Alaska Highway roadhouses tell story of bygone era

Photographer Mark Kelly was overnighting near an old roadhouse on the Liard River in southeast Yukon four years ago when an idea was sparked.

Roadhouses 'an interesting part of the Yukon culture that hasn't been told yet' says photographer

Photographer Mark Kelly says he was told on a recent road trip that the owner of this old saloon once ended a bar fight by firing his shotgun into the ceiling. (Mark Kelly/Twitter)

Photographer Mark Kelly was overnighting on the Liard River in southeast Yukon four years ago when he started taking photos of the a shuttered roadhouse and "got really hooked."

When his wife suggested he do a photo essay of roadhouses along the Alaska Highway, he thought it was a great idea.

"I forced her to stop at every roadhouse that was worth stopping at," Kelly told CBC North's Airplay host, Dave White.

Nonetheless, the photos Kelly took on that trip gathered dust until recently when Kelly teamed up with Lily Gontard, a Whitehorse-based writer, to compile a photo book. 

Kelly said roadhouses are "an interesting part of the Yukon culture that hasn't been told yet."

Alaska Highway 

Many Alaska Highway roadhouses evolved from American military camps built during the construction of the 2,700 kilometre highway completed in 1942. Roadhouses usually offered a place to stay, a meal and gas and were spaced no more than a day's drive apart.

Driving the Alaska Highway used to be a major undertaking: the road was rough and remote. 

"The road was really hard to travel and without the roadhouses people wouldn't have been able to do it," says Kelly.

An all too-common scene on the Alaska Highway. This is one of Mark Kelly's favourite images from his recent road trip with Lily Gontard. (Mark Kelly/Twitter)

As the Alaska Highway was improved and paved, the distance people could travel in their vehicles in one day increased. Then came the popularisation of self-contained campers — the nail in the coffin of roadhouses.  

Gontard arrived in the Yukon by road 20 years ago and remembers when many of the original roadhouses were still open. For that reason, Kelly's photos resonated with her. 

"I was really struck by the story the photos told and the beauty of things that are dwindling away. There's something about the human part of that story." 

On their most recent road trip, Gontard and Kelly travelled from Whitehorse to Delta Junction, Alaska, interviewing people who ran or still run roadhouses. 

One of the couples they spoke to used to run Burwash Landing Resort, which is now closed. The couple spoke about the memorable moment the resort got electricity, after relying on a generator for decades.  

Lily Gontard speaks with Ollie Wirth, former owner of the now-closed Burwash Landing Resort. (Mark Kelly/Twitter)

"When the grid arrived and they hooked up and they turned the generator off for the last time, they sat and listened to the silence," Kelly recounted. He liked the juxtaposition of people coming to Yukon to escape the sounds of the city, while remote businesses of that era were forced to rely on the drone of a generator for power. 

For Gontard, the human stories have overpowered the historical structures. 

"The buildings are amazing ... but the characters we've met and the generosity that people have shown us has been really ... wonderful."

Gontard and Kelly plan on releasing their photo book in 2017. 

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