Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The changing fortune of Old Chatanika, Alaska



Old Chatanika cabin in 1994

In 1902 Felix Pedro washed gold out of Cleary Creek about 25 miles northeast of Fairbanks. Relatively few miners worked the creeks near Fairbanks in 1902, and it wasn’t until the end of the next summer that any big strikes occurred. Cleary Creek became one of the richest gold-producing areas near Fairbanks, and by 1904 two camps had sprung up along the eight-mile-long stream.

Cleary City was established along the upper creek. Another camp, which, according to Nicholas Deely’s book, Tanana Valley Railroad, the Gold Dust Line, was called 15 Below-Cleary (the 15th claim below the creek’s discovery claim), and coalesced farther down the creek near the Chatanika River. The lower camp was eventually re-named Chatanika.

In 1907 Chatanika became the northern terminus for the Tanana ValleyRailroad (TVRR). Chatanika’s achievement was the result of fortuitous circumstances rather than deliberate planning, though. The TVRR reached Gilmore, just a few miles northeast of Fox, in 1905. Builders planned to extend the line over the Cleary Summit ridge to reach the rich diggings at Fairbanks Creek and in the Upper Cleary Creek drainage near Cleary City.

The development of mines to the northwest of Gilmore, in the Dome and Vault Creek areas (in the valleys on either side of the present Elliott Highway about 15 miles north of Fairbanks), prompted the TVRR to change routes, however.  Instead of continuing in a northeasterly direction over the ridge towards Cleary Creek, the route doubled back and climbed Fox Gulch before crossing into the Chatanika River drainage.

Tracks reached Chatanika in September 1907 but were never extended beyond to Cleary City. Chatanika became the trans-shipment point for people and supplies headed to Cleary City and other destinations. Chatanika’s position was further bolstered when, in November 1907, the business district of Cleary City burned down and about half that city’s residents moved to Chatanika.

Chatanika began as a tent camp, but soon progressed to log cabin town. Early photographs show a business district comprised of wood-frame buildings, many with false-fronts.  The rest of the community was primarily small wood-frame houses and log cabins, with log cabins predominating.

The town’s glory days were short-lived. At its zenith Chatanika probably boasted about 500 residents. Gold production from drift mining peaked in 1909 as easily mined deposits were exhausted, and the town’s population began dwindling. The Dictionary of Alaska Place Names records that by 1930 only 30 people called Chatanika home.

The introduction of gold dredges along Cleary Creek sealed Chatanika’s fate. The Fairbanks Exploration Company (FE Co.) began buying up Cleary Creek claims in the 1920s, built a support camp (Chatanika Gold Camp) in 1923-25, and started dredging Lower Cleary Creek in 1928 and Upper Cleary in 1929.

Unfortunately, the town of Chatanika sat atop placer claims the FE Co. planned to develop. After the TVRR shut down in 1930 most of the town was torn up so that Dredge No. 3 (still sitting at Chatanika) could expand operations.

The southern edge of Chatanika, above the limits of dredging, was spared. When I hiked into the abandoned settlement in the mid 1990s only a few structures remained. The building pictured in the drawing is one survivor. (Recent aerial photos indicate that it is still there.)  It is a metal-roofed log cabin with a wood-frame porch tacked on to the front. The porch is sheathed with white-washed ship-lap siding, but vertical rough-sawn planking covers the log portion of the cabin. The book, Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, states that the log-cabin portion of the structure probably dates from around 1910.

In addition to extant cabins and several collapsed buildings, numerous implements such as a rusted wheel barrow, tin-lined storage box, and an old donkey engine used to lie scattered about. The remains of what is now called “Old Chatanika” are on private property. Please respect private property owner’s rights if you plan to explore the Chatanika area.


Sources:

  • Dictionary of Alaska Place Names. Donald J. Orth. U.S. Geological Survey. 1971
  • History of Alaskan Operations of United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company. John Boswell. Mineral Industries Research Library, University of Alaska. 1979
  • Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Janet Matheson & F. Bruce Haldeman. Fairbanks North Star Borough. 1981
  • Steamboats on the Chena. Basil Hendricks & Susan Savage. Epicenter Press. 1988
  • Tanana Valley Railroad, the Gold Dust Line. Nicholas Deely. Denali Designs. 1996
 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Marge Gull painting of Piledriver Roadhouse, 30 miles from Fairbanks

 


Another painting by Alaska artist, Marguerite "Marge" Gull. This one is of Piledriver Roadhouse, which used to be located along Chena Slough (now Piledriver Slough) south of Fairbanks.

This roadhouse was located approximately 30 miles from Fairbanks, a mile or so up the slough from where it branched off from the Tanana River. The Valdez-Fairbanks Trail crossed the slough at this point.

Called Chena Slough Roadhouse in 1904, by 1907 the name had changed to Pile Driver Roadhouse. 1907 was also the year that ferry-service across the slough was initiated, so the name change could have had something to do with the ferry facilities.

The roadhouse was later called 30-Mile Roadhouse. It operated at least until 1918 but by 1923 appears to have ceased operations.

Marge Gull (who died in 2013) came to Alaska with her husband in 1938, living first in Fairbanks and then Anchorage. She was an amateur painter and painted 49 of the roadhouses along the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail.

I assume that at least some of the paintings were done from photographs since many of the roadhouses disappeared long before Marge came to Alaska. This painting is in the collection of the Valdez Museum.



Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Northward Building still stands out in downtown Fairbanks



The Northward Building in 2014

 In 1950 Fairbanks, Alaska was still a modest little town of small frame houses and log cabins. The city’s business district, fronting on the Chena River, pretty much fit in a three block by four block area, and the tallest building was the four-story Lathrop Building on Second Avenue, built by Austin “Cap” Lathrop in 1939. (It was also the second building in Fairbanks to have an elevator—the first being the Federal Building on Cushman Street.)

1950 was also the year that one of the largest construction projects in the city up to that time was started. The eight-story Northward Building is credited with being the first apartment house in Fairbanks. It was designed in part to alleviate the city’s acute housing shortage, caused by the influx of workers involved in military construction, and of military personnel and their families moving into the area.

(Just a few years later the 11-story Hill Building, now the Polaris Building, opened two blocks away. It too, was an apartment building constructed to ease the city’s housing crisis.)

The Northward Building which is 97.5 feet high, is a roughly H-shaped structure that takes up the entire block between Lacey and Noble Streets, and Third and Fourth Avenue. In 1950 that location was at the very edge of downtown, and several smaller buildings, including boarding houses, were torn down to make room for the new “high rise.”

As constructed, the building had a steel frame with reinforced concrete floors, and was clad with metal siding. When opened in 1952 it included a basement with parking, laundry and storage areas; a first floor with retail shops (including grocery store) and a bank; and seven floors of apartments. It was also the third building in Fairbanks with an elevator.

A 1953 ad in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner noted that the rent for an apartment was $135 a month, including all utilities. That may have been a hefty sum in the 50s, but the Northward Building, which was essentially a self-contained community, was worth it to many.

Edna Ferber, who patterned the central building in her 1958 book, “Ice Palace,” after the Northward Building, wrote (perhaps exaggerating just a tad bit) that “It was Alaska’s first apartment house. People fought to live in it. Townsmen, dwelling in their frame houses and wrestling with the regional problems of heating, lighting, plumbing, water, were madly envious of Ice Palace tenants. There never was a vacancy unless a tenant accommodatingly died, rashly built a new house, or left permanently for Outside.”

Ferber’s novel, written on the cusp of Alaska statehood, immortalized the Northward as her Ice Palace. Fairbanks became the Interior Alaska city of Baranof, and almost everything she wrote about the city and its people became larger-than-life. The Ice Palace grew from the Northward Building’s eight-stories to fourteen-stories, its utilitarian steel siding replace by glass blocks that at times, “when the refraction was just right…took on an unearthly blue like the aquamarine tint of the vast Morganstern glacier that lay, a giant jewel, just outside Baranof.”

According to the 1978 book, Ferber, a Biography, the author made five trips to Alaska conducting research. She became very familiar with the territory and its inhabitants. In addition to “borrowing” settings, she also borrowed real-life people, again—building them into larger-than-life characters for her book. Eva McGown became the novel’s Bridie Ballantyne—her social ministry transferred from the Nordale Hotel to the Ice Palace, and Cap Lathrop morphed into the powerful Czar Kennedy.

The city’s downtown has grown considerably beyond the Northward Building in the past 60+ years, but the building has changed little. The exterior still looks the same, but the interior was renovated in 2001. Almost all the first-floor shops are gone, replaced by offices for various States agencies, but the upper floors are still devoted to apartments and utilities are still included in the rent.
 
Sources:

  • Ice Palace. Edna Ferber. Buccaneer Books. 1958 
  • Buildings of Alaska. Alison K. Hoagland. Oxford University Press. 1993
  • Ferber, a Biography of Edna Ferber and Her Circle. Julie Goldsmith Gilbert. Doubleday and Company. 1978
  • Fairbanks, a Pictorial History. Claus-M. Naske & Ludwig J. Rowinski. Donning Company. 1981

 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Marge Gull painting of Byler's Roadhouse, 18 miles from Fairbanks



Another painting by Alaska artist, Marguerite "Marge" Gull. This is of Byler's Roadhouse, which used to be located along the old Valdez-Trail near present-day North Pole. The roadhouse was established in about 1907 by Jonathan Byler, and was the first Orr Stage line station after leaving Fairbanks.

The roadhouse changed owners several times. When the Delta Winter Cut-off section of the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail was totally abandoned in the 1920s, John Sullivan and his wife (who had operated Sullivan's Roadhouse along the Cut-off) bought this roadhouse and operated it for several years. The roadhouse no longer exists.

Marge (who died in 2013) came to Alaska with her husband in 1938, living first in Fairbanks and then Anchorage. She was an amateur painter and painted 49 of the roadhouses along the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail.

I assume that at least some of the paintings were done from photographs since many of the roadhouses disappeared long before Marge came to Alaska.This painting is in the collection of the Valdez Museum.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Old cabin at Byers Lake is a reminder of Alaska's trapping heritage

Red amd Marydith Beeman's cabin at Byers Lake in 2011

Just a few minutes walk from Byers Lake campground near Mile 138 of the Parks Highway lies the picturesque remains of an old two-room cabin. From 1959 to the early 1970s, this was the headquarters site for trapper Edward “Red” Beeman.

Red came to Alaska in 1951 courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. He fell in love with Alaska and lingered after his discharge. In summer 1954, he began fishing commercially for salmon in Cook Inlet using set nets, which are gillnets anchored or “set” in one location.

Commercial fishing, like many Alaska occupations, is a seasonal activity. Consequently, Red also took on guiding hunters in autumn and trapping during winter. In an interview in Randy Zarnke’s book, Alaska Tracks: Life Stories from Hunters,Fishermen & Trappers of Alaska, Red says, “ ... that’s what I’ve done. Fish in the summer, guide in the fall, trap in the winter. It’s been a good life.”

His first few years of trapping were along Eagle River outside Anchorage and in various locations in the Talkeetna Mountains to the north of the Matanuska Valley. By the end of the 1950s, he had moved his trapline to Byers Lake on the western flank of the Talkeetnas.

Red also found time to woo a Chugiak school teacher, Marydith West. The two married in 1959, and Red whisked his new bride off to Byers Lake where they built a small cabin that same year a few hundred feet from the lake’s north shore. The original section of the cabin, about 10 feet by 16 feet, is constructed of unpeeled spruce logs with saddle-notched corners. The gabled roof has metal sheathing.

Later, the two added a 10-foot by 8-foot log-walled bedroom on the cabin’s north side, built into the hillside. That room was much needed after son Eric and daughter Susan were born.

The cabin has low side walls (about 5-feet high) and the middle of the main room underneath the ridgepole is only about 7-feet high. Susan Beeman, in an essay about the cabin in the book, Travelers’ Tales Alaska, writes of the doorway between the main room and bedroom, “ ... the doorway where my parents stapled a cut-out magazine photo of a mallard so they wouldn’t forget to duck.”

Marydith told me that she and Red spent winters at Byers Lake in 1959-60 and 1960-61, but after the children were born the family only visited the cabin. Byers Lake is about 40 miles beyond Talkeetna, and in the 1960s had no road access. The only way in would have been either hiking from the Alaska Railroad nine miles away or by small plane.

The Beeman cabin was not the only dwelling at the lake. Bureau of Land Management records show that two other cabins were located there. One of those cabins was situated about where Byers Lake public-use cabin No. 3 is now.

Red gained patent to his cabin and the 4.87 acres it sits on in February 1970. However, with the creation of Denali State Park (which surrounds Byers Lake) in 1970, and the completion of the Parks Highway in 1972, Red could feel civilization creeping in. He sold the Byers Lake property to the state and moved his family and trapping operations to the McGrath area in 1973.

The state has developed a campground and other recreation facilities at Byers Lake, including a trail around the lake. It has left the Beeman cabin untouched, though. The cabin’s windows are long gone, a porch at the far end of the cabin has collapsed, and a small stand of trees has taken root in deep moss covering the bedroom roof. Inside, the flooring over the root cellar beneath the middle of the front room has rotted away. Visitors can peer into the cabin’s dim interior through the vacant windows, but a sign warns the curious not to enter the dilapidated structure.

Red retired from trapping in 2003 and from guiding in 2007, but he still fishes commercially. He and Marydith now live in Chugiak.

Sources: 
  •  Alaska Tracks: Life stories from Hunters, Fishermen & Trappers of Alaska. Randy Zarnke. Publication Consultants. 2013
  • Correspondence with Red and Marydith Beeman. 2015
  • Cook Inlet Country. Alaska Geographic. Vol. 5, No. 1. 1977
  • Denali State Park Management Plan. Alaska Department of Natural Resources. 2006
  • “From Scratch.” Susan Beeman. in Travelers’ Tales Alaska. Travelers’ Tales. 2003
  • “Teachers revisit the early days of teaching in Chugiak School.” Chris Lundgren. in The Alaska Star. 2-15-2007
  • U.S. Bureau of Land Management records

Monday, January 4, 2016

Interior Sketches II books arriving soon!



 

The launch of my new book, “Interior Sketches II, More ramblings around Interior Alaska historic sites,” is only a few weeks away!

This second book in my “Interior Sketches” series will feature an additional 60 historic sites scattered across Eastern Interior Alaska. It will include sites such as Fannie Quigley’s home at Kantishna, Tisha’s schoolhouse in Chicken, Doyle’s Roadhouse at Gakona, mining remnants along Nome Creek, and an Alaska Road Commission shelter cabin on Brushkana Creek.

An advance shipment of books is due this week. Those books will be sent out to supporters of my Kickstarter fundraising campaign. More books will be arriving later this month for an official launch party. Watch this space for more information.