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.