Alaska Day 13 - Going south via 'North Pole' and a roadhouse

Copper Center Travel Blog

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Kid's letters at Santa Claus House, North Pole

Time to leave and for heading back south. We had actually started that last night driving back to Fairbanks. The most northern point in Alaska (and the US) for us had been on the Chena Hot Springs Road. Compared to Norway, Europe not even that far north, about 150 km north of Trondheim.

After the short distances of the past day we would have a big travel leg today: 422 km (262 miles) from Fairbanks to Copper Center, almost as southern as Anchorage, but more to the east. We would travel one of Alaska's oldest highways, the Richardson Highway, the 592- km (368 mile) long road from Fairbanks to Valdez. The highway dates back to 1898 when it started as a pack trail to provide access to the Klondike gold mine area.

Interior of Rika's Roadhouse, Big Delta
The arrival of the telegraph poles, along the road improved its position. In 1910 it was even upgraded to a wagon trail, a project supervised by General Richardson. In 1920 it was further upgraded to handle motorized traffic, still as a dirt road. Asphalt came only in 1957. In the 1910s when travel became more regular, roadhouses were established along the highway. These establishments provided meals and simple bedding to travelers.

Although we headed south we passed North Pole a small little village just 20 km outside Fairbanks. For Europeans Santa Claus lives in Finland (Or Greenland) but for Americans Santa lives in North Pole. The village is completely dedicated to this Christmas saint. All the street lanterns look like huge Christmas candy canes, several streets are named after Christmas like items: Santa Claus, Snowman, St Nicholas, etc.

Interior of Rika's Roadhouse, Big Delta
But most prominent is Santa Claus House, a huge all year Christmas shop that sell almost everything related to the most wonderful time of the year. The thing I like most about the shop is a collection of letters from the thousands of letters that arrive yearly of kids presenting their wish list to Santa. Some of them politely ask something or state a business case of how good they had been, others just get to the point and efficiently present a bulleted list of presents.

After 144 km (89 mile) we arrived at Big Delta. This place had been an important crossing point of the Tanana River. Nowadays a suspension bridge facilitates the traveler, in the past days it used to be a small ferry. One of the roadhouses, as mentioned above, stood at this place: Rika's Landing Roadhouse.

Along the Richardson Highway, the first dust storms
The roadhouse started around 1904 as McCarty's Roadhouse. It was later sold to a Montenegrin immigrant who improved it and then, in 1917, hired a lady, 'Erika (Rika) Wallen' from Örebro in Sweden, to manage the roadhouse. Rika did a really good job, she improved the roadhouse as well as the service. She kept animals and a garden for fresh food. In 1924 she owned the place. The roadhouse was in business until the mid 40s. The construction of the Alaska-Canada Highway (ALCAN), and the bridge over the Tanana River made business bad. 

Her roadhouse still lives, thanks to the Big Delta State Historical Park, which has preserved the roadhouse and its surrounding as a nice open air museum. The roadhouse is open for visitors and decorated as it should have looked in Rika's time.

Along the Richardson Highway
More about the site can be read here.

At 158 km (98 mile), in the village of Delta Junction, the Richardson Highway heads further south and the much younger ALCAN Highway heads east towards Canada. This road was built after the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor (see here) to provide an overland route from Alaska to the 48 lower states. 

We just kept going on the Richardson Highway. Many miles of deserted land passed by. Sometimes really breathtaking, sometimes a bit dull. At some places the wind picked up and dust storms hit our car. The Trans Alaska Pipeline basically follows the highway so we often saw the shiny structure looping and twisting its way over and around the neighboring hills. We stopped at pipeline mile 562. A quick calculation shows that the oil that flowed in the pipe when we first saw it at Fox (at mile 450) should be flowing here at the very same time: 800 mile in 11 days -> 73 mile /day -> 109 mile in 1.5 day. 450 + 109 = 559 ≈ 562.

In the afternoon we reached a new "home" for two days: the Copper River Princess Wilderness Lodge.

More pictures below!

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Kids letters at Santa Claus House…
Kid's letters at Santa Claus Hous…
Interior of Rikas Roadhouse, Big …
Interior of Rika's Roadhouse, Big…
Interior of Rikas Roadhouse, Big …
Interior of Rika's Roadhouse, Big…
Along the Richardson Highway, the …
Along the Richardson Highway, the…
Along the Richardson Highway
Along the Richardson Highway
Santa Claus House, North Pole
Santa Claus House, North Pole
Santa Claus House, North Pole
Santa Claus House, North Pole
Santa Claus House, North Pole
Santa Claus House, North Pole
Interior of Rikas Roadhouse, Big …
Interior of Rika's Roadhouse, Big…
Along the Richardson Highway, the …
Along the Richardson Highway, the…
Rika Wallen, in front of her roadh…
Rika Wallen, in front of her road…
Copper Center
photo by: mdalamers