Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Autumn hike to Colorado Creek Roadhouse - Chena River State Recreation Area

My grandson and I went looking for the old Colorado Creek Roadhouse this past weekend. It was one of three roadhouses built in the early 1900s along the old winter trail from Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs.

This is the pullout at about Mile 31 where the trail we took starts. At Mile 31.6 is the Colorado Creek Trailhead, but that trail leads to a modern recreation cabin farther up the creek. It's possible to reach the roadhouse from there but the trail is longer than the one we took and leads through a marshy area that is hard to travel when the ground is thawed.
This is the start of the trail we took. It's probably a little over a mile from Chena Hot Springs Road to the roadhouse. The trail takes pretty much a straight path up the creek drainage until reaching the old winter trail about a mile from the road. It is marked as a non-motorized use trail.
 The trail a little farther from the road as it gently climbs through a black spruce forest. It was a little soggy in spots but not too bad.
 The short-cut trail we took meets up with the old winter trail a few hundred yards from Colorado Creek. This is our first view of the roadhouse--on the other side of the creek. You can see the creek peeking through the bushes at the lower right. There were plenty of fresh moose tracks all around, and a goodly scattering of bear scat.
 A closer look at one of the roadhouse cabins across the creek. We had heavy rains all summer and there was quite a bit of erosion along the creek bank. The log across the creek that we saw in that 2012 aerial photo isn't there any more.
 Looking back at Colorado Creek after we have crossed. Any other year in recent memory and the creek's water level would have already dropped and we probably could have jumped or easily waded across. This year the shallowest spot I found still had thigh-high water. I forded the creek with grandson on my back. Needless to say, we left some gear on the far side since we had to return the same way.
 The cabin closest to the creek. The roof is still on, but the walls have collapsed.
The second cabin, which appears to have been 1.5 stories, Two years ago it still had a roof. Both cabins have sunk about four feet into the muskeg.
 Peaking over the ruined wall of the second cabin
View out the gable-end cabin window. This window is located over a door (or maybe another window--can't tell any more). It used to be about 10 feet off the ground, now it's head height.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Found art - rusting pipe and fittings

I was walking downtown by the Big I Pub earlier today. There is a large pile of rusting cast iron pipe, fittings and machine parts behind the building and the early morning sun was casting marvelous shadows across and through the assemblage.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Chena River lagoon in Hamilton Acres - 9-6-14


This is a gorgeous "Indian Summer' weekend in Fairbanks--sunny with daytime temperature up around 60 degrees. I took this photo at the end of Hamilton Avenue in Fairbanks.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Eagle Creek mining area along Steese Highway - 8-30-14


This photo was taken from the south approach to Eagle Summit, looking southeast towards Eagle Creek. The creek drainage has been mined extensively. The horizontal lines across the hillside are old ditches dug by miners to bring water from the headwaters of the creek to diggings lower down the valley. Miners were able to increase the usable water pressure at their diggings by keeping the ditches high on the hillside, and then running the final cut straight down the hill to the mine site.

This is a photo of the old mining camp on the floor of the valley.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Circle's Rasmussen House a freighting pioneer's legacy

Nels Rasmussen house in Circle

Circle City, with a pre-1900 population of about 800 people, saw its population drop to a few hundred after the turn of the century. The town was established in 1894 as a supply center and winter haven for miners from the Circle Mining District 50 miles to the southeast. However, many of the miners moved on to other gold strikes, and those that stayed increasingly spent winters on their claims.

No longer a winter haven for miners, Circle survived as a supply center. Several companies, including the Alaska Commercial Company, operated stores and had warehouses at Circle, and the town was a regular stop for steamboats.

The first trails from Circle to the mines were rough — simple blazed paths across the rolling hills and muskeg, between the Yukon River and mountains. Josiah Spurr, who toured the mining regions along the Yukon for the U.S.G.S., tramped the trails of the Circle Mining District in the summer of 1896. He slogged along the muddy byways between Circle and the mines, sometimes along poorly blazed paths that disappeared into the muskeg, and always through clouds of mosquitoes. In his book, Through the Yukon Gold Diggings, Spurr wrote of the “Bloodcurdling stories told of the torments of some that had dared to try [the trail] and how strong men had sat down on the trail to sob, quite unable to withstand the pest.”

One of the early freighters along the route was Nels Rasmussen. Nels emigrated from Denmark to the U.S. in 1896 and eventually settled at Circle. His occupation in the 1900 U.S. Census was listed as logger and at one time he owned a small sawmill in the Circle area. (A typical Alaskan entrepreneur, he also owned a saloon in Circle, operated the town’s first telephone company, and had mining claims at Woodchopper Creek to the southeast.)

Nels began freighting with sure-footed mules, but as trails improved and eventually were upgraded to roads, he switched to horses, first in pack trains, and then pulling freight wagons. Nels eventually owned 16 horses, and employed several drivers. To feed those horses he raised oats and grain on a homestead he staked in Circle, and on acreage near Jump Off Roadhouse about 25 miles southeast of town.

In 1901 he married Axinia Cherosky, descendent of a Russian/Athabascan “Creole,” (the progeny of Russian men and Native women). Nels and Axinia had eight children, and to house their large brood, Nels built an expansive two-story log house (shown in the drawing) as his Circle homestead in about 1909. It had a two-story porch on the south end of the house, and a one-story addition on the west side. Early photos show the house surrounded by a picket fence. Located just a few hundred feet from the river, the big house became the de facto social center of town.

According to a 1976 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article, Nels was injured in a woodchopping accident in 1920 from which he never fully recovered. H died the next fall and was buried in the town cemetery. Axinia continued to raise her family in the house, and it is still owned by their descendants.

The house’s first-floor windows are level with the ground, and Nels’ granddaughter, Mary Warren, told me that just shows how much the structure has settled over the years. While it may have settled and sagged it is still in relatively good condition. Although the house is now vacant, its first floor windows and doors boarded up to prevent vandalism, Nels’ descendants want to keep the property and hopefully fix it up for future generations to enjoy.


  • Conversation with Mary Warren, granddaughter of Nels and Axinia Rasmussen

  • “Rasmussen House stands as memory.” Marjorie J. Hay. in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. March 20, 1976

  • Through the Yukon Gold Diggings. Josiah Edward Spurr. Eastern Publishing. 1900.

  • Yukon Frontiers—Historic Resource Study of the Proposed Yukon-Charley National River. Melody Webb Grauman. National Park Service. 1977

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Snowy Eagle Summit on August 30th, 2014

Drove up the Steese Highway to Central this morning. The heavy frost I thought I saw on the heights of Eagle Summit turned out to be fresh snow!

Snow was all melted by the time I drove back to Fairbanks in the afternoon, but it was a bit of a shock, nonetheless.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Fairbanks Exploration Company's pump house --a watering hole of a different sort

Pump House Restaurant in Fall 2013

The Pump House Restaurant is one of the premiere dining establishments in the Fairbanks area, but more than 80 years ago it began its life as a different sort of watering hole. It was originally a pumping station to provide water for the Fairbanks Exploration Company’s (F.E.Co.) dredging operations in the Cripple Creek area on the opposite side of Chena Ridge.

The F.E. Co. began dredging north of Fairbanks in the late 1920s, with its first dredges located on Goldstream and Cleary creeks. Water for dredges north of the city came from the Davidson Ditch, which brought water to Fairbanks from the Chatanika River.

When the company decided to dredge near Ester, it needed another water source. To provide the volume of high pressure water necessary to hydraulically strip away thick overburden above the gold-bearing gravels and to thaw frozen gravels, it decided to pump water from the Chena River over Chena Ridge.

National Register of Historic Places documents state that from 1931 to 1933 the F.E. Co. constructed a pump house, three 26-inch pipelines from the river to the top of Chena Ridge, and three miles of open ditches beyond the ridge to carry water to the diggings.

The original pump house building was 20-feet wide by 108-feet long with a gable roof and five skylights to provide interior illumination. Both the roof and exterior walls were covered with corrugated metal sheathing. The pumphouse was set back about 100 feet from the river, with a raceway on the north side of the building carrying water from the river. (The water intake apparatus can be seen in the drawing foreground.) Ten 14-inch double-suction centrifugal pumps (rated at 6,000 gpm) pumped the water up Chena Ridge. Each pump had a 400-hp motor, and electricity was provided by the F.E. Company power plant on Illinois Street.

For those of you wondering where all that water ended up, eventually it flowed back into the Chena River. According to John Boswell’s history of the F.E. Co., two options were considered for routing the return water. The first was a 10,200-foot tunnel through Chena Ridge. The second was a six-mile-long open ditch. The company finally decided the open ditch was more practical. However, even it was not without engineering difficulties since keeping the ditch at the proper grade meant excavating 100-foot-deep cuts in places. The remains of this ditch can still be seen.

After the F.E. Co. shut down its Cripple Creek operations in the 1960s, it closed the pump house. The building sat derelict for years, surrounded by pieces of mining equipment and encroaching trees.
In 1976, Bill and Vivian Bubbel bought the property, planning to convert the building into a restaurant. In 1978 they completed initial renovations for the Pump House Restaurant.

The Bubbels wanted the building to retain its historical significance so renovations incorporated as much of the original structure as possible. The building north exterior looks much the same as it did when it was used as a pumphouse, with the exterior metal wall sheathing being original. A new main entrance on the north side of the building was added, and kitchen and service addition were constructed on the south side of the building.

Inside, the main dining room space has been kept open, and patrons can still see the underside of the original metal roofing. A new insulated roof was installed over the top of that.

The Bubbles, who still own the restaurant, had made additional improvements, including adding a large deck between the restaurant and river. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Bubbles intend to maintain the building’s historical authenticity.


  • Conversation with Bill Bubbel, co-owner of the Pumphouse Restaurant

  • Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Janet Mattheson & Bruce Haldeman. Fairbanks North Star Borough, 1981

  • History of Alaskan Operations of United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company. John C. Boswell. Mineral Industries research Laboratory, University of Alaska. 1979

  • “Chena Pump House - National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form.” Jane Galblum. National Park Service, 1980