Friday, April 13, 2012

Manley's Northern Commercial Company store filled with memories

Northern Commercial Company store in Manley Hot Springs

Manley Hot Springs (usually just called Manley) is located west of Fairbanks, about 75 miles as the raven flies. But if you want to travel there by car you drive north to Fox, northwest to Livengood, and then southwest to Manley Hot Springs, a total of about 160 miles. Most of the way you travel through the White Mountains via the Elliott Highway (named for Malcolm Elliott, president of the Alaska Road Commission from 1927 to 1932).

The town is at the end of the road. (Well almost the end of the road. Manley sits on the banks of a Tanana River slough, and the highway continues three miles to Tanana River Landing.) Manley is a small village of about 100 people, but a century ago it boasted 500 residents.

According to the Alaska Division of Community and Regional Affairs, the community was established in 1902 when a prospector named John Karshner discovered the hot springs and started a homestead and vegetable farm. The United States Army built a telegraph station there as part of the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS) at about the same time. The community was originally called Baker's Creek (after a nearby creek) but quickly became know just as "Hot Springs," and it soon became a supply and community center for miners from the nearby Eureka and Tofty areas to the north. Farms in the area produced fresh meat and produce for the hungry miners.

Frank Manley built the Hot Springs Resort Hotel in 1907. (The town was officially renamed Manley Hot Springs in 1957.) His resort attracted visitors from all over Interior Alaska. Guests could be dropped off by riverboat at the Tanana River landing, or they could take the two-day overland stage from Fairbanks.

The town prospered by supplying the mines and catering to the hot springs guests, and the Alaska Commercial Co. decided to open a store there. The book, “Flag over the North, the Story of the Northern Commercial Company,” tells of the A.C. Company owning a string of trading posts and stores across Alaska, as well as a navigation and transportation operation. It became the Northern Commercial Co. in 1922, and sold groceries and general merchandise in its stores. 

In many small settlements, the N.C. Co. store also acted as the post office, social center and bank. It was no different in Manley, especially after the resort burned to the ground in 1913. As with many of the smaller towns in Interior Alaska, the area's population withered after the Gold Rush, declining to about 30 residents by 1920. The N.C. Co. store in Manley remained open until the mid 1960s when declining population forced it to close. The illustration shows the store front in 1994, when there were still goods sitting on some of the store's shelves.

Today the town has one seasonal hotel (Manley Roadhouse), laundromat with showers, gas station, school post office, museum and grocery store. The hot springs still flow, and I understand that a couple of local residents run a greenhouse with water from the springs. For the right price you can soak in hot tubs inside the greenhouse surrounded by exotic (for Alaska) foliage. It would be a nice way to end a day in a small Alaska village filled with memories and friendly people.

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