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.
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
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
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
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.
below: sweet peas
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
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
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the ultra Lab
© 2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil