Crew Saves Steele Creek Roadhouse

Editor’s Note: This is a first-person follow-up story to BLM-Alaska Frontiers articles, the “Steele Creek Roadhouse Stands Tall Again” (issue 108) and “Reroofing the Kink Cabin” (issue 111).

Having notched and placed the last new log, our joint BLM-Forest Service crew was ready to straighten the historic Steele Creek roadhouse during our restoration project. Anxiously, we watched the Fortymile Wild and Scenic River keep rising. Some of our camp had already relocated their tents and tools. Our concerned crew chief Doug Smith, rallied us with a call for “Shovels!” The roadhouse was in peril! We hustled to fashion a flood berm to protect the roadhouse, then watched in disbelief, as the historic roadhouse quickly became an island of the flood-ravaged Fortymile River.

Our project began earlier on July 6, with blisteringly hot, sunny days, and a jovial grin on every face. While two teams notched replacement logs for the historic roadhouse’s rotting foundation, others stacked cribbing and placed screw jacks and support beams inside. A latticework of winching devices we call “come-alongs” secured two-story-tall beams to provide structural support. To the buzzing saws, we passed our days working in sun-soaked Steele Creek.

That is, until the rains came.

Photo shows waters flooding the Steele Creek Roadhouse while cables keep it upright. Photo by Nicklaus Moser.The rain trouble began late Saturday evening on July 10 as we turned in for the night, with only a sprits tapping on our tent rain flies. The tapping became a major deluge, raining all that night and steadily through Sunday, with over three inches falling in a 24-hour period.

Despite the rain, our work continued. Against heavy gray clouds, the crew’s smiles were even brighter. As Sunday ended and the rain slackened, Steele Creek transformed into a raging torrent. From our tents, we heard heavy boulders thudding down the creek bed outside. Floating trees passed by in clumps. Beyond the creek, the Fortymile was a raging river of mud.

Monday, July 12, dawned sunny and warm, although some of us woke with water in our tents. We found eighteen inches of water filling the Steele Creek roadhouse as the flooding continued. Our project leader, Robin Mills, left to find phone reception to discover what was happening.

When Mills returned, his words were somber – “We could be here a long time.” Flooding had washed out parts of the Taylor Highway from mileposts 67 to 160, prompting the Alaska Department of Transportation to declare the highway impassible and closed, including the milepost 95 junction with Canada’s Top of the World Highway. The 160-mile mostly gravel road runs from the Alaska Highway near Tok to the Yukon River village of Eagle. The flooding river stranded campers at BLM’s Walker Fork and West Fork campgrounds. We found ourselves stranded at the Steele Creek Roadhouse.

By that afternoon, the waters finally began to recede. We later learned the Fortymile River crested at a record depth of 94.54 feet at the Taylor Highway Bridge – the highest ever recorded.

On Tuesday, crew chief Doug Smith decided that the roadhouse needed time to dry. Rather than stop working, Mills led a crew to Steele Creek’s only remaining unrestored historic cabin to remove its rotted lower logs or notch new logs for next summer’s project.

Our last full day of work at Steele Creek on July 15 was long and dirty. Mud from the receding floodwaters covered us as we righted the leaning roadhouse. Using jacks of all sorts, we used the come-alongs to lift, pull, and straighten the building. Once straight, we piled rocks from Steele Creek to form a new foundation for the roadhouse. We left for Fairbanks on Friday, July 16, after thirteen days of work.

This is one restoration project none of us will ever forget. 

— Nicklaus Moser
BLM Summer Seasonal Worker