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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  Land Sea Air  >  Trails and Rails
The Valdez-Fairbanks Trail (Constructed 1898-1906)
By Tricia Brown Page 1 of 2   Next ยป

"The man that starts in to pull 1500 lbs of supplies from Valdez to the top of the summit must needs have plenty of grit, a good supply of muscle, for it is no easy task and I firmly believe that many of the parties now put down at Valdez alone to overcome this task would fail, but seeing others going over, with determination set in every line of their faces, they brace up and proceed and finally to their surprise almost, they have accomplished what under other circumstances would have proven impossible."

-Diary of prospector George Hazelet, May 1, 1898, Valdez Museum & Historical Archive 

"Every day we hear of some fellow we used to meet going and coming on the trail that has backed out and is offering his outfit for sale."

-Diary of prospector Guiteau, March 11, 1898
From Valdez Gold Rush Trails 1898-99, by Jim and Nancy Lethcoe

Like many other enterprises in Alaska, the beginnings of the 386-mile Valdez-Fairbanks Trail were steeped in gold mining. Once gold was discovered in the Klondike, the rush was on. Stampeders poured up the Inside Passage and over the White Pass or Chilkoot Pass to access Canada's goldfields. Others opted to steam to St. Michael on Alaska's western coast and travel a thousand miles up the Yukon River. Near the turn of the century, the U.S. government was looking for a shorter, faster "All-American Route" to the Klondike.

A siren call also led some stampeders to Valdez, Alaska, as all over the United States, the headlines of 1897-98 promised "Gold in Alaska!" and "Valdez Glacier - Best Trail!" write Jim and Nancy Lethcoe in Valdez Gold Rush Trails of 1898-99. The stories boasted yet another gold rush, this one to the Copper River Valley.

"Steamship companies promoted the Valdez Glacier Trail praising it as the only All-American trail to Alaska's Interior," the Lethcoes write. "It was one of the greatest hoaxes in Alaska's history. The prospectors arrived to find a glacier trail twice as long and steep as reported. With frontier grit, they set about hand sledding more than a thousand pounds of supplies over the glacier, building boats, rafting the Klutina River's Hell's Gate rapids, and prospecting unnamed creeks. By August most of the 4,000 or more gold-rushers knew they had been conned."

Yet news of the gold in the Klondike was genuine, and many prospectors considered the Valdez entry point as an alternative to the route up the Inside Passage. The shortcut would lead to Eagle, Alaska, where miners could complete their journey upriver on the Yukon River or work the streams around Circle, Eagle, and Fortymile country.

Early trailblazers were determined to find a safer, more efficient route, and in 1899, under the jurisdiction of U.S. Army Lt. William P. Abercrombie, surveyors began work on a trail from Valdez to Eagle City. Destitute prospectors labored along with the soldiers to finish the trail by 1901. It became known as the Trans-Alaska Military Road or the Valdez-Eagle Trail. Much of the primitive trail was comprised of corridors already in use by Alaska Natives across Chugach and Ahtna lands. Meanwhile, installation work began on the WAMCATS telegraph line along the trail, and 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 A 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."

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 its role as an Interior hub. Hundreds of prospectors bound for the Interior made use of a fork off the Valdez-Eagle Trail that was known as Castner's Path or the Valdez Trail. By 1907 that portion was incorporated into the well-traveled Valdez-Fairbanks Trail.

In the next decade, winter or summer, thousands of travelers employed the trail, mostly by saddle horse, dog team, horse and double-ended sleigh, and wagons. The U.S. mail as well as tons of freight were transported over the trail. Roadhouses developed along the route as homesteaders opened their doors, 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, those that remain are on the National Register of Historic Places.

The first automobile over the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail was a 1913 Model T, which was shipped into Fairbanks and purchased by Al White. The Model T covered the rugged trail 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 trail was renamed the Richardson Highway after General Wilds P. Richardson, the first president of the Alaska Road Commission.

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Related Articles
The Richardson Highway (Formerly the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail)

Gallery of Images
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Freighting near the summit of Thom[p]son Pass on Valdez-Fairbanks Trail
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A trail barn
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A stage load of travelers
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Going up Valdez summit
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Horse pack train crossing a patch of snow on Valdez-Fairbanks Trail
Click here for all 6 photos in this gallery.

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