New transportation routes bring life–and death–to Doyle’s and other Alaska Roadhouses
The Richardson Highway, like many roads in Alaska, has been rerouted many times. Its predecessor, the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, experienced the same growing pains. Soon after the Valdez-Eagle Trail (the Trans-Alaska Military Road) was blazed (between 1899-1901), prospectors heading for the Tanana Valley pushed through a winter trail to Fairbanks that took off from the Military Road north of Gulkana. However, the first segment of the winter trail to the Tanana did not follow the Richardson’s present route.
The original route took off from the village of Gakona, two miles east of Gakona Junction at the confluence of the Gakona and Copper rivers. Ahtna Indians have lived in the Copper River valley for thousands of years, and there was a seasonal fish camp located here. (This later became a permanent village.) The trail to Fairbanks climbed along the Gakona River toward Isabell Pass, and then descended along the Delta and Tanana rivers.
A telegraph station on the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS) was built at Gakona, and in 1902 Jim Doyle staked a homestead nearby. Doyle built a single-story sod-roofed roadhouse in 1904 to serve the miner’s and other travelers headed for Fairbanks. It was known as Doyle’s Roadhouse or Doyle’s Ranch.
According to the book, “The Trail: The Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail,” the Valdez Transportation Company took over management of the roadhouse the next winter, changing the name to Gakona Roadhouse. The VTC expanded the building by adding a second story and attached lean-to.
The Gakona Roadhouse saw a bustling business in the early years of the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, even hosting Judge James Wickersham in February 1905. Wickersham wrote in his book, “Old Yukon,” “We found a good roadhouse at the mouth of the Gakona River, a tributary of the Copper coming down from the great snowy range of mountains in the north towards which we were traveling and over which we had to make our way.”
Gakona’s prosperity was not to last, though. The early Valdez-Fairbanks Trail was a winter-only trail, and Interior Alaska residents quickly began demanding year-round access. The Alaska Road Commission completed an all-season wagon road to Fairbanks in 1910, but the new route took off toward Fairbanks from Gulkana, bypassing Gakona (and three other roadhouses north of the Gakona Roadhouse). The new segment (about 84 miles long) rejoined the existing trail near Summit Lake.
Travelers bound for Fairbanks had made up the bulk of the Gakona Roadhouse’s business. (The Klondike gold rush died down about the time the boom in Fairbanks began, so few travelers took the Valdez-Eagle trail all the way to Eagle.) Gakona roadhouse saw an almost immediate drop in business, and for a number of years it existed mainly as a trading post. The three roadhouses north of Gakona faded back into the wilderness.
Gold mining did bring the Gakona roadhouse back to life however. The ARC improved the road from Gakona Junction northeast to Slana in the 1920s to serve new gold mining activity at Nabesna. This brought sufficient business to the area to warrant a new, larger roadhouse being built in 1929. The new roadhouse is still in business as the Gakona Lodge.
Doyle’s Roadhouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, and the Gakona Historic District (including the present lodge, ice house, barn, and storage buildings) was added to the National Register in 2001.
The old roadhouse, located several hundred yards from the newer Gakona Lodge, is now empty and deteriorating. If you are interested in roadhouses, go see it quick before it too disappears.
- “Alaska’s Heritage, Chapter 4-10: Road Transportation,” Alaska Humanities Forum, 2012
- “History of Gakona Lodge,” Greg Marshall, 2011, Gakona Lodge website
- “Old Yukon: Tales, Trails and Trials,” James Wickersham, 1938,Washington Law Book Company
- “Roadhouses of the Richardson Highway,” Walter Phillips, 1985, Alaska Historical Commission
- “The Trail, the Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail,” Kenneth Marsh, 2008, Trapper Creek Museum