Paxson — a tale of two roadhouses
The remains of the second Paxson’s Roadhouse as it looked in early spring 2013
The tumbled-down building in the drawing, located about three miles south of Isabelle Pass along the Richardson Highway, is the second incarnation of Paxson’s Roadhouse.
According to a Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article by Judy Ferguson in 2000, Alvin J. Paxson came to Alaska in 1898 with the flood of gold seekers headed for the Klondike. However, he took the less frequently traveled trail out of Valdez to reach the gold fields, was seduced by Alaska’s charms and never made it to the Klondike.
In early winter 1905 he bumped into Ed Young at Doyle’s Roadhouse at the confluence of the Gakona and Copper rivers. Ed was a mail carrier and headed to Fairbanks from Valdez with the first mail of the winter season.
Heavy snow already blanketed the ground, and Ed needed someone to break trail for him. Alvin agreed to help if they could also locate a good location for a roadhouse near Isabelle Pass. They found a sheltered spot just south of the pass near the Gakona River. Alvin quickly bought supplies at Copper Center and set up a large tent-based operation called Timberline Roadhouse.
He learned the Alaska Road Commission (ARC) was working on a new section of the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail that ascended the Gulkana River between Gulkana and Summit Lake, bypassing the Gakona River trail — and Timberline Roadhouse. Consequently, after a busy winter running the roadhouse Alvin began scouting for a better location.
After looking over the proposed route and talking with ARC engineers, he decided on a site just a few miles to the west (on the opposite side of the ridge) in a sheltered area about three miles south of Summit Lake. In 1906 Alvin erected a 30-foot by 80-foot two-story log structure just east of the new trail, surrounded by thick spruce and protected from the harsh winds blowing down out of the pass.
His choice of location proved to be an excellent one, and the small community of Paxson sprang up around the roadhouse. Orr Stage Line appreciated the location and made Paxson a regular stop. Within a few years of the roadhouse’s establishment, trails to new mining areas (Slate Creek to the east and Valdez Creek to the west) were blazed that took off from the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail in the vicinity of Paxson, so the little community became a junction and supply point.
Alvin ended up building several barns and outbuildings to support his growing operation. The Washington Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System erected a telegraph station nearby. A general store quickly joined the little community, and in 1912 a post office was established. Fred Nichols, who also operated Yost’s Roadhouse along the Delta River, bought the roadhouse in 1913. Nichols ran the roadhouse until 1923, when it was destroyed by fire.
Dan Whiteford acquired the operation in 1928 and rebuilt the roadhouse —or rather converted the roadhouse’s old single-story horse-tack drying barn into a new roadhouse. He began by sectioning off the interior with temporary walls made from cheesecloth hung from the rafters. Over the next few years he improved the building and constructed log additions at its north and south ends.
Emil Goulet, who mined and trapped in the area during the 1930s, wrote in his 1949 book, Rugged Years on the Alaska Frontier, that Paxson was a popular tourist stopover. The lodge was a mecca for hunters and fishermen, and its walls were adorned with wildlife trophies.
According to Walter Phillips’ book, Roadhouses of the Richardson Highway, the roadhouse (which by now was called Paxson Lodge) was sold in 1934 to Russell Keith, and in 1943 to John Windust.
In 1957 a fire consumed the roadhouse’s southern addition and most of the central section. The newly constructed Denali Highway was opened that same year, and Windust built a new lodge about a mile to the south, at the junction of the Richardson and Denali highways.
The old roadhouse (No. 2), its northern addition still in fairly good condition in the 1980s, crumbled over time. For many years it was obscured by brush, but recent highway right-of-way clearing has revealed it once again.
- “Denali maintenance issue hits Paxson Lodge,” in Alaska Journal of Commerce. Nancy Pounds. July 2002
- Roadhouses of the Richardson Highway. Walter Phillips. Alaska Historical Commission. 1984
- Rugged Years on the Alaska Frontier. Emil Goulet. Dorrance & Company. 1949
- “Tent or modern inn, Paxson’s still a refuge,” in Heartland Magazine. Judy Ferguson. Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 2-20-2000
- The Trail, the Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. Kenneth Marsh. Trapper Creek Museum. 2008