The drive down the Richardson Highway is a long one, so it makes sense to stop and experience some of the history along Alaska’s oldest highway. People have been traveling this road for a century, in one form or another, and many of them stayed at Rika’s Roadhouse — a place that’s now preserved as part of Big Delta State Historical Park.
Big Delta State Historical Park is located in Big Delta, Alaska (formerly known as McCarty), on Richardson Highway, Alaska Route 2. The roadhouse and surrounding attractions are located on the south side of the Tanana River. If you’re southbound, cross the bridge, then watch for Rika Road on the left.
Rika’s Roadhouse has been here since around 1913, but the history of this property goes back even further. Prospectors and traders came through this area as early as 1903, as they headed to Fairbanks. A trading post opened here in 1904. In 1906, John Hajdukovich arrived here from his native Yugoslavia. Over the next few years, he ran the trading post, then purchased it, and in 1913 (or around that time) he built the roadhouse that still stands today (it was later expanded). In 1917 he hired Rika Wallen to run the roadhouse. She purchased it from him in 1923, and operated it through the 1940’s.
Now, the roadhouse is a museum, illustrating what it would have looked like to stop here on the way to Fairbanks, during the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. Countless thousands of travelers did just that. The living room area shows how guests would have passed the time, with board games and the Saturday Evening Post.
The well-appointed kitchen would have served hungry travelers.
One interesting display that caught my eye — this is a willow tree branch, that grew around, and through, a truck pinion gear. It was discovered nearby in the 1950’s.
Outside, you get a feel for how the place operated. There was a windmill to pump fresh water…
… and all sorts of barnyard animals. Rika also tended a large garden that was so successful, the University of Alaska studied her techniques.
Rika’s barn is one of the first structures you’ll see as you walk onto the property. Inside…
… it’s still stocked with the farming tools of the day.
But this property wasn’t just a roadhouse. It served some other important functions, as well.
One building served as a WAMCATS station. That awesome acronym stands for the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System. It started off as a telegraph station and later upgraded to radio communications, and then telephone lines.
Telegraph workers had to survive in harsh conditions, dealing with bitter cold winters and long periods of isolation — oftentimes surviving on rations.
But as time progressed, they gathered more of the comforts of home, many of which are still on display inside the WAMCATS building.
A ferry for crossing the Tanana River also operated at Big Delta…
… just a short distance from the more modern bridges that now cross the river. The suspension bridge you see here carries the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline. The highway bridge is just beyond it, out of view.
A river boat…
… and an old vehicle are reminders of Big Delta’s importance to transportation on the Richardson Highway. The road was originally a toll road, in order to raise money for road construction. The toll was steep — in 1933, commercial vehicles would have to pay up to $175 per trip. I noticed, but didn’t photograph, the old scales which weighed vehicles. They’re still in the ground, just before the ferry landing site.
[tmt_info =””]Need to eat? The park operates Rika’s Roadhouse Cafe, in a separate building. It’s open from 10-4 daily.[/tmt_info]
If you’re interested in checking out the entire drive down the Richardson Highway, you’ll find it on a separate page.
Here’s the drive from North Pole to Delta Junction…
… and from Delta Junction to Paxson…
… and from Paxson to Gakona: