Every time he had felt the need of more room he simply built on a straight line annexe. The front section was about thirty feet long and was used as a combination living-room with about a dozen bunks built two high along the sides. A drying rack was built around the stove so socks and damp clothing could be properly dried while the owner was ‘pounding his ear’ in one of the bunks. “Beyond this room was the dining room. Still further back was the kitchen, and even beyond that was Jim’s own living quarters and store rooms for his ample stocks of staple foods. His place had to be stocked for the season. There was no such thing as calling up Jones or Smith, the grocer, every time you wanted a few hams or a case of canned goods. His stock had to come in once a year, from the outside, during the shore season of navigation on ‘Old Man Yukon.’ While his food supplies were shipped in at a heavy expense, Jim’s prices were reasonable and his food surprisingly good.” Hudson went on to describe the owner of the roadhouse as well: “While resting here I had an opportunity to learn many interesting things concerning the interior from our genial host, Jim Haly. In addition to being a marvel of a frontier cook, he was a mine of information about the northland Indians and traders. Jim was born in Scotland. He came to America as a small boy and journeyed up the Mississippi River in a steamboat, finally arriving in the Yukon in 1875. Jim’s real world was the valley of the Yukon and the Porcupine. He was a big man in that world and a credit to himself. The beds at Jim’s place were just as alluring as the food. They were clean and we were in a passable condition ourselves after scrubbing off the first layer of dirt.”
Fort Yukon is located on the north bank of the Yukon River at its junction with the Porcupine River, about 145 miles northeast of Fairbanks. It is located eight miles north of the Arctic Circle, at the confluence of the Yukon and Porcupine Rivers, in the middle of the region known as the Yukon Flats. The highest temperature ever recorded in Alaska occurred in Fort Yukon on June 27, 1915, when it reached 100 °F, and until 1971, Ft. Yukon also held the all-time lowest temperature record at -78 °F.
Alexander Hunter Murray founded a Hudson’s Bay Co. trading post near the present site of Fort Yukon in 1847 as a Canadian outpost in Russian Territory. It became an important trade center for Gwich’in Indians of the Yukon Flats and River valleys. From 1846 through 1869, the Hudson Bay Co., a British trading firm, operated a trading post near the present site of Fort Yukon. A mission school was established in 1862. In 1869, two years after the purchase of Alaska from Russia, it was determined that Fort Yukon was on American soil.
The Alaska Commercial Co. then took over operation of the Fort Yukon Trading Post. In 1897, the gold rush boosted both river traffic and the white population of Fort Yukon, while disease lowered the population of Gwich’in Athabascans. By 1898, a post office was established. The area became a major Yukon settlement, buoyed by the fur trade, the whaling boom on the Arctic coast and the Klondike gold rush, and provided some economic opportunity for area Natives. But epidemics of diseases introduced by incoming whites plagued Fort Yukon Indians from the 1860s through the 1920s.
The community became headquarters for the pioneer missionary and Archdeacon of the Yukon Hudson Stuck, who, along with Walter Harper and Harry Karstens, made the first ascent of Mt. McKinley in 1913. Each winter Hudson Stuck traveled between 1,500 and 2,000 miles by dogsled to visit the missions and villages. In 1908, he acquired a shallow riverboat called The Pelican, which he used on the Yukon River and its tributaries to visit the Athabascan summer camps, where they fished and hunted. He reported that in twelve seasons’ cruises, ranging from i,800 to 5,200 miles each summer, he traveled a total of up to 30,000 miles along the rivers of Alaska. Hudson Stuck died of pneumonia at Fort Yukon in 1920, and was buried in the native cemetery there according to his wishes.
For more information:
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.