Richardson Highway Flooding: In 1915, Alaska Road Commission Put Horses At Creek Crossings

Fragile Rope of Highways & Bridges Still Links Us to the Outside World    The Alaska Road Commission stationed horses along the upper Ri...

Fragile Rope of Highways & Bridges Still Links Us to the Outside World   

The Alaska Road Commission stationed horses along the upper Richardson to help vehicles get across Gunn Creek in 1915.  (Alaska State Library Historical Collections)

Richardson Highway, Closed by Flood Ravaged Creeks, Is A Reminder of Our Precarious Situation  

The Copper River Valley never changes. Beneath our daily lives is a powerful, unyielding wilderness. To this day, its underlying dangers can kill us. 

Our region is as cold in the winter as the northernmost point in Antarctica. But summer is difficult, too. The Copper Valley is covered with permafrost swamps and impenetrable black spruce thickets.  Our frigid water is a killer. Lakes, raging creeks, swampy ponds and wide and muddy glacial rivers bring a constant threat of death. 

In 1898, aware that the region was almost impossible to traverse by thrashing blindly through the spruce, the Alaska Road Commission and U.S. Army began building a trail. 

The Valdez Trail followed natural routes through mountains and across the valley. It was basic and linear, like a rope. 

The makers of the trail from Valdez considered it an achievement to provide a path through the wilderness from one small lodge to another. Altogether, on the trail to Fairbanks, there were 30 lodges, each around 10 miles apart. Running beside the lodges was a telegraph line – the most sophisticated communications system in the United States, tying Fairbanks on the Tanana River and Eagle on the Yukon River to Washington, D.C.  

At each telegraph station — and there were around 15 of them — was a cabin with white paint daubed on the butts of the logs. It was a sign that this was where travelers could reach the outside world. 

These little cabins were the Army Corps’ “relief stations.” (You can see one of those cabins at Salmon Grove Charters in their parking lot by the Klutina River.) 

The cabins housed Signal Corpsmen, who worked on the telegraph lines when they broke under the weight of snow, like CVEA works on lines today.  Along with the lodge owners, the Corpsmen were the guardians of the trails. 

The trails needed guarding. They were deadly. 

In the early 1900s, on the Valdez to Fairbanks Trail, you traveled the trail on the Orr winter stage line. Travelers — men, women, small babies — made the lengthy trip, bundled up in furs, hoping to build a new life in Fairbanks. 

Why winter, though? In those days, almost everyone traveled in winter. It was terribly dangerous in winter, too, of course. One winter, 12 Orr stage travelers got lost in a snowstorm a few miles north of Paxson and all 12 froze to death on the sled in the winter winds. There were many other incidents when travelers died out on the trail, or lost their limbs, or were never seen again, or just inexplicably dropped dead.  

But winter was safer than summer.  A sled or wagon needs a bridge to get across a river or stream.  Just like now, bridges were hard to build. And, just like now, even when a bridge was built, it often washed out.  

So winter was the “best” time, in spite of vicious windstorms, blizzards, whiteouts and avalanches. 

Ice provided a temporary winter “bridge” for the sleds, allowing them to cross over rivers and the fancifully named creeks such as “Suzy Q Creek” or “Gunny Sack Creek.” 

Both of those creeks were part of a string of water crossings north of Paxson. Along with many others, and one called “Gunn Creek” they were part of an exceptionally bad section of the trail. You could die anywhere, including near Copper Center. But the worst spots were in deadly Thompson Pass, and just beyond Summit Lake, north of Paxson, near the series of creeks. 

Photo: Collection of Candy Waugaman
The Valdez Trail eventually turned into the Richardson Highway. Over the years, the ice trails have been replaced by real bridges. But every so often, like this summer, the underlying truths of the Copper Valley, and the trails of Alaska, suddenly reveal themselves. 

The Richardson is nothing but a glorified version of the Valdez Trail. Its dangers have never left us.

When well over a dozen bridges and creeks were damaged by floods this month north of Paxson, it was the same old tale. In the years since the Gold Rush and the early trails, we have lost the safety of the telegraph line, which was ripped down. We have lost many of the old roadhouses, with their concerned lodge owners and warm meals and beds. We have lost the young, strong men of the Army Corps, and their relief cabins. 

Photo DOT PF Press Release, July 14th, 2022
But the dangerous creeks and rivers and trails of Alaska are still here. Our slender lifelines of 2-lane “highways” (they’d never be called a highway in any other state) are as fragile and unreliable in many ways as the Valdez Trail once was. And meanwhile, at our other exit route, on the Glenn Highway, the boulders keep crashing onto the road at Long Lake Hill. 

This country is difficult. Its roads are dangerous. And, in spite of anything we’d like to think, this is the very same “Alaska” as a thousand years ago. It's waiting for us to make a simple error, to drive off a cliff, to hurtle off a flood-damaged bridge on one of our few roads. To suddenly enter the Twilight Zone. 

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