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The Evolution of the Richardson Highway

by Murray Lundberg

Dateline: May 14, 1998.

Click on the photos to enlarge them

      For the first 150 years or so after the arrival of the first Europeans in Alaska, the primary transportation routes for the explorers, traders and prospectors were along the waterways. With the vast distances involved, building trails was generally not even considered in most areas. The Klondike Gold Rush, however, changed that in a dramatic way.

      With the huge influx of people, finding a way to the goldfields through Alaska would mean more development on the American side of the border, and thus more money for the federal government, which had still not yet convinced many people that the purchase of Alaska 30 years previously had been a good deal for the United States. Several explorations of the Alaskan interior, notably one by U.S. Army Lieutenant Henry T. Allen in 1885, had produced an enormous amount of new information, but in 1898, the primary routes to the goldfields were on Canadian soil for much, and in 2 cases (the Ashcroft and Edmonton "Trails"), all of their length.

      In 1898, as the gold rush was at its peak, the U.S. Army sent exploration teams to Alaska to locate a practical "All-American" route. The main corridors under initial consideration were the Susitna and Matanuska Valleys at the head of Cook Inlet, and the Copper River area. Captain William R. Abercrombie was in charge of the Copper River parties, and at the season's end, his suggestion that a trail could be built from Valdez was accepted. Valdez was already a booming town, a base for the prospectors who were heading to the Klondike along a route, discovered in January 1898, that led across the Valdez Glacier. This route, heavily promoted by the Pacific Steam Whaling Company in particular, was an exceptionally difficult and dangerous route, and many deaths resulted.

      In the early spring of 1899, work started on what would eventually become the Richardson Highway. Cut as a 5-foot-wide pack trail initially, progress was fairly rapid - by the end of the summer, the first 40 miles or so (the most difficult section) had been completed, and 93 miles surveyed and cleared. As well as the regular crews, the government hired destitute prospectors at $50 a month plus board, allowing hundreds to accumulate enough cash to escape the country.

      The following year, construction on a military telegraph network began. A crucial part of the network was a line from Fort Liscum, at Valdez, to Fort Egbert, at Eagle. Much of the pack trail was upgraded as part of that work. The trail was further improved in 1902 due to the rush to the new gold strike near what is now Fairbanks, and the current highway follows that route fairly closely. During that rush, the first permanent roadhouses were built along the trail. At least one of them, the Copper Center Lodge, is still operating (although in a newer building, constructed in 1932).

      Following the formation of the Board of Road Commmissioners in 1904, upgrading of the road was fairly steady, against the objections of many who thought that this one 409-mile road received far too high a percentage of the annual appropriations. That fact, however, was justified by the government as a prudent response to the proven mineral riches that were made accessible by the road. Of particular note was the mountain of copper found at Kennicott.

      In 1913, the Army sent a truck on a trip from Valdez to Fairbanks and back - it was able to make about 50 miles each day, and the use of trucks and automobiles on the road had became common within a couple of years. By 1919, 90% of the traffic was motorized. To finance the highway maintenance, tolls were instituted for commercial vehicles in 1933 - passenger vehicles, carrying from 5 to 15 passengers, were charged $100-175 per trip, with freight trucks charged by the pound. Despite heavy lobbying for decades, it wasn't until 1957 that the highway was paved.

      Throughout most of the road's history, the climb from Valdez to Thompson Pass, and the passage through Keystone Canyon have been the main trouble spots. In only 7 miles, the road had to climb 2,500 feet, and even today, it's an awesome grade. The trail through the canyon used to be high above the Lowe River (and can still be walked for much of its length), but now is on the canyon floor. The waterfalls in the canyon continue to attract people, from photographers in the summer to ice-climbers in the winter. There are few signs of the early days along the current highway, but it remains one of the most dramatic routes through Alaska.

References & Further Reading:

  • Joan M. Antonson and William S. Hanable - Alaska's Heritage: Unit 4 - Human History: 1867 to Present (Anchorage: Alaska Historical Commission, 1985)
  • Brigadier General William L. Mitchell - The Opening of Alaska, 1901-1903 (Missoula, MT: Pictorial Histories, 1982)

©1998-2024 by Murray Lundberg: Use for other than research purposes must be approved by the author.