In 1896, discoveries near Canada's Klondike River precipitated the region's greatest gold rush. Most stampeders reached the district via a largely Canadian route leading from the southeast Alaskan community of Dyea through Chilkoot Pass. Many American participants, however objected to foreign control of that transportation corridor. In response, the US government agreed to construct an alternate trail, leading from Prince William Sound into the Yukon Basin.
A Trail to Eagle City
Mountaineer Robert Dunn employed the trail the following year on his way to Copper Center. Unlike the stampeders, who were often too preoccupied to note its spectacular scenery, Dunn recorded a vivid description of the route:
The Route to Fairbanks
The new path soon received its first improvements. In 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt established the Board of Road Commissioners for Alaska and designated Major Wilds P. Richardson as president. Richardson was particularly concerned about the development of interior Alaska and emphasized the speedy construction of a more permanent Valdez-Fairbanks route.
Roadhouses & Automobiles
By 1913 the first automobile traveled the entire length of the trail. Although it only averaged about nine miles per hour, others quickly followed. By 1918, automobile stage coaches plied regular routes between Valdez and Fairbanks, and motorized vehicles carried most of the mail. No longer a trail, in 1919 the Road Commission redesigned the route as the Richardson Road in honor of its newly retired first president, Wilds Richardson.
The Trail Today
The Valdez Trail provided the first overland access to much of interior Alaska and played a major role in its subsequent development. A closing thrust in a period of pioneer American trail building, the Valdez Trail channeled people, freight, and mail into the region, promoting mining activity, aiding the development of supporting industries, and hastening the settlement of the Copper, Yukon, and Tanana River Valleys.
Another excellent overview of gold rush activity in the Wrangell St. Elias area is William Hunt's book, Mountain Wilderness: An Illustrated History of Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve (Anchorage, Alaska Natural History Association, 1996), 224 pages. You can purchase this book online by visiting the park's bookstore.
Another well-done history of the Alaska gold rushes is William Hunt's North of 53: The Wild Days of the Alaska-Yukon Mining Frontier, 1870-1914 (New York, MacMillan Press, 1974), 328 pages. It is widely available in libraries both in Alaska and elsewhere.