Photography

The Vanishing Roadhouse

LILY GONTARD, MARK KELLY

Photographs by Mark Kelly. Text by Lily Gontard.

Silvertip, Rocky Mountain, Swift River, Silver Dollar, Pink Mountain, Steamboat, Prophet River, Toad River, Krak-R-Krik, Chickaloon: the names of roadhouses and lodges along the Alaska Highway read like fairy-tale place names.

Distance on the Alaska Highway is marked by two types of mileposts: a “historic” milepost—a white metal post tipped in black—marks the original mileage; modern-day distance is declared by narrow vertical metal stakes. From Mile 0 at Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Mile 1422, the northern terminus at Delta Junction, Alaska, many roadhouses, monuments to road travel, dot the side of the highway. But sometimes you have to pull over and stop the car, open the door and walk past the trees and shrubs that creep toward the soft shoulder and border the ditch. What hides from view is the slow degeneration of generations of roadhouse culture. A log or frame structure partially demolished, paint peeling from walls, the vinyl seating and wood panelling of 1960s or ’70s decor. Caribbean blue. Smartie purple. Seafoam. Sloppy and expanding smears of garbage.

The Alaska Highway was constructed in response to the Imperial Japanese Navy bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the growing threat of World War II encroaching from the East. In March, following the Pearl Harbor attack, United States Army Corps of Engineers troops from the lower forty-eight states started arriving in northern Canada and Alaska to begin building the road. The highway was a winding pioneer road surveyed north from BC to the Yukon Territory and then northwest ending in Big Delta, Alaska, linking a couple of short wagon roads along the way. Initial construction was completed on October 29, 1942, but even at that time the highway was barely drivable and contractors working for the Public Roads Administration had to regrade and reroute the highway. Construction camps were established to house the workers and then roadhouses sprouted up to provide meals, services and accommodations to workers and travellers. Over the years, the highway has been shortened and straightened and the total distance has changed, and now it stands at 2,233 kilometres. The official end point has also changed and can now be found in Delta Junction, 14 kilometres south of Big Delta. However, the common misperception is that the end lies 155 kilometres farther northwest, at Fairbanks.

Since the highway opened to the public in 1948, roadhouses have opened, closed and re-opened: Mile 233, Lum ’n’ Abner’s; Mile 351, Steamboat Mountain Lodge; Mile 392, Summit Lake; Mile 496, Liard Hotsprings Lodge; Mile 543, Fireside Car/Truck Stop; Mile 710, Rancheria Lodge; Mile 836, Johnson’s Crossing; Mile 1167, Bear Flats Lodge. The roadhouses and lodges were built for the convenience of highway travellers, and sold or abandoned by their owners when times got tough or it was simply time to move on.

In the 1955 edition of The Milepost, an annual guidebook first published in 1949 and considered the Alaska Highway travel bible, services were said to be available every 40 kilometres. The 2014 edition of the guidebook advised travellers to keep an eye on the fuel gauge as services are sometimes 160 to 190 kilometres apart.

Since the construction of the Alaska Highway, the roadhouse community has provided local knowledge, conversation and provisions along a remote stretch of road. The accommodations can be slightly dated, the sheets a bit worn, but you can usually get a tire patched and a tank filled with gas. On a roadhouse menu there’s usually a breakfast fry-up of eggs and a side of bacon, sausage or ham, home baking, soup made from scratch, along with diner fare such as deep-fried offerings, burgers, iceberg lettuce salad dressed with chopped pale tomatoes, and watery-weak or turpentine-strong coffee. And often, there’s a generous slice of fresh bumbleberry pie.

The pioneer road of the 1940s was paved from one end to the other long ago. The trip from Dawson Creek to Delta Junction that used to take two weeks (or more) to drive and cost several blown-out tires can easily be driven in three days. Today the driving challenges are limited to wildlife, an annual crop of potholes, frost heaves and the seemingly continuous road maintenance in the Yukon close to the US/Canada border. Occasional acts of nature—flooding, mudslides and rockslides—remind people of the importance of a roadhouse oasis in the middle of nowhere.

Several factors have caused the decline of the Alaska Highway roadhouse community: fewer tourists, a decade or more of high fuel costs, self-sufficient RV travellers, post-9/11 passport requirements for US citizens, cheaper flights from the North to the “outside.” It is probably a combination of all of these factors, but the result is that there are fewer people stopping in at the roadhouses and less demand for the services, which means more roadhouses are forced to close down for the winter or for good.

However, there is a glimmer of hope. Several non-profit and municipal groups are collaborating on the Alaska Highway Heritage Project, and have submitted an application for National Historic Site of Canada designation for the Alaska Highway corridor. If the project succeeds, the histories of the Alaska Highway roadhouses and their proprietors, who provided essential services, will be preserved in some form, even if, as is traditional in roadhouse culture, the owners change, or the landscape slowly overtakes the abandoned buildings along one of the most mythical highways in the world.

Lily Gontard is a writer whose fiction, poetry and non-fiction have appeared in magazines including The Puritan, Cirque and Event. She lives in Whitehorse.

Mark Kelly is a photographer and therapist. He lives in Whitehorse.

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LILY GONTARD, MARK KELLY

Lily Gontard is a writer whose fiction, poetry and non-fiction have appeared in magazines including The Puritan, Cirque and Event. She lives in Whitehorse.


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