2012  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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   TOUR OF HISTORIC RIKA'S ROADHOUSE & LANDING
AT BIG DELTA STATE HISTORICAL PARK, ALASKA

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 6

 
"One of the greatest aspects of coming to an area in Alaska is learning about its  
tremendous history. At Big Delta State Historic Park you get to take a walk through the
past. This site was an important crossroad for travelers, traders, and the military during the
early days of the 20th Century. Rika's Roadhouse is the centerpiece of the park."
 
~ from the Big Delta State Historic Park web page
 
 
We really enjoyed stopping here for about 45 minutes on our journey toward the Canadian border and recommend other travelers take some time to check out this historic place.

It's free, you can wander around the grounds and buildings at will, and there's something to learn and enjoy regardless of your interests.


Jim and Cody stand near an outbuilding converted into a museum; the roadhouse is in the background.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE

The current town of Big Delta, originally called McCarty, began as a trading post in the early 1900s. It was located on the Tanana River at the intersection of waterways, trails (later, roads), and telegraph lines.

The roadhouse was built in 1905 in to serve gold rush prospectors and other travelers on the original trail between Delta Junction and Fairbanks. This roadhouse, like others in Alaska, served as a hotel, restaurant, post office, trading post, liquor store, and community business and social hub for over four decades.


The front of the roadhouse faced the Tanana River.

Erika "Rika" Wallen, a Swedish immigrant who came to Alaska with her sister in 1916, was hired the next year to operate the roadhouse for its owner.

It absolutely flourished under her management and she was able to purchase the building in 1923 for "$10 and other considerations" (most likely in lieu of back pay). At that time the roadhouse had eleven bedrooms, a living room, and a large kitchen/dining area.

 

Rika became a U.S. citizen two years later and wisely filed a homestead claim on 160 acres of land around the roadhouse. Later she was able to acquire another 160 acres of adjoining land.

These plots of land were given to early homesteaders in Alaska for basically nothing, as long as applicants maintained a home and lived off their land for several years. It was great incentive to get more people to live in this harsh, remote environment. Many homesteads still belong to the families of the original recipients.


Interpretive sign showing Rika and describing the tough life
facing homesteaders in Alaska in the first half of the 20th Century

Rika was quite the enterprising entrepreneur and folks loved the place, which was soon called "Rika's Roadhouse." Guests knew they could always get a comfortable bed and tasty meal at Rika's place.

Rika make extensive improvements to the original building and added a large wing to it in 1926 for more living space, a post office, liquor store, and fur storage. You can see the wing on the back of the roadhouse in the next photo:

 

 

This hard-working woman served many roles in addition to being the manager of the roadhouse -- chef, postmaster, farmer/gardener, weaver/seamstress, etc.

One of her many skills was farming/gardening. It's been reported that she could grow things that no one else could in that area of Alaska. Those skills made her rather famous. She probably did more with that first 160 acres than most homesteaders did with theirs.

Her garden was so successful that the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Alaska studied her techniques.

Above and below:  I'd guess that Rika's garden was larger than what's cultivated now.

Rika wanted to be able to serve a variety of fresh foods to her guests, including milk, cheese, butter, meat, poultry, wild game, berries, orchard fruits, and vegetables. That was unusual in Alaska in the 1920s and '30s, especially before the Alaska Hwy. was built in the 1940s.

Heck, it's still difficult in 2012 to find excellent fresh produce and specialty foods in most areas of Alaska because so much has to be transported into the state from elsewhere!

 

 

With assistance, Rika built pens and a large barn (shown above) to house Holstein cows, sheep, goats, and other animals year-round, even through the frigid winters. Even now you won't find very many cows in Alaska but Rika's barn was so well heated and ventilated that all the livestock did just fine.

Rika had an orchard and grew crops in her large garden to feed her guests. She kept horses, mules, and oxen to help cultivate grain crops to feed the livestock.

She also raised ducks, geese, chickens, rabbits, honeybees, and silver fox as other sources of food to eat and fibers to weave. That was quite a menagerie!

Above and below:  The only animals on display now are chickens and sheep.

As one sign explains, all this was hard work for one woman.

At times she employed a cook and hired some miners to help with the crops, construct and repair the buildings, and perform other jobs. She needed the help and they needed grubstake during the winter when mining was difficult.

END OF AN ERA

Rika continued operating the popular roadhouse until the early 1950s. Various circumstances had changed significantly by then and roadhouses every 15 to 20 miles were no longer necessary for travelers.

 


Children's sleigh hand-crafted in 1915

Since the 1970s the road house, outbuildings, and ten acres of land surrounding them have been part of the Big Delta State Historical Park, maintained and managed by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources' Division of Parks & Outdoor Recreation. The roadhouse is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The house and a cabin (photos below) have been restored and serve as museums showcasing furnishings and other items used in the 1920s and '30s. Many of the items were donated by local residents.

 

 

Entrance to the park is free. Visitors can wander freely around the grounds and in the buildings or take a professional tour.

Jim and I enjoyed wandering around the place at our own pace. We really enjoyed all the flowers and historical information/photos/displays. I bet there are even more flowers in bloom during the summer and probably some veggies and herbs growing in the garden.

Above and below:  sweet peas

 

Above and below:  nasturtiums

Some features in the historical park have a fee. A park concessionaire runs a gift shop and the Packhouse Pavilion, where meals are served.

There are also about two dozen RV sites in the large shaded parking area. This would be a good place to camp if it's about time to stop for the day. Camping amenities include water, restrooms, and a dump station.

RIKA'S LANDING & BRIDGING THE RIVER

The wide Tanana River flows about 200 feet from the house. It used to be a very busy "landing" area for boats carrying goods up and down the Tanana River to Fairbanks and other communities. A ferry carried people and supplies from one side of the river to the other before a bridge was constructed, especially prospectors traveling the early gold trail between Valdez and Eagle.

When the Alaska Hwy. was built in the 1940s it was located about a quarter mile from the roadhouse. A wooden bridge was built over the river, rendering the ferry obsolete. The current steel span was built later.

 

We walked near the former river landing in front of the roadhouse and I took the pictures above.

The next photo shows the bridge (far left) we crossed over the Tanana River just downstream from the roadhouse. The Alyeska Pipeline also crosses the river at that location:


The tall span on the right in that photo has cables that hold the pipeline above the water.


We were within 25-30 feet of the pipeline at this fence in the parking lot for Rika's Roadhouse.

When we were at the visitor center in Delta Junction a few miles later there was a graphic display showing the diameter of the Alyeska Pipeline in comparison to two much smaller pipes used to carry petroleum products through Alaska prior to the 1970s:

 


You can see that the Alyeska Pipeline is MUCH LARGER than the previous pipes that were used.

Although there has been controversy about the pipeline and some inevitable problems with it, from what I've read and heard while we've been in Alaska there have been many benefits from it for the state, its residents, and our country as a whole. I think the less dependent we are on other countries for our petroleum products, the better.

If you're in the area, we recommend a stop at this historical park. It's fun -- and a little scary? --  to imagine living in Alaska in the early 20th Century. What Rika and other homesteaders/entrepreneurs accomplished amazes me. We take so much for granted today.

Next entry:  Day 2 on the journey south -- Snag Junction, YT to Whitehorse, YT

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the ultra Lab

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2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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