Food, Glorious Food! How Roadhouses Became The Heart & Soul Of Our Corner Of Alaska

  OUR ALASKA By The Copper River Country Journal  Sullivan Roadhouse in Delta Junction. (Photo, Country Journal)  You Can Drag 400 Lbs. Of F...


By The Copper River Country Journal 

Sullivan Roadhouse in Delta Junction. (Photo, Country Journal) 

You Can Drag 400 Lbs. Of Flour Across Alaska…

But Can You Actually Turn It Into Dinner?

Native Villages & Roadhouses Provided 
       Food For Soldiers & Miners In The Wilds                

"For the cross-country skier Martin Moeller, the biggest challenge of his sport is not the freezing cold, the intense training or the grueling toll of competition. It’s eating. And eating. And eating again."

From: "Olympic Cross-Country Skiers Eat 8,000 Calories a Day." New York Times, February 2018

It was rough work, slogging your way across the wilds of Alaska. The gold miners of 1898 were constantly hungry, even though every one of them was dragging along at least 1,000 pounds of food.

Today, you can go to the Pioneer Museum in Fairbanks, and see a Gold Rush-era Montgomery Ward poster with the heading, "We Know What You'll Need in Alaska."  

The Montgomery Ward list included:
400 lbs. of flour, 20 lbs. of corn meal, 40 lbs. rolled oats, 25  lbs. rice, 75 lbs. beans, 75 lbs spllt peas, 25 lbs salt pork, 2.25 ozs saccharine, 10 lbs. baking powder, 150 lbs bacon, 25 lbs dried beef, 2 lbs. soda, 6 packages of yeast cakes, 24 lbs salt, 2 dozen cans evaporated milk,  5 lbs. raisins,  25 lbs. coffee, 10 lbs. tea,  a lb. of pepper, half a pound of mustard, 20 lbs. evaporated apples, 6 jars beef extract, half a pound ground ginger, 20 lbs. evaporated peaches, 25 lbs. evaporated potatoes and 5 lbs. evaporated onions. 


The food the gold miners dragged along was difficult to deal with. It required clean water, cooking time, and heat.  In 2013, on the reality TV show,  "Ultimate Survivor: Alaska,"  Dallas and Tyrell Seavey of Seward demonstrated this problem, as they hacked their way across Alaska carrying an approximation of "Gold Rush” food in the competition. The Seaveys couldn’t handle it. They ate their rice and beans raw. 

Most of the men who came north during the Gold Rush didn't know how to cook. either. And why would they? In the late 1800s, as the population fled to the big cities, up to half of all Americans either ran a boarding house – or lived in one as a tenant. Their food was made for them. By women. 

Boy Scout cooking – that expertise with a Dutch oven and learning to fry bread on a stick over a campfire – well, that hadn't been invented yet. Mainly because there were no Boy Scouts in 1898. The Boy Scouts wouldn't come along  until 1910. 

When up to 4,000 people flooded into Alaska during the Valdez-Copper Valley Gold Rush, they came looking for big game.  It wasn't that easy. As the military explorer, Lt. Joseph  Castner, wrote in 1898 of his lengthy trek across Alaska, "I saw the tracks of perhaps a thousand moose, yet they are so shy, so quick to discern your presence, I never saw but one live one." 

The search for food was endless.  Captain Edwin Glenn (the guy they named the Glenn Highway after) was so hungry on the trail that he pounded sphagnum moss into flour and made it into bread. Which he was hungry enough to find "very palatable."

When Lt. Henry T. Allen first explored Interior Alaska, in 1885, he was always on the search for food. Allen had planned ahead, and brought a lot of supplies with him from the outside world. But he quickly abandoned them after trying to drag his gear across the muddy Cordova flats. Then he announced that his expedition would just live off the land. Easier said than done. 

For a while, Allen and his men shot snowshoe hares.  But, the little band of soldiers discovered an even better source of food: Provided by the locals.

As Allen reported later: "We were always so delighted to arrive at a settlement….It is (the rule) among the natives to provide some kind of refreshments on the arrival of a guest, and we early learned to expect it as a matter of course."

Like modern day Olympic skiers, in need of their 8,000 calories, Allen and his men ate like horses.  Every small Native village was like a Golden Corral restaurant. Once, after marching for 30 miles, Allen and his men reached Chitina Chief Nicolai's house. Allen wrote they "found" a 5 gallon kettle "filled with meat." The soldiers immediately tore into it. They drank and ate 5 pounds each, fell asleep, and woke up "nearly as hungry as before." Then (apparently with little heed to good manners) they started eating all over again.

The early 1900s seem long ago to us, but it was actually a pretty modern time.  Canned goods were already available. And the many roadhouses that grew up on Alaska's trails took advantage of this fact. 

By 1906, local cafes in Alaska had a more extensive – and more sophisticated – menu than many Alaskan lodges and restaurants do today.

At the Royal Cafe, at Cleary Creek north of Fairbanks, for example, miners could come in and get comfort food:  Corn meal mush with cream, grapenuts, and homemade raspberry, strawberry and blackberry preserves. There was corn on the cob, and fried hominy and corn fritters. There was limburger cheese, and fried eggs and chicken livers and broiled kidneys on toast -- as well as German pancakes, chicken tamales, and pork and beans.

For those who wanted to be fancy, oysters were available  at Cleary Creek – prepared 12 different ways, from raw to cocktail, to stew, to oyster loaf.  There were T-bone steaks, porterhouse steaks, and sirloin steaks -- and mushrooms, asparagus and hothouse tomatoes – along with shrimp and lobster salad, roast mutton, and even caviar sandwiches on toast. 

Alaska's roadhouse food won the battle over raw flour, uncooked rice and bags of pinto beans, hands-down.


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