FAIRBANKS — Big Delta — so named because of its location at the confluence of the Delta and Tanana rivers, and to differentiate it from Delta Telegraph Station on the nearby Little Delta River — became one of the most important communities along the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail during the first half of the 20th century.
At the height of its importance, it boasted a roadhouse, ferry crossing, telegraph station and steamboat landing, and it sat at the juncture of two trails: the main Valdez Fairbanks Trail, and the Grundler-Tanacross Trail that headed toward the headwaters of the Tanana River.
Ben Bennett built a log trading post near the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail in 1904 on the south bank of the Tanana River, to the east of where Rika’s Roadhouse is know. Dan McCarty, Jr. bought the operation from Bennett the next year, and even though McCarty left in 1906, the site was called McCarty’s (or McCarthy’s) for almost 30 years.
The Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS) built a telegraph station there in 1907, and since small riverboats could navigate up the Tanana River that far, the station became a transshipment point for supplies headed to telegraph stations further east. Riverboats could also provision McCarty’s trading post.
John Hajdukovich, a Serbian immigrant who had moved from Fairbanks to Big Delta in 1906, bought McCarty’s trading post in 1909. This was about the same time that the Alaska Road Commission (ARC) upgraded the Valdez-Fairbanks trail to a wagon road.
That same year Hajdukovich built the first section of a roadhouse — a substantial 2 and 1/2-story log structure. That original section, still the main part of Rika’s Roadhouse, is 31-feet wide by 43-feet long and is built of round spruce logs.
Hajdukovitch was evidently a low-energy entrepreneur and offered minimal services. According to the National Register of Historic Places registration form for the Big Delta Historic District, travelers even had to cook their own meals.
In about 1919 he hired Rika Wallen (born Erika Yakobsen in Wallen, Sweden) to help at the roadhouse. In 1923 he sold the roadhouse to her and it was rechristened Rika’s Roadhouse. She added a 2 1/2-story wing to the roadhouse in 1926. The 20-foot by 40-foot addition was built by Louis Grimsmore using squared spruce logs.
Rika also built a barn, springhouse, windmill and several outbuildings. She cultivated an extensive garden; raised sheep, goats and chickens; and grew grain to feed her animals. Her roadhouse quickly developed into an informal headquarters for area trappers, prospectors and hunters, and also served travelers along the trail.
The Valdez-Fairbanks Trail eventually became the Richardson Highway, and a 1928 brochure promoting the Richardson described Rika’s as “one of the most important centers of trade along the road, being the supply point for the inhabitants of the entire region of the headwaters of the Tanana River ... Here also is located a commodious roadhouse boasting of such luxuries as fresh milk and domestic fowls ... as well as all kinds of wild meats, berries, fish, etc.”
As with many other roadhouses along the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, a realignment of the road forced Rika’s out of business. In 1943 the ARC built a steel bridge across the Tanana River, bypassing the roadhouse. Rika closed the roadhouse in 1947 but continued to live in the area until her death in 1969.
The roadhouse lay empty and decaying for years, until the state of Alaska acquired the property and buildings in 1976 and developed the site into Big Delta State Historical Park. During the 1980s, the roadhouse and several other buildings at the site were restored. It is now a popular stopping place during summer.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.