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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  Land Sea Air  >  Trails and Rails
The Richardson Highway (Formerly the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail)
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Alaska's first highway sprang from a frontier pack trail that served thousands of gold miners as the Valdez-Eagle Trail and later as the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. In its first two decades, after several growth spurts, it was groomed to accommodate motorized traffic and named for General Wilds P. Richardson, the first president of the Alaska Road Commission. Today the Richardson Highway extends 364 miles from Valdez to Fairbanks.

The evolution of the road began in 1899, under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army, with construction of a 93-mile packhorse trail connecting Valdez and Tonsina River. Much of the primitive trail was comprised of corridors already in use by Alaska Natives across Chugach and Ahtna lands. Army trailblazers extended the route to Eagle City on the Yukon by 1901, and installation work began on the WAMCATS telegraph line. Following a 1903 visit by members of a Senate Subcommittee on Territories, the federal government allocated funds to make further road improvements.

"The new trail quickly attracted its first common carrier," wrote National Park Service historian Geoffrey Bleakley in History of the Valdez Trail. "In December 1904, James Fish announced that his Valdez Transportation Company would soon provide passenger service to Fairbanks. "'Over such part of the trail as is practical,' he assured travelers, 'comfortable bobsleds will be fitted up and drawn by two horses. Over the summit, and wherever it is not practicable to run two horses abreast, the single double-ended sleds will be used and the horses driven tandem.' A month later the first of its tri-weekly stages left Valdez, promising a nine-day trip for the exorbitant price of $150."

In 1905, Wilds P. Richardson, president of the Alaska Road Commission, wrote the Secretary of the Army urging him to station a company of engineer troops at Valdez to work on the military trail. The army completed its survey work during 1905-1906 with a goal of bringing the trail up to wagon road status. Meanwhile the importance of Eagle was waning. With the discovery of gold in the Tanana Valley, and a shift away from the Klondike, more commercial traffic was now going through Fairbanks. Also, Judge James Wickersham had moved the Third Judicial District Court from Eagle to Fairbanks, thereby strengthening Fairbanks' role as an Interior hub. Hundreds of prospectors bound for the goldfields made use of a fork off the Valdez-Eagle Trail that was known as Castner's Path. By 1907 that portion was incorporated into the well-traveled Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. During the 1908-09 season, some 136,000 pounds of freight and mail moved over the trail.

In the next decade, winter and summer, travelers employed the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, most using saddle horses, dog teams, horse teams and double-ended sleighs, and wagons. The road surface was more passable when frozen; in summers, the byway was rutted, muddy, and in places, swamplike.

Roadhouses had developed along the route as homesteaders opened their doors or entrepreneurs built lodgings, offering meals and night's rest to weary travelers and their horses. Generally, the roadhouses were about a day's ride apart. While many of the original roadhouses have perished, many by fire, some of those that remain, such as Rika's Roadhouse at Mile 275, are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The first automobile over the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, now called the Richardson Trail, was a 1913 Model T, which was shipped into Fairbanks and purchased by Al White. The Model T covered the rugged route southbound from Fairbanks during the summer of 1914. Photographer Phinney S. Hunt captured an image of the car with its banner boasting "Fairbanks-Chitina-Valdez!! Or Bust!!" Shortly afterward, the Richardson Trail became known as the Richardson Highway.

In 1917, following a Territorial Board of Road Commissioners appropriation of $20,000, shelter cabins were erected for winter travelers. And in the post-WWI years, the federal government sent war-surplus trucks, tractors, and other road-building equipment to the territory, drastically improving road maintenance. By 1919, nearly all of the traffic on Alaska's roads was made up of motorized vehicles.

With the opening of the Alaska Railroad in 1923, traffic on the Richardson diminished. That year, President Warren G. Harding toured the state by ship, motorcar, and railroad. At Nenana, he drove the ceremonial Golden Spike that connected the northern and southern sections of the railroad, and after a visit in Valdez, the entourage drove a portion of the Richardson Highway and was entertained at a roadhouse. That year, too, Territorial Governor Scott C. Bone offered the latest statistics on the Richardson: 1,517 people, 87 motor vehicles, 30 wagons, 24 double bobsleds, 26 packhorses, and 345 tons of freight had moved on the road. Traffic had dropped dramatically in comparison with the winter of 1906-07, when as the sole road north, the trail transported 2,300 people, 160 head of cattle and 2,100 tons of freight from Valdez into the Copper River Valley or onward to Fairbanks.

Amid concerns over national defense, in 1941 the Alaska Road Commission built another road connecting Anchorage to the Richardson, dubbing it the Glenn Highway. The new road would join Anchorage and Fairbanks, linking the strategic air bases in each city. And during the post-war years, the Secretary of Defense ordered surface upgrades on Alaska's three major roads -- the Alaska Highway, Richardson Highway, and Glenn Highway. While the Richardson Highway was coated with an all-weather surface, it was not paved until 1957.

The trans-Alaska pipeline, built in the mid-1970s, paralleled the Richardson Highway for nearly half of the pipeline route from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay. In the 21st century, the one-time frontier trail remains a major transportation link between the ice-free port of Valdez and the great Interior, offering residents and visitors alike access to many communities, recreation, or simply an unsurpassed scenic drive.

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The Valdez-Fairbanks Trail (Constructed 1898-1906)

Gallery of Images
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Worthington Glacier
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View on the Richardson Highway, glacial canyon, Delta River near Rapids Roadhouse
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Valdez-Fairbanks wagon road, Va[l]dez end
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The 1928 Alaska Tour by Governor George A. Parks, Major Malcolm Elliott, Mr. R.J. Sommers
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The 1928 Alaska Tour by Governor George A. Parks, Major Malcolm Elliott, Mr. R.J. Sommers
Click here for all 17 photos in this gallery.

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