Summit Lake cabin was a vital emergency shelter along Valdez-Fairbanks Trail
The portion of the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail crossing the Alaska Range at Isabel Pass was one of the most dangerous sections of the trail. The distance between Paxson’s Roadhouse, on the south side of Isabel Pass, and Yost’s Roadhouse, was only about 20 miles. However, the area is above the treeline and winters bring heavy snow, frequent blizzards and savage winds off Gulkana Glacier that whip through the pass.
Alvin Paxson built Paxson’s Roadhouse in 1906. The previous winter he operated the tent-based one-season-only Timberline Roadhouse about two miles further north. He wrote that one storm during the winter of 1905-06 lasted three days and dropped about 5 feet of snow.
Personal accounts from travelers and newspaper stories from the early 1900s contain numerous tales of the difficulties encountered by travelers traversing the winter trail and of the lives lost along the section of trail over Isabel Pass. The winter of 1909-1910 seems to have been especially hard, with at least a dozen people dying between Paxson and McCallum Creek. Numerous others who were rescued suffered debilitating cases of frost-bite.
The Washington-Alaska Military Telegraph and Cable System (WAMCATS), operated by the U.S. Army Signal Corps, erected telegraph lines along the trail. Keeping the lines over Isabel Pass functioning during winter severely tested the Signal Corps linemen’s endurance. Winter storms frequently brought the lines down and repairs had to be accomplished under often-severe weather conditions.
Walter Phillips’s 1985 book on Richardson Highway roadhouses states that a relief cabin for the linemen was constructed at Summit Lake in 1909. Built by roadhouse operator, Al Paxson, the cabin was situated near Gunn Creek at the northeastern end of the lake, at Mile 195.9 of the trail (about 3/4 mile northeast of where Summit Lake Lodge used to be).
The trail used to curve to the northwest around the northeastern end of Summit Lake. The early Richardson highway also followed this route, but now takes off straight across the lowlands at the lake’s northern end. The old road is still there, and the cabin was just a few hundred feet south of where the old road curved around the end of the lake.
The cabin was small — perhaps 8 feet by 12 feet. Since Summit Lake is above treeline, logs for the cabin had to be hauled from at least seven miles away — an arduous task during the trail’s early years.
In a 1913 photo that I have seen, it appears that the cabin’s logs were saddle-notched at the corners, but not fitted together snugly, leaving gaps between logs, with little or no chinking. There is a door opening cut into the cabin’s south side, but apparently no door. A minimalist roof covers the structure: a loose grid of saplings laid over the rafters with what appears to be a layer of moss on top.
The photo appears to show numerous holes already worn into the moss roof, with the southeast corner of the roof lacking any covering. Since there appears to be no chimney, perhaps the moss was deliberately left off that portion of the roof to allow smoke to escape from a stove or hearth — a most spartan shelter cabin. The drawing shows this iteration of the cabin.
The cabin was undoubtedly used as emergency shelter by telegraph linemen, as well as by travelers along the trail. According to Kenneth Marsh’s book, “The Trail, the Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail,” this relief cabin, as rudimentary as it was, “helped save lives and aided the injured more than once during the operation of the telegraph line.”
I’m not sure when the relief cabin fell into disuse, probably after the telegraph stations at Paxson and McCallum Creek closed in 1925. By 1927 the trail had been upgraded to automobile standards, allowing entrepreneurs to more easily freight building supplies to Summit Lake. In the 1930s several cabins were built there, obviating the need for the relief cabin. The cabin burned at some point and all that was left by 1985 were a few charred logs.
- Edward R. McFarland photo collection, UAF archives
- “Roadhouses of the Richardson Highway, the first quarter century, 1898 to 1923.” Walter Phillips. Alaska Historical Commission. 1984
- “Roadhouses of the Richardson Highway II.” Walter Phillips. Alaska Historical Commission. 1985
- “The Trail, the Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail.” Kenneth Marsh. Trapper Creek Museum. 2008