Sourdough Roadhouse

FAIRBANKS - Margaret Murie, in her book, “Two in the Far North,” said that all the best roadhouses had a “Ma” to provide a touch of gentility to the trail.

While it may be true that the best roadhouses had a ma’s touch, some of those women proprietors were less than genteel ladies. “Roadhouses of the Richardson Highway” tells of Nellie Yeager at Sourdough Roadhouse who, while she provided a comforting “woman’s” touch to the roadhouse for 14 years, could out-cuss any muleskinner or stage driver who set foot in her establishment. It was said that some travelers stopped by just to see the performances.

Sourdough Roadhouse (also called Sourdough Lodge or just Sourdough), is located at 147.5 Mile Richardson Highway, adjacent to the Gulkana River. It was one of the busiest roadhouses along the old Valdez-Fairbanks Trail and was a major station on Ed Orr’s Valdez-Fairbanks Stage Line.

The roadhouse’s popularity was in part due to the efforts of its owners, but also owed much to its location. It was at the junction of a winter trail that climbed the west fork of the Gulkana River into the Alaska Range and over a divide into the MacClaren and Susitna River drainages and the Valdez Creek mining area (now reached by the Denali Highway).

The roadhouse, situated along the 1906 re-alignment of the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, dated from about that same time, although some histories put its initial construction at 1903. Until the roadhouse’s destruction in a 1992 fire, it was the longest operating roadhouse in Alaska still in its original building.

As an aside, I have a friend who worked for the Alaska Department of Transportation years ago. He travelled all over Interior Alaska and often stayed at roadhouses. He told me it wasn’t surprising that many of them burned down, often because of lack of kitchen maintenance and buildup of grease. One of the things he always did after stopping at a roadhouse was plan his escape route.

A new roadhouse structure was built at Sourdough in 1993 and the business is still open. The two cabins in the drawing, which date from the roadhouse’s early years, are all that is left of the original roadhouse operation.

The roadhouse’s current proprietor told me the cabin to the left was used for wagon and sled storage. If you look closely you can see that the cabin doorway originally extended to the far end of the window. Ed Orr used to store stage equipment in roadhouse buildings, and it is possible this cabin was used to shelter one of his stages or sleds.

Of course, the roadhouse operation encompassed more than just the lodge and immediate out buildings. Bureau of Land Management archaeological surveys at its Gulkana River campground next to the roadhouse have uncovered evidence of the establishment’s much larger presence, including the remains of a fox farm operated by another of the roadhouse’s owners, Hazel Waechter, during the later 1920s and early 1930s.

BLM surveys near the roadhouse also uncovered a cabin built and occupied by an Athabascan Indian family from about 1924 to 1945. Athabascans have occupied the area for thousands of years, and according to a BLM internal publication, the Ewan family of Gulkana (23 miles to the south) used the area for subsistence hunting and gathering.

Sourdough is still a popular place for salmon fisherfolk to congregate and launch their boats onto the Gulkana River. Hopefully, Sourdough Roadhouse will continue to provide comfort and memories to those fisherfolk and other travelers along the Richardson Highway for years to come.

Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist and writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at

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