Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Ladd Field (Fort Wainwright) began life as cold-weather testing facility

Ladd Field commander's quarters on North Post. Completed in 1941, it is one of the oldest buildings on Fort Wainwright

Ladd Field, now Fort Wainwright, began as a cold-weather testing facility. Named after Major Arthur Ladd, it was the first U.S. Army airfield in Alaska. According to the report The World War II Heritage of Ladd Field, congressional hearings on U.S. air defenses were held in 1935. At one of these hearings Brig. General Billy Mitchell uttered his now-famous words, “I believe that in the future, whoever holds Alaska will hold the world.” 

In August 1935 Congress passed the Wilcox Air Base Act, authorizing the War Department to determine locations for future air bases it deemed “essential,” with special consideration for, among other things, a cold-weather training facility in Alaska.

A site selection team visited Fairbanks in July and August 1936, and in March 1937 President Franklin Roosevelt withdrew a tract of public land on the banks of the Chena River just east of Fairbanks for the airfield.

Design work began in 1938, and construction funds were approved in early 1939. Crews started work on a railroad spur and road from Fairbanks to the site in August the same year. The rail extension ran from the Alaska Railroad yard north of the Chena River three miles east before crossing the river to the airfield site. The road onto post (later named Gaffney Road in honor of base commander Lt. Col. Dale Gaffney) stretched eastward 3.5 miles along the Chena River’s south bank.

The next spring construction of airfield facilities began. Army engineers were unfamiliar with permafrost and they naturally made mistakes. For instance, ground beneath the runway was only excavated to a depth of 12 inches, and portions of it consequently heaved and sagged when underlying permafrost melted. This evidently led to quite a few long-time locals wagging their fingers at the Army and saying, “I told you so!” 

The affected portions of the runway were quickly redone, this time with 15-foot-deep excavations backfilled with insulating material. Even with the delays the runway was completed and put into operation in 1940, a year earlier than anticipated.

The buildings on the oldest portion of Ladd Field, also called North Post, were completed next. Located just north of the main runway, North Post was laid out in a formal arrangement borrowed from the Beaux Arts design movement popular in the U.S. from the 1890s through the 1930s. Beaux Arts architecture was a neoclassical style originating in France. While the design of buildings on Old Post is not neoclassical, the site layout, with its open vistas, formal planning, spacing and symmetry is very much in the spirit of Beaux Arts.

The two-story housing units at Ladd Field (including the commanding officer’s quarters shown in the drawing) were actually constructed in a simplified American Neocolonial style, while the administrative and service buildings could be considered modern industrial.

National Register of Historic Places documents state that most of North Post was laid out in a horseshoe pattern around a lawn and parade ground. The horseshoe was bisected by Gaffney Road. North of Gaffney, at the top of the horseshoe, was a semicircular lawn with officers’ quarters on the west, north, and east sides. South of Gaffney, on either side of the rectangular parade ground were service buildings. At the horseshoe’s base, adjacent to the runway, was Hanger No. One, the operational center of Ladd Field.

The original facilities included nine buildings for administration and housing, six technical buildings, a hospital, and tactical fuel storage. The housing units north of Gaffney road were completed in 1941, but other buildings, such as Hanger No. One, were not completed until 1942.

Hanger No. One’s completion two years after Ladd Field officially opened meant aircraft mechanics endured extremely harsh operating conditions those first two winters. Ladd Field’s sole mission during its early years was cold-weather testing — not only of aircraft and associated equipment, but also clothing, survival equipment and other military gear. 

The entry of the United States into World War II co-opted much of Ladd Field’s facilities (fodder for another column), but cold-weather testing continued as a primary function until the end of the 1940s.


  • Early Transportation Routes, Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Ronald Burr Neely, Jr. Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands. 2003
  • “Ladd Field – National Register of Historic Places nomination form. Erwin Thompson. National Park Service. 1984
  • The World War II Heritage of Ladd Field. Cathy Price. Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands. 2004
  • The Forgotten War, Volume Two. Stan Cohen. Pictorial Histories Publishing Company. 1988.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Is that a fledgling Lincoln's Sparrow on my truck?

I was planning to drive somewhere but when I went out to get into my truck I found this little fellow sitting on the windshield wiper, chirping away. I couldn't bear forcing it to move so I went for a walk instead. I think it's a fledgling Lincoln's Sparrow, but I'm not really sure.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Meier's Lake - A roadhouse chapel and a wife's civilizing influence

Meier's Lake Chapel in 2014

Charles Meier got his start in the roadhouse business working for Alvin Paxson. Meier, a mail carrier between Valdez and the Interior, hired on as cook when Paxson opened Timberline Roadhouse in early winter of 1905.

Timberline was located on the upper Gakona River near Isabel Pass, along the original route of the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. In 1906 the Alaska Road Commission rerouted the trail up the Gulkana instead of the Gakona River, so after only one winter’s use, Paxson built a new roadhouse along the upper Gulkana in 1906.

Meier built his own roadhouse that same year near a small lake along the trail about 20 miles south of Paxson's.  The roadhouse was on the east side of the trail, across from where Meier’s Lake Roadhouse is now located.

According to the book, Roadhouses of the Richardson Highway, the long one-story log roadhouse he erected initially had room for 29 guests, but by 1910 had expanded to accommodate about 50 travelers. Hallock Bundy’s 1910 guide for the trail reported the roadhouse provided comfortable accommodations.  But then, Bundy had glowing recommendations for most of the roadhouses he described. 

Frank Glaser, who hiked from Valdez to Fairbanks in May of 1915, was less favorably impressed. A biography of Glaser records him as saying, "the bedding in the roadhouse was so dirty it looked shellacked." During his stay at the roadhouse Glaser slept outside using his own blankets. 

Meier also developed a homestead at the south end of the lake, and raised vegetables to feed his guests, advertising “fresh vegetables entire winter.” He also grew hay for his own animals and those of packers and stage drivers passing through. Bundy’s trail guide reported that Meier harvested five tons of hay and three tons of vegetables in 1909. Photos from this period show the roadhouse, a barn and corral, several outbuildings, the garden and a large hayfield.

The roadhouse location proved to be fortuitous, since it was a convenient take-off point for pack trains heading west to the Valdez Creek Mining District. The pack trains ascended the Middle Fork of the Gulkana River and Lake Creek to Tangle Lakes, then turned westward towards Valdez Creek. Meier maintained a small inventory of merchandise at the roadhouse for miners and other passing through, and also rented pack animals and provided guiding services.

Accounts of the roadhouse appearing during the first two decades of the 1900s just mention Charles Meier as proprietor. However, by the 1920s he was married, (although his wife’s first name is never mentioned).  William Beach, in his book, In the Shadow of Mt. McKinley, wrote about a 1922 trip up the Richardson Highway, and of staying at Meier’s Roadhouse. He did mention Mrs. Meier as a gracious hostess, saying the food was excellent and the beds clean and comfortable. His party whiled away an evening’s stay listening to opera and jazz on the phonograph, and enjoying Charles’ tales of his Alaska adventures.

The drawing shows the tiny log chapel, about 24’ long by 16’ wide with a low-pitch shed roof, located across the highway from the present roadhouse. According to the Meier’s Lake Roadhouse website, the single-room chapel, which is still there, was built in about 1920.  Perhaps Mrs. Meier’s civilizing influence not only improved the decorum of the roadhouse, but also prompted the chapel’s construction.

The Meiers were Catholic, but Jim Murray, who has cooked at Meier’s Lake Roadhouse since 1989, told me the chapel eventually became non-denominational. The chapel is still used for occasional services, and for special events such as weddings.

The roadhouse was razed in a 1925 fire, but the Meiers rebuilt. Later it was operated by Al Norwood, a local trapper and renowned moonshiner, and then by Harry Newman. Adler and Maude Tatro ran it from 1943 until 1950 when it was once-again destroyed by fire.

The site then remained vacant until the new Meier’s Lake Roadhouse was built in the early 1980s by Galen Atwater. It is now owned by Harvel Young, and still offers hospitality to highway travelers. 

  • Alaska’s Wolf Man; The 1915-55 Wilderness Adventures of Frank Glaser. Jim Rearden. Pictorial Histories. 1998
  • Conversation with Jim Murray, longtime cook at Meier’s Lake Roadhouse
  • Roadhouses of the Richardson Highway. Walter Phillips. Alaska Historical Commission. 1984
  • The Trail, the Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. Kenneth Marsh. Trapper Creek Museum. 2008
  • In the Shadow of Mount McKinley. William N. Beach. The Derrydale Press. 1931
  • The Broad Pass Region, Alaska. Fred H. Moffit. U.S.G.S. 1915
  • The Valdez-Fairbanks Trail : the story of a great highway. Hallock Bundy. Alaska Publishing Company. 1910


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Chitina dip-netting, June 2015

     This past Sunday I drove down to Chitina with my son-in-law, Brian Lotze, to go dip-netting for salmon. Our destination was O'Brien Creek, about 2 miles south of Chitina along the old Copper River and Northwestern Railroad right-of-way. The photo above is a panorama looking upriver from just south of O'Brien Creek.

     This is O'Brien Creek looking towards the Copper River. There is a large relatively level gravel area here for parking and camping. You can see the creek to the right. Straight ahead is where the charter boats pick up and drop off their clients.

     This is the road down to O'Brien Creek. The level of the old railroad grade can be seen at the upper right. There used to be a wooden railroad bridge spanning the creek.


     This view is looking south across O'Brien Creek. Twenty or so years ago when I came down to go dip-netting there was a vehicle bridge across the creek and a 4-wheel-drive truck could make it to Haley Creek, five miles beyond. Unfortunately, the old railroad grade has an unfortunate and incurable habit of trying to slide down the canyon into the Copper River. Now, only ATVs, bicycles and foot-traffic can go beyond.

     There are no electric lines to O'Brien Creek. Everything must be hauled in and hauled out. Any electricity must be generated on-site with small generators. But, O'Brien Creek does have an espresso stand!

     This was my salmon fishing rig--a mountain bike to get to the the fishing site 1.25 miles beyond O'Brien Creek, a pack for hauling supplies to the site and hauling fish back in, and a dip-net with 20' pole. Have you ever ridden a bike along a bumpy mountain trail while wearing a pack and hanging on to a long pole. And the pole had to be pointed straight ahead so it didn't get tangled in the brush along the trail. The Wallendas have nothing on us mountain-biking dip-netters! We were in the minority though. Including Brian and myself there were only five mountain bike to be seen. There were some hikers, but most people appeared to using ATVs. Of course that doesn't count the people taking charters on jet boats.

     This is a nice section of the former road (now trail) just beyond O'Brien Creek. It got progressively worse, with large rocks sticking up through the dirt and gravel in sections, other sections slowly sliding down the mountain, rock-falls from the slopes above, and brush encroaching from the sides.

     One of the lovelier panoramas from a section of trail, looking downriver. Don't let the gentle grassy slope fool you. Just beyond is a drop-off to the river below. The old railroad grade is several hundred steep feet above the river along most of the route.

     Looking down to the river from the trail above our fishing spot. We left our bikes here and hiked/climbed/descended a steep trail to the right in the photo.. Remember, we had to haul the fish back up this slope!

     This is another view of out fishing spot a little further along the trail. That tiny dot in the center of the circle is Brian, already dip-netting at the river's edge.

     Looking upriver from our fishing spot at river's edge.

     Looking downriver from our fishing spot.

     Brian dip-netting at our "hot spot." The Copper is a swift river, pretty much impossible to hold a dip-net steady in unless you can find a back-eddy. At this location if you stuck you pole down about 6-8 feet there was a back eddy you could hold your pole steady in.

     We only stayed overnight--fished about 12-13 hours, and came back with 24 salmon. Not a fantastic haul, but a lot better than getting skunked. You never know how the fishing is going to be.