Saturday, December 31, 2011

Salcha Native Cemetery--A people and place worth remembering

Salcha Native Cemetery

A couple of miles northwest of the Salcha River bridge on the Richardson Highway is a small cemetery perched on the bluff overlooking Munson’s Slough and the Tanana River.  The picturesque Salcha Native Cemetery, only a short distance from where the native village used to be, is one of the last vestiges of the Salchaket band of Tanana Athabaskan Indians.  (Salchaket means “the mouth of the Salcha,” but was used to refer to the people and location.)

Tanana Athabaskans were semi-nomadic. Each small band normally had a central winter camp with several seasonal hunting and fishing camps, and they moved cyclically, depending on the season and availability of resources. The region’s primary villages were located near the best fishing and hunting areas, usually on clear water tributaries of the Tanana River or near larger lakes.

The Salcha River, second-largest tributary of the Tanana River, is a salmon spawning stream and the Salchaket main village was located at its confluence with the Tanana River. It was here in 1898 that A.H. Brooks (with the U.S. Geological Survey) made the first recorded contact with Salcha natives.

Interaction between the Salchaket and Westerners was limited before the Klondike (1897) and subsequent gold rushes, but shortly after 1900 Westerners began moving into the area.  In 1902 the U.S. Army Signal Corp constructed a telegraph station several miles upriver from the native village, and in 1904 William F. Munson established Munson’s Roadhouse near the village. The Alaska Road Commission (ARC) completed a winter trail between Valdez and Fairbanks (which passed near the Salcha telegraph station) in 1907 and a summer wagon trail by 1910.

An Episcopal mission at the native village opened in 1909, the same year that a post office was established. By 1911 it was recorded that 40 natives were living there.  The mission closed in 1920, and during the mid 1920s the community lost its post office and the telegraph station. By the late 1920s the community’s population had dwindled to about 25 people. The area’s native population continued to shrink and by the 1940s only a handful of Indians remained.

Before the Episcopal mission’s demise, the native cemetery was established. A 1914 Episcopal publication wrote of the cemetery being started after the death of the village’s chief Jarvis. Aside from that little is known about the cemetery’s history. There are only seven graves there, most of them old with spruce trees growing up in their midst.  Several have picket fences around them. The most recent grave dates to 1988, when Bessie Barnabus, one of the last Salchakets familiar with the traditional way of life was buried there. Her family estimated that she was over 100 when she died.

The bluff is a peaceful location with a lovely view of the Tanana River. I enjoy watching chickadees and I drew the cemetery in late winter, after the birch catkins had dropped their winter seeds.  I hope that Bessie Barnabus is at peace with chickadees dancing on her grave.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

From outhouse to your house—Happy Holidays!

Midnight rest stop on the homestead circuit

Sunday, December 25, 2011

West Coast Grocery warehouse and a ghost of Christmas past

West Coast Grocery warehouse as it looked in early winter, 2011
The unpretentious metal-sided building at 318 Driveway Street (across from the News-Miner building) looks similar to the NC Company warehouse at the end of Turner Street (a few blocks away, near the river). Since it began life as a warehouse for the West Coast Grocery, any similarity in design and construction is understandable.

Built in 1936, (about 30 years younger than the NC building) the grocery warehouse is elevated above the ground on posts, just as the NC warehouse is elevated on pilings.  In addition, both buildings are of post and beam construction (also called timber framing) and sheathed with corrugated metal siding and roofing.

West Coast Grocery, which was a wholesaler serving small grocery stores such as Lindy’s in College, closed in the mid 1960’s. The building has seen several owners since then, but is now owned by Johnson River Enterprises, run by Sonny Lindner (the Yukon Quest and Iditarod musher).

During renovations, much of the interior has been remodeled, but Lindner, who is interested in historic preservation, decided not to replace the corrugated metal siding. Consequently, the building’s exterior still looks similar to the way it did years ago. (You can still see lettering from West Coast Grocery days on the northeast facade.)

Lindner also faced foundation problems. Although differential settling had caused rippling of the floor he decided the best course of action was to just stabilize rather than replace the post and pad foundation.

Since the building used to be a grocery warehouse, I thought I could talk about a “cold-storage Christmas” and what Christmas dinner used to be like back in the “good old days.” Imagine my disappointment when a friend and long-time Fairbanks resident, Glenn Gibson, said Christmas dinner during the 50s and 60s wasn’t much different from now.

It’s true that in the early 1900s the bulk of Fairbanks freight had to come via ship (usually an Alaska Steamship Company vessel) to St. Michael’s (on Norton Sound near the mouth of the Yukon River), and by riverboats up the Yukon and Tanana rivers. Small amounts also came by ship to Valdez and then overland along the Valdez-Alaska Trail. The only “fresh” foods available during much of the year were those grown and stored locally. Completion of the Alaska Railroad in 1923 improved this somewhat but freight still had to come by steamer from Seattle to Seward.

The advent of air travel changed all that. Pan American Airlines (through its Alaska subsidiary, Pacific Alaska Airways) began flights from Juneau to Fairbanks in 1932. The airlines received permission in 1940 to fly directly from Seattle to Alaska, and by the 50s the airline was flying two or three times a week into Fairbanks. During that time period it used Douglas DC-6s, which (depending on configuration) could carry up to 28,188 pounds of freight, or up to 102 passengers. (These were the same type of aircraft Pan Am used on its first trans-Atlantic tourist class flights, starting in 1952.)

With fresh groceries arriving on regular flights, Fairbanks residents achieved a rough parity with their cousins in the lower 48 (at least in availability if not price). Of course, that parity didn’t extend to communities not linked to Fairbanks by road or rail.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Found Art - Raven Gravings

I was out walking today—we had fresh snow yesterday and it was about 10 degrees above zero (F). Near my house is a field with an old split rail fence, and raven tracks were scattered about the fence's base.  
At one spot near the end of the fence were three sets of impressions of a raven's wings in the snow. They were sort of stacked up (totem pole-like) perpendicular to the fence. (The photo is of the best-defined wing impressions.)
I have no idea what was going on—whether the raven was standing on the fence and then jumped off into the snow, or what. I do know that ravens are playful creatures and seem to just enjoy larking around. Was the raven simply having fun?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Desjardin-Stroecker Farm--a remnant of early Fairbanks agriculture

Desjardin-Stroecker farm as it looked in 1995
The Desjardin-Stroecker Farm, located at 2.5 mile on Farmer’s Loop Road, is one of the few remaining signs of Fairbanks, Alaska’s agricultural past (besides Creamer’s Dairy, which is probably the subject of a future column).

Gold may have been the impetus for bringing Westerners to the Chena River drainage  in the early 1900s, but miners were not the only people attracted to the area. The history of farming in Fairbanks is almost as old as that of mining.

Homesteaders also arrived in Fairbanks on the early steamboats and by 1908 there were 130 homesteads in the area. By 1920 there were 1,700 acres under cultivation. The federal government was also quick to notice the agricultural potential of the area and in 1906 established an Agricultural Experiment Station near where the University of Alaska would eventually be established.

Early gardens and farms provided all the fresh produce for Fairbanks and the surrounding area. Before construction of the Alaska Railroad (ARR) all freight to Interior Alaska took months via steamer and riverboat. Even after the ARR completed a line to Fairbanks in 1923 the term “fresh” was relative.

The earliest farms and truck gardens were developed on the outskirts of the town: on Garden Island to the north, and to the south of 14th Avenue (present day Airport Way). As the city grew and land near town became more valuable, the farms and truck gardens moved to outlying areas such as Yankovich Road, Farmers Loop Road, Fairbanks Creek and Chena Hot Springs Road.

In 1912 local farms grew 300 tons of potatoes and by 1934 that had increased to 700 tons. Grain crops were also successfully grown, with 6,000 bushels reaped in 1920. The Interior proved so conducive to grain production that a flour mill was constructed in Fairbanks during the 1920s. Unfortunately, the mill burned down in the 1930s and was never rebuilt.

Farming became such an integral part of the local economy and culture that the Tanana Valley Fair Association (now the Tanana Valley State Fair Association) was formed in 1924. Fairbanks first agricultural fair was held Sept. 11-13, 1924 on the playground at the city’s public school.

Most of the early farms are gone, either absorbed by the city or subdivisions, or lying abandoned and overgrown. There are still some old farm buildings out in the hills, but the Desjardin-Stroecker Farm is perhaps the most visible. It was developed by the Desjardin family, who moved from Quebec to Fairbanks in the 1920s and farmed in the area for many years. They raised potatoes, hay, produce and livestock. Some of their fields were leased by Charles Creamer before World War II. For many years the fields and buildings have been owned by the Stroecker family of Fairbanks, which is related to the Creamers.

Included at the site are three structures: a small log cabin, a barn which has a lower level of logs and an upper frame section, and the lower log courses of another structure which looks like it may have been a greenhouse. Although the farm buildings are no longer occupied the fields behind them are still cultivated.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Mad Dogs and Moose

Delivering Newspapers at 40 degrees below zero (part 3)
Who cares about mad dogs?
When I was delivering newspapers on foot in the middle of the night I had to deal with loose dogs on several occasions. Most of them were yappy little mutts who were no threat, but a few times I was fearful of being attacked. I quickly learned to carry a stout walking stick, and a bright flashlight to shine in the dog’s eyes. 
Curiously, as the temperature dropped, the loose dogs disappeared. I guess even mad dogs are smart enough to stay in a warm place on a frigid night. I’m not sure it would have mattered when the nights got really cold though. I was so bundled up I don’t think a dog would have been able to bite me.
Moose are another matter though. During late winter, as the snow piles up in the hills, moose move down into the valleys and flatlands. Some moose move into Fairbanks where the roads are plowed and there is plenty of browse. It’s not uncommon for moose to spend late winter in our subdivision, and many times they have come into our backyard to raid our compost pile and bed down for the night. (We have a five-foot fence around our yard, which believe me, is no hindrance to a moose.)
A 1200-pound moose I care about!
Even all bundled up I would be no match for a 1200-pound moose. Also, many of the moose who over-winter in town are cows with calves, and coming between a protective mother moose and her calf is a recipe for quick disaster.
Whenever I came across moose tracks while out on my rounds, I would stop to determine which way the moose was heading and whether I had to follow it to deliver papers. It was nerve-wracking following moose tracks around the subdivision, especially when I had to walk down narrow wooded alleys. Moose will bed down in protected locations such as  under trees or up against houses where they are not readily obvious, so walking up to a residence was sometimes fraught with excitement.
When I did see moose, they would normally take off in the other direction, but sometimes, especially if they were browsing, they would ignore me. That meant changing my newspaper route so I could avoid the moose. Hopefully, when I came back later the moose would be gone. On at least one occasion though, because of a recalcitrant moose, I had to go home and get my truck to complete my route.
Oh well, I guess encountering moose on a frigid night is one way to keep you blood racing and warm (as long as the encounter is not too close that is).

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Find memories, welcome and soothing waters at Chena Hot Springs, Alaska

Historic cabins at Chena Hot Springs in 2009

Most Westerners exploring the Chena River drainage in the early 1900s had gold fever and were looking to get rich. Robert Swan had rheumatism and was just looking to ease his aching body.

He and his brother Tom were Fairbanks miners, but they heard about a U.S. Geological Survey party that had been working on the Upper Chena in 1904. The survey crew had seen steam rising from a valley somewhere ahead of them. Although they did not investigate, the workers thought there might be hot springs in the area.  

In the summer of 1905 the two Swan brothers headed up the Chena with a boat-load of supplies. Over a month later they discovered hot springs about 60 miles northeast of Fairbanks on Monument Creek, a tributary of the North Fork of the Chena River. Supposedly they also found an old campfire ring that Felix Pedro had used.

When the Swans returned to Fairbanks, rejuvenated by the hot springs, other sore and weary residents headed there as well.  George Wilson arrived at the springs and liked them so much he homesteaded the site in 1906, developing it as a health spa for Interior residents. By 1911 the spa's facilities consisted of a bathhouse, stable and 12 small log cabins. (The drawing shows the two surviving cabins from that period.)

Fairbanks residents were proud of their little home-grown spa, and in 1912 James Wickersham, who was by then Alaska’s delegate to Congress, asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to analyze the hot springs’ water. The government’s analysis showed the water was very similar to that of hot springs in Karlsbad, Bohemia (present day Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic).

Perhaps buoyed by this information, local residents petitioned the territorial government to get a road to the springs constructed. The Alaska Road Commission punched through a winter trail from Fairbanks to the hot springs in 1913. It had originally planned on constructing a regular road, but with short funding a trail was the best that could be accomplished.

Today it takes less than two hours to reach Chena Hot Springs from Fairbanks via the paved year-round Chena Hot Springs Road (CHSR), but in the early 1900s it was at least a four-day journey. To serve the hot-springs-bound travelers three roadhouses were built: Little Chena Roadhouse (14-mile CHSR), Colorado Creek Roadhouse (near 32-mile CHSR), and Greg’s Roadhouse (48-mile CHSR).

Much has changed over the years. With the construction of the road to the springs, the old roadhouses (no longer needed) were bypassed and fell into ruin. Development along the road increased, but fortunately, the State of Alaska set aside over 250,000 acres along the Upper Chena as the Chena River State Recreation Area. Chena Hot Springs is just outside the park’s northeast boundary.

The water from the springs has been diverted and channeled numerous times, just as the building housing the in-door pool has been rebuilt and modified many times. But the water still bubbles up out of the ground at about 110 degrees Fahrenheit. (It has to be cooled down before entering the indoor pool.)

All the old buildings except for the two small 10’ x 10’ cabins (across the path from the pool building) have disappeared. Other than the cabins, the oldest building at the springs is the original portion of the main lodge and restaurant, constructed in 1939. Numerous other buildings, including lodging units, smaller cabins, greenhouses and dog kennels have sprung up, but Chena Hot Springs still retains its rustic charm. And there is really nothing quite like floating in the large outdoor hot springs pool while the air temperature hovers around -40° Fahrenheit and the Northern Lights dance overhead.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Remembrance of a Warmer Climb - Eagle Trail State Recreation Area, Fall 2011

View of the Tok River Valley from trail's end
 I should have taken more photos, but it was only going to be a short walk before breakfast—just a 2.5 mile stroll to a spot overlooking the Tok River valley, then back to the truck and a drive in to Tok in time for breakfast. Yeah, that’s the way it was supposed to be.
We had driven down to the Mentasta Pass area at the end of September for an extended weekend and camped the last night at the Eagle Trail State Recreation Area (16 miles south of Tok on the Glenn Highway). It’s a lovely campground located next to Clearwater Creek and at the base of the Mentasta Mountains. Many opportunities for hiking, including a short nature trail on a portion of the old Slana Cut-off—a road (following the old Valdez-Eagle Trail) constructed by the military during World War II to link the new Alcan Highway with the community of Slana, 60 miles to the south.
The nature trail hike the evening before had been an easy outing and we figured the slightly longer lookout trail would only be a little tougher.  A map at the trailhead vaguely outlined the trail but didn’t show topography, trail length, or how much rise in elevation to expect.
The lookout trail started about a half mile up the nature trail, and in hindsight, perhaps the flight of stairs that led to the upper trail was a hint (which we didn’t take). After the first short steep rise the trail led along the edge of a ridge through spruce and aspen to an opening overlooking the valley. There was a bench there and as we sat down I thought to myself, what a lovely little hike.
Along the trail
But the trail didn’t end there and we pressed on, up through the spruce forest—along the occasional zigzags that didn’t show on the map—the brief 45-degree rises—always up.  It was a beautiful clear day and a nice trail (with benches to rest on occasionally) but we soon began wondering how much higher—how much further it was to trail’s end.
Out biggest failing was not bringing along a water bottle. (After all, the hike was only supposed to last an hour or so.) Fortunately, there were lots of ripe low-bush cranberries along the trail, and we ate berries to slake out thirst. (Not a bad before-breakfast appetizer I thought.)
An occasional grouse crossed out path, and robins and grey jays flitted about, but otherwise we saw no animals. There were occasional moose tracks though, and black bear scat.  The bear scat wasn’t fresh enough to be of immediate concern, so we pressed on.
Betsy at the top
We finally reached the lookout and it was well worth the effort. The rocky outcropping at trail's end was about 1,500 feet elevation above the valley floor (our starting point) and provided a panoramic view of the Tok River valley. The rocks were nature-made chairs (some with backrests) and if a person brought along binoculars it would be a great place to spot game. (Oh well, another item to add to the take-along list.)
The trip to the top had taken about 1 ½ hours—not the anticipated 30 minutes. We had abandoned hope of getting to Tok in time for breakfast, but we were hungry, so reluctantly started back down the trail.
Me at the top
Bear scat at the top of the trail was fresher than at the bottom, so we talked and made noise on the way down. My wife. Betsy, does a pretty mean raven imitation, and as we descended she cawed or clucked periodically. To our great surprise AND amusement, at one point her raven impersonation raised an alarm throughout the grey jay population. We were suddenly surrounded by a cacophony of jays, evidently warning each other about the intruder. The only thing I can figure is that ravens and grey jays are competitors and the thought of a raven in their territory was more than the jays could stand.
Knowing there was water and food back at the truck, our pace quickened and the trip down the trail took half the time of the ascent (making the total round-trip time about 2 ½ hours). We didn’t make it to Tok until lunch time (which means we missed the really great biscuits and gravy at the White Bear CafĂ©), but we do not regret our “little” jaunt up the mountain.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

2011 Alaska Historical Society award a pleasant surprise

I was taken by surprise the other day. A friend called a month or so ago and asked me why I wasn’t at the recent Alaska Historical Society’s annual meeting held in Valdez, especially since I had won an award. I replied that I hadn’t known anything about it. (My job had me working over at the Canadian border that week.)
Turns out The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and I won a Contributions to Alaska History Award, presented to an “individual or individuals who have made singular and significant recent contributions to Alaska history.” We won for my column, “Sketches of Alaska,” which I have been producing for the newspaper for over a year now.
My friend accepted the award for me but wouldn’t give me the plaque since there was supposed to be a local award ceremony to recognize all the Fairbanks residents who had won historical society awards. (There were about five people from Fairbanks, quite a sweep.) 
The local ceremony keeps getting pushed back and is now scheduled for January. However, my friend decided that was too long to wait so she gave me the plaque this week. I guess in January I have to give the plaque back so it can be given to me again.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Valdez-Fairbank Trail, a lifeline for early Interior Alaskans

Stage operated by Ed S. Orr between Fairbanks and Valdez

The Ed S. Orr Stage Co., also called the Fairbanks-Valdez Stage Co., was the most successful of several stage lines that operated along the old Valdez-Fairbanks Trail between 1904 and the mid-1910s. One of his stages (now in the Pioneer Museum at Pioneer Park in Fairbanks) is depicted in the drawing parked in front of a now-gone building on Dunkel Street that was used as a garage by Orr.

This route, an essential lifeline to Fairbanks (especially during the winter), actually began as an offshoot of the Valdez-Eagle Trail (Trans-Alaska Military Road). That trail was established by the U.S. government in response to the clamor for an all-American route from the ice-free waters of southern Alaska to the Yukon River and gold-fields of the Klondike. It wound northwest from Valdez over Thompson Pass, north across the Copper River Valley to Gakona, and thence northwest across Mentasta Pass and on to Eagle. The trail was begun in 1899 and completed by 1901, but by the time it was finished the Klondike Gold Rush was dying down and gold would soon be discovered in the hills above the Chena River.

Gold seekers heading for Fairbanks began taking the Valdez-Eagle Trail as far as the Gakona River, then crossing Isabelle Pass to the north, and following the Delta River north and west into the Tanana River Valley. This route, following old Indian trails, would become the route for winter mail delivery between Fairbanks and Valdez, and later for pack trains and wagons.

In 1904 the Valdez Transportation Co. began running pack trains and stages over the winter trail. That same year the federal government recommended that the War Department build a system of trails in Alaska and upgrade the Valdez-Eagle Trail to a wagon Road. The Alaska Road Commission headed by Capt. Wilds P. Richardson, was created to oversee Alaska’s road and trail system.

The ARC quickly began improving the winter mail route from Fairbanks to Valdez, eventually linking the trail up with the Valdez-Eagle Trail. The improved winter trail out of Fairbanks was completed in 1907 and an all-season wagon road was completed in 1910.

Ed Orr was already an experienced freighter when he began the Fairbanks-Valdez Stage in 1906. He had run pack trains up the Chilkoot Trail out of Dyea in 1898, and operated a successful stage company out of Dawson City between 1899 and 1905. On the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail he ran stages 2-3 times a week out of both cities, and each stage took about eight days for a one-way trip. Since horses had to be changed every 20-25 miles, and the stages had to overnight every 40-50 miles, numerous roundhouses along the route were essential.

The Northern Commercial Company bought the stage line from Orr in 1910 and it continued to operate until 1914. By then newly formed automobile stage lines had taken much of the business away from horse-drawn stages. However, the introduction of automobiles to the Valdez-Fairbanks trail is fodder for another column.

If you are interested in more information about the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail check out the book, "The Trail: the Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail" by Ken Marsh.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Winter Sunrise at Birch Hill Cemetery, Fairbanks, Alaska

Clear and 20 degrees below zero. Life is good.

I hiked up to Birch Hill Cemetery a couple of days ago to watch the sunrise. (Sunrise was at 10:15 am.) Birch hill is a large promontory at the northern edge of the Fairbanks city limits, and the cemetery is on its southern flank. Only a couple of miles from my house, it’s an easy walk. 

I used to be a groundskeeper at the cemetery and it is one of my favorite places—very peaceful up there. The temperature was only 20 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) and I knew I was going to be active so I dressed lightly (for an Alaskan winter that is—longjohns, wool shirt and trousers, wool socks and Sorel boots, polarfleece vest, insulated coat, insulated mittens, muffler and trapper hat).
Big Dipper on hillside
North Star with fox tracks

The lower, steeper part of the hillside has an ironwork representation of the Big Dipper and North Star planted on it. In the summer the yellow stars really stand out, but they have a more subtle effect in winter. 

I had the hill all to myself. It was too early for the chickadees, and the only wildlife I saw was a raven flying overhead. There were signs everywhere though. The older sections of the cemetery are riddled with vole burrows and their trails crisscrossed the hillside. Of course, vole activity is of great interest to foxes, so fox tracks were also evident.