Roads Of The Copper Valley: How A Military Trail Became Alaska's First Official Highway

Two Major Roads Cross The Copper River Valley
And Meet At The Town Of Glennallen

Wilds P. Richardson was an Army engineer who built the Richardson Highway.

The Richardson Highway
The 368-mile long Richardson Highway runs through the Copper River Valley, connecting the port city of Valdez to the inland Tanana River city of Fairbanks.

The highway started as an overland military pack trail that was built by the U.S. Army in the 1890's. The trail, which was originally known as the "Eagle Trail" or the "Valdez Trail" or the  "Valdez to Eagle Trail" started in Valdez, and went up to Gakona Junction, just north of the Gulkana River. There it branched toward what is now Tok, to the little town of Eagle, on the banks of the Yukon River. Eagle was located across the border from Dawson City, a lively Canadian gold rush center.

The Old Valdez Trail sometimes
crosses the
Richardson Highway.
Americans had several means of getting to the gold fields of Canada and the Yukon. They could take a ship to a place called St. Michael, along the eastern Alaska coast, where the Yukon enters the ocean, and then come inland by riverboat. Or, they could take the famous Chilkoot Trail, and come into Canada by climbing up over a high mountain -- where their gear was catalogued and assessed by Canadian mounties.

Richardson Highway. (Copyright, Northcountry Communications, Inc.)

The Richardson Started As 
A Trail To Northern Gold Fields
There was a third method of reaching the northern gold fields. And it involved the initial rationale for building the Valdez to Eagle Trail in the first place. Unscrupulous entrepreneurs convinced unsuspecting gold miners that the easiest way to become wealthy was to get off a rickety boat in Valdez (which the entrepreneurs supplied) and then climb up over a glacier, and go by foot through the Copper River Valley to the gold fields of the north -- and the Yukon. The glacier route was disastrously dangerous, and the army, between 1898 and around 1903, built the trail to Eagle -- to provide a safer route to the Yukon through the Copper Valley.

The Trail To Fairbanks
Then, in 1902, a gold rush also began in Fairbanks. So a new branch of the trail, starting at Gakona Junction, was built. This branch went to Fairbanks.  Eagle's importance quickly waned.

Now that the "Valdez Trail"  had a stronger, and  more important second section, it was called the "Valdez to Fairbanks" Trail. The trail to Fairbanks eventually became known as the Richardson Highway. Numerous roadhouses sprang up along the trail. Horsedrawn wagons, and later, newfangled automobiles plied the difficult, muddy route back and forth between Fairbanks and Valdez after it was upgraded to a wagon road . The Richardson Highway was named after the U.S. Army General, Wilds P. Richardson, who built the original wagon road.  The Richardson Highway, from Fairbanks to Valdez, was now far more important than the original leg of the trail headed to Eagle.
Old Gold Rush town Of Copper Center
on the Richardson Highway.

Today, the route between Valdez and Fairbanks known as the Richardson Highway roughly follows the original wagon road. Unmarked sections of the historic, narrow  trail are sometimes visible as you drive the Richardson, especially in the spring. For example, you can see part of the old trail along the side of the cliffs as you enter Keystone Canyon near Valdez. You can also see the old trail, sometimes -- when light spring snow dusts its contours --  on the hill beside the river and current highway near a place called "Rainbow Mountain" south of Delta Junction.  The road has been upgraded a number of times since it was first paved. There are frequent looping paved sections that are part of the "Old Richardson Highway."  The "new" highway is straighter, and these old paved sections are used as pulloffs, or access routes by locals.  For example, the entire old town of Copper Center is on the "Old Richardson Highway." And there are sections of the bypassed "old highway" at the Gakona Junction -- and at many other spots along the current road.

A note on highway numbering in Alaska. The Richardson Highway is "officially" known as Highway 4. But local people would be hard pressed to understand what you're talking about when you use highway numbers here.  Stick to the name of the highway, and you'll be all right. 

The Matanuska Glacier is one of Alaska's
most easily accessible glaciers. It's on the Glenn.
The Glenn Highway
The Glenn Highway starts in Anchorage and runs 187 miles to Glennallen. Then -- according to the state of Alaska -- it (rather confusingly) travels along with the Richardson Highway, between Glennallen and Gakona Junction, before heading off to Tok, where it officially ends.

The part of the Glenn that runs from Gakona to Tok parallels the original northern leg of the "Valdez to Eagle" trail of the old Gold Rush days.

The Glenn Highway
Changes As It Goes Through The Mountains
The modern Glenn Highway has several clearly-defined sections -- especially for the road traveler. The first is the Lower Glenn, which is a major modern multi-lane freeway, and ends 41 miles north of Anchorage, at Palmer. The second starts in Palmer and is a narrow, shoulderless 2-lane road that runs through the high Talkeetna mountains along the mountainside, winding above the Matanuska River Valley, flanked by the enormous Chugach mountains across the valley floor. The Glenn enters the great Copper River Valley at high Eureka Summit, at tree line, 128 miles from Anchorage. Then it goes on, another 60 miles, down into the Great Copper River Valley,  to Glennallen. At Glennallen, the Glenn officially jogs left for around 16 miles, sharing the same stretch of road as the Richardson Highway. (Some navigation devices in automobiles make a point of telling you that you're on both highways.) Finally, the "official" Glenn Highway, as shown on road maps,  turns northeast at Gakona Junction and follows the old Eagle Trail 124 miles to what is now Tok.

Glenn Highway, Copyright Northcountry Communications, Inc.
Considering you're only dealing with two major roads, the Glenn Highway's overlap with the Richardson, and its extension up to Tok, seemed annoyingly confusing to local people.  Locals don't buy the official definition of the Glenn. They consider the "Glenn Highway" to start in Anchorage and end in Glennallen. Locals call the 16 mile stretch from Glennallen to Gakona "The Richardson."  And the 124 miles between Gakona and Tok isn't called "The Glenn Highway" at all by local people. They call that section "The Tok Cutoff."

A Top Secret Military Project
Before World War II
The Glenn Highway was built as part of a top secret military project right before World War II. In a fit of bravado, locals and military personnel charged through the wilderness, slapping down the Alcan Highway across Canada to Alaska, quickly building a slapdash road that would act as a supply line between "The Lower 48" and the coast of Alaska. They turned at Tok, came down to Glennallen, and hacked their way  toward the ocean.

Leading To The Place That
Would Become "Anchorage"
At the time, there was no port city of Anchorage -- so the building of this highway through what was to become "Glennallen" led to the beginnings of Alaska's largest city. And the Glenn Highway, with its link to the Alaska-Canada Highway, allowed overland transport in preparation for the war.

A National Scenic Byway
For 135 miles, the Glenn Highway is a National Scenic Byway. There are incredible scenic views of glaciers and mountains, including both the Talkeetna mountains, to the west, and the massive Chugach mountains to the east.

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