Thursday, May 31, 2012

Charles Adams and the S.S. Lavelle Young were icons of Alaska steamboating

The S.S. Lavelle Young at Fairbanks in 1904
Two riverboats are represented at Pioneer Park: the S.S. Lavelle Young (first commercial steamboat to navigate the Chena River in 1901), and the S.S. Nenana (last steamer to Fairbanks in 1957). In between many steamboats and steamboaters came and went, but one of the constants was Charles Adams. He was the majority owner of the Lavelle Young and was on board when E.T. Barnette chartered the boat in 1901. Later, Adams was appointed captain of the Nenana when it was launched in 1933.

According to Adams autobiography, "A Cheechako Goes to the Klondike,"  before he became a steamboater he was a successful Klondike miner, and also participated in the Nome stampede. Returning from Nome, he and his partners (Tom Bruce and George Crummy) bought the Lavelle Young at St. Michael in 1900. None of the partners had steamboating experience, so they hired a captain and crew, with Bruce serving as steward and Adams as purser.

The next summer, Barnette was eager to reach Tanana Crossing (present-day Tanacross) and establish a trading post. Unfortunately, his boat wrecked before clearing St. Michael harbor, so he chartered the Lavelle Young to run his supplies up the Tanana River.

Adams checked with more experienced river men who felt it unlikely the Lavelle Young could get beyond Chena Slough. After negotiating with Barnette, Adams wisely inserted a provision in their contract stating that if the boat got beyond the mouth of the Chena but couldn’t go further, Barnette and party would get off wherever that spot was.

Sure enough, the Lavelle Young didn’t get past Bates Rapids on the Tanana River (just above the Chena). Barnette convinced Adams to try and bypass the rapids via Chena Slough but sandbars prevented them from getting very far. The boat lacked a capstan winch and Adams was hesitant to go back down the Chena with a fully loaded boat and risk getting hard stuck. So, an unhappy Barnette, his crying wife, business associates, and all their trade goods were unloaded on a bank of the Chena. Thus was Fairbanks born. The drawing shows the Lavelle Young in front of Barnette’s Cache in 1904.

Adams eventually earned his captain’s papers and enjoyed a long career before retiring in 1942, but the Lavelle Young had a relatively short steamboat life. Built in 1898, she was 140-feet long and could carry about 500 tons, and was actually designed for clearing snags on the Columbia River. (She was named for the granddaughter of a prominent Oregon businessman.)

Northern Navigation Co. bought her from Adams and partners in 1903 and moved the boat to the Kuskokwim River in 1910. She operated there a couple of years, but was considered too large and expensive to operate and was mothballed. The White Pass acquired all of Northern Navigation’s fleet in 1914 and sold the Lavelle Young in 1920 to Alaska Rivers Navigation Co. which converted her into a cold-storage barge.

She was later abandoned and sank around 1930. The Alaska Heritage Records Survey indicates the remains of her wheelhouse were found near McGrath in the 1970s. What was left of the wheelhouse was returned to Fairbanks and reconstructed by the Fairbanks Historical Preservation Foundation. It is now on display at Pioneer Park.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Improved view of historic houses one of plusses of Illinois Street improvements

The Illinois Street project is bittersweet for me. While it will improve traffic flow through downtown Fairbanks and eliminate some awkward and dangerous traffic situations, it also took out several historic buildings.

One of the few benefits (at least from my perspective) is the improved views of two historic homes along Illinois Street. For years the fronts of the houses at 303 and 315 Illinois Street were obscured by overgrown 10-12" high hedges. The hedges fell victim to the street improvements, and this summer is the first time I have been able to see their front doors from the street! I'll be able to get some good photos for future drawings (at least until the owners put up privacy fences or new hedges grow in).

303 Illinois Street - oblique shot
303 Illinois Street - front shot
This house was built in about 1930 by the chief carpenter for the Fairbanks Exploration Company.

This house was also built in about 1930. It was the home for the chief engineer at the Fairbanks Exploration Company. 

Mossy rock wall in my front yard

What can I say. They're close-up photos of the mossy rock wall in my front yard. I built a low dry-fit rock wall in front of my larkspur bed a few years back and packed between the rocks with mud.  Then I gathered some moss from other areas in the yard, pureed the moss with water in a blender, and poured the mixture over the face of the wall. The wall is tilted back slightly so the moss slurry was able to penetrate most of the nook and crannies. This is the result.


Monday, May 28, 2012

Lady Ferns unfurl in front of my abode

Here are some photos of emerging Northwestern Lady Ferns (Athyrium filix-femina var. cyclosorum) in my front yard. You can definitely see why these are sometimes called “fiddlehead” ferns. The botanical name for the young tightly coiled frond is crozier. (I guess this means that Roman Catholic Bishops don’t carry a shepherd’s staff—they carry a fiddlehead fern.)

Lady Fern is one of the edible fiddlehead ferns.  According to "Alaska Plant Profiles," uncooked Lady Fern croziers contain thiaminase, which is a vitamin B depleting enzyme. Cooking destroys this enzyme and makes the fiddleheads safe to eat.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Artistic Mud

It has been raining recently. Reminds me of a few years ago when we had to do some repairs to the front of our garage's foundation.

While the trench was still open it rained, and the drips trickling down the sides of the trench formed these facinating shapes in the silty mud. Its amazing what a little water can do.

The formations in the photos are only a few inches high and were captured with a macro lens.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Prickly Roses about to bloom in Fairbanks

It was only a couple of weeks ago that the leaves started budding out here in Fairbanks, but already the wildflowers are starting to bloom. I was out walking today (without a camera of course) and saw bluebells and prickly roses that were about to bloom. Tomorrow I hope to get photos of some of the blossoms.

The drawing above is of a Prickly Rose  (Rosa acicularis). It is one of the three wild rose species that grown in Alaska. (The other two are the Nootka Rose (Rosa Nutkana) and Woods' Rose (Rosa Woodsii).

It is not called Prickly Rose without reason. The stems are covered with slender straight thorns that have a tendency to break off if you accidently grab a stem or stumble through a bush. When (not if) the bits of thorn puncture and lodge beneath your skin they may fester. Best to wear long sleeves and pants when exploring Prickly Rose country.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Judge Wickersham was civilizing influence in Fairbanks

The Wickersham House in Fairbanks as it looks today
Judge James Wickersham was not favorably impressed when he arrived in Fairbanks on April 9, 1903. The judge was traveling to Fairbanks from Circle City via dog sled, and in his book, “Old Yukon: Trails, Tales and Trials,” Wickersham said that as he and his dog team came out of the forest onto the north shore of the Chena River “... the new Metropolis of the Tanana River came into view on the opposite shore. A rough log structure, with spread-eagle wings looked like a disreputable pig sty, but was in fact, Barnette’s trading post, the only mercantile establishment in the new camp.”

A hundred yards upriver, a half-finished, two-story log building, without doors or windows, announced itself as the Fairbanks Hotel. There were also two log cabins serving as saloons, a half-dozen smaller log cabin residences, and numerous tent frames. Not an auspicious introduction to the new home of the Third Judicial District.

Wickersham and his family had come north from Washington state to Eagle, Alaska in 1900 when he was appointed judge to the newly formed Third Judicial District of the Territory of Alaska, a 300,000 square mile area covering all of Interior and Southcentral Alaska. Although based in Eagle, his duties took him wherever there were court cases. Those communities included Rampart, Circle City and Valdez. His schedule also allowed him to help with court cases in Alaska’s other two judicial districts, and he spent considerable time in the Aleutians and Nome.

While returning from Nome in 1902, Wickersham met E.T. Barnette at St. Michael. There, Wickersham and Barnette reached an agreement that if Barnette named the new town on the banks of the Chena River after Sen. Charles Fairbanks of Indiana (a close friend of the judge), then Wickersham would move the judicial headquarters there.

So Wickersham found himself in Fairbanks in 1903. Even though there was little in the way of amenities to recommend the town, Wickersham saw its possibilities and set to work, quickly appointing a justice of the peace and making plans for a courthouse and jail. (The courthouse would not be built until the next year)

According to Clara Rust's book, “Wickersham: The Man at Home,” in the spring of 1904 Wickersham purchased a lot at the corner of First Avenue and Noble Street. With the help of a carpenter and day laborer, construction began on a small, two-room bungalow, the first frame house in the Tanana Valley.

Lumber for the house was purchased at a nearby sawmill and packed on shoulders back to the construction site since no wagons were available. By the end of the month the house was completed except for doors and windows, which would arrive via the first steamboat. That spring the judge also constructed a picket fence around the house, similar to the one around the house today.

Over the next few years, the house was improved and added on to. In 1906 the judge added two rooms; a parlor (the central portion of the house) and a small northwest bedroom. He also installed a hot-air furnace. Early photographs of the house show it looking much as it does today.

On one of his trips to the Lower 48 he puchased a phonograph. Once he got back to Fairbanks with the carefully packed phonograph and scores of tubular records, he would occasionally serrenade the cranking up the phonograph and sticking its bell out the living-room window of his home.

The house was moved to Pioneer Park (then the A-67 Centennial site) in 1967. It has been restored and in 1979 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Furnished as it might have been when the Wickershams lived there, Wickersham House is now a museum operated by the Tanana-Yukon Historical Society.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Minnie Slater's grave at Birch Hill Cemetery - Fairbanks, Alaska

The white picket fence in this photograph, located on the lower slope of Birch Hill Cemetery just north of Fairbanks, encloses the grave of Minnie Starr Slater. She was married to Charles Slater, and died in 1938.

Minnie and Charles staked and farmed a homestead on the north bank of the Chena River, across from the nascent town. A 1911 photograph in the University of Alaska archives shows their farm with a large oat field in front of the farmhouse.

In the 1930s Charles subdivided the homestead, forming the suburb of Fairbanks called Slaterville. Slaterville has two parts: North and South. The dividing line is Minnie Street--most probably named after Charles Slater's wife.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Presbyterian church in Fairbanks, Alaska - 1910

This drawing shows the Presbyterian church in Fairbanks as it looked in 1910. The Presbyterians were one of the first denominations to establish churches in the fledgling town, building a small wood-frame sanctuary at the corner of Cushman Street and Seventh Avenue in 1904. The church manse (to the right) was built in 1908. A new sanctuary now sits at this site, and the old church building is located at Pioneer Park.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Ant high-rise at Birch Hill Cemetery - Fairbanks, Alaska

Several years ago I worked as a groundskeeper at the Birch Hill Cemetery here is Fairbanks.  (Under-employed artists end up working all sorts of interesting jobs.)  I was removing some rotten boards around one of the graves and uncovered these ant high-rise tunnels. The tunnels were only on the south side of the grave where they could absorb the most warm from the sun.  They may have been dug for warmth, but I thought the tunnels looked pretty cool.

All over the cemetery the ants took advantage of human structures: tunneling along the inner side of boards, or building their nests against the south sides of headstones and grave covers to take advantage of the thermal mass of the stone and concrete.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Chatanika schoolhouse, a historic preservation success story

I enjoy tramping through the hills or along back roads, looking for hidden gems — out-of-the-way or forgotten buildings with lots of character. One of those hidden gems is the old Chatanika schoolhouse at mile 28 of the Steese highway.

The building sits on the hillside a half mile above the Chatanika Gold Camp, an old Fairbanks Exploration Company operations camp. It is a modest one-story wood-frame structure, about 18- by 24-feet, surrounded by trees and commanding a lovely view of the Chatanika valley. Out back you can still find the school’s two outhouses (boys and girls).

The schoolhouse actually started life at “Old” Chatanika, about three miles to the west. Old Chatanika (it began as just Chatanika) was established in about 1904. At its peak, the town was home to about 500 people. In 1912 the territory granted Chatanika permission to form its own school district, and the schoolhouse itself dates from the mid- to late-1910s.

A photograph in the collection of the Circle District Historical Society shows the schoolhouse at Old Chatanika sometime between 1922-24 looking much the same as it does today. The caption to the photo notes that some of the pupils who lived at Eldorado City a few miles away came to school by dog car along the Tanana Valley Railroad’s tracks.

After the area’s drift mines had exhausted the richest placer deposits, large dredges were brought in to process the lower grade gravels. According to a history of the Fairbanks Exploration Company, the FE Company started dredging Lower Cleary Creek in 1928, and added another dredge on Upper Cleary Creek in 1929.

Before the dredges began churning up the ground, the company built a camp in 1923-25 to serve its Cleary Creek operations. The camp was located just about equidistant from Chatanika and another town called Cleary (two miles southeast). The community that grew around the camp quickly became known as “New” Chatanika, and residents from Cleary and Old Chatanika gravitated there. The FE Co. acquired rights to claims all along Cleary Creek, including the land under Cleary and Old Chatanika, so it was inevitable that those two towns would disappear. Consequently, the school at Old Chatanika also relocated to New Chatanika, probably in the late-1920s. Along with the school came the schoolhouse (on skids).

The little school above New Chatanika taught students from all three communities and also served as a community hall. Its doors closed for lack of students in 1934, but re-opened briefly for the 1941-42 school year. (A federal government edict halting all gold production in the US for the duration of World War II probably had something to do with the final closure.) 

After that the schoolhouse passed into private ownership and it’s hard to say what the building was used for. When I visited in 1994, the structure was abandoned and askew. Windows were broken out, doors were missing, the floor and ceiling had gaping holes — it seemed destined for destruction.

However, in 2001 the schoolhouse and the land it sits on were acquired by Marlene Bach, a long-time resident of Chatanika (her father ran the trading post there for years). She has restored the schoolhouse and turned it into a museum filled with old photographs and exhibits, and the school’s original desks and piano. The museum is closed during the winter, but in the summer I encourage you to go out and see it. The visit is well-worth the time.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Life amidst the forest debris - a spider spins its web

While taking the photo of the yarrow calyxes several days ago, I saw this on the forest floor beneath the yarrow plant. A spider has spun a funnel-shaped web among the dead leaves and twigs and was waiting for a meal to drop in. If the resolution were great enough, you could clearly see the spider sitting at the bottom of the funnel.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Historic preservation works--at least sometimes-- in Fairbanks

It seems that every year one of two old houses, silent testaments to the early years of Fairbanks, burn down, or are torn down to make way for a four-plex or office, or (shudder) parking lot. These two houses have been spared that ignominious fate.

They were moved from other downtown locations to lots between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, near Clay Street Cemetery.  Now they are being renovated for future residents. While not all old houses need to saved, it’s nice that a few bits of our history are being preserved.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Elegant husks--yarrow calyxes in Fairbanks Alaska

I was out taking photographs and came across this lovely stalk of common yarrow (Achillea millefolium).  What you are looking at are the calyxes (plural of calyx), left after the seeds have dispersed. These are the outer protective layer of the flower. The corolla is the inner leafy part of the flower, and what would be called the petals of a flower are called the sepals of the calyx.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

N.C. Company warehouse in Fairbanks--Gone in the name of progress

Some people say there are two seasons in Fairbanks--Winter and Construction. We are now entering construction season, and work is commencing on improvements to Illinois Avenue and the approach to the new Barnette Street bridge across the Chena River. To make the project viable, several old buildings were demolished, including the one in the foreground of this drawing.

It was an old warehouse constructed in 1905 by the Dominion Commercial Company and bought several years later by the Alaska Commercial Company (later re-named Northern Commercial Company). I did a post on the N.C. Company warehouses a week or so ago, but I came across this drawing and thought it was worth putting up.

Its a shame the old warehouse had to go, especially considering that the N.C. Company store across the river was torn down in 1991 to make way for a parking lot. Yeah, progress!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Greenup time in Fairbanks!

Paper Birch
Prickly Rose
It’s official! In an article in today’s Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, the National Weather Service said that this past Thursday afternoon was when “greenup” happened. 

Ned Rozell, a science writer for the University of Alaska, says, in an article entitled The Long-Awaited Greening of the Hills, that greenup is “the time when tree buds burst into leaves,” and that it, “happens so suddenly that all the leaves seem to pop out on the same day.”

Balsam Poplar (Cottonwood)
Sandbar Willow
It really is remarkable seeing the drab hills bursting into color. Even if recent temperatures have been rather chill, the return of colors does warm the soul.

In honor of  greenup, I went out this morning taking photos of new growth. Here are some of the photos. By the way, I think the willow is Sandbar Willow. But I am no expert on willows and there are about 25 different willow species her in Alaska.

Highbush Cranberry
White Spruce

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Old outhouse at Olnes has unique character

Olnes is pretty much just a spot on the map these days. It is about 20 miles north of Fairbanks along the Elliott Highway. A sign there (dating back to at least 1990) says “Entering Olnes City, Pop. 1.” Now, there are only a handful of people living in the area, but it used to be a thriving little community.

The town, named after Nels Olnes, a Norwegian prospector, was a regular stop on the Tanana Valley Railroad between 1907 and 1930. The railroad had a depot there, as well as warehouse and machine shop. Olnes, with a population of 300 people, also boasted a general store, hotel, several saloons, boarding house, post office and livery stable, as well as numerous cabins and houses.

Olnes is located on the north side of the hills that separate Fairbanks from the Chatanika River valley. According to the book, "Tanana Valley Railroad, the Gold Dust Line," locomotives needed a full head of steam to make it over the hills and Olnes was the only source of water between the stations at Chatanika (the end of the line at mile 39.2) and Gilmore (on the Fairbanks side of the hills at mile 20). There was a small creek several hundred yards east of Olnes proper and the railroad built a water tank there where locomotives could take on water before heading up the grade.

The small hamlet was also a trans-shipment point for the mining areas near Livengood and Tolovana about 50 miles to the north. Trains ferried passengers and freight from Fairbanks to Olnes, and horse-drawn wagons provided transport from Olnes out to the isolated mining camps. In return, those same wagons brought gold dust back to Olnes for shipment on the trains to Fairbanks.

As with many smaller mining communities around Fairbanks, Olnes dwindled away after the easy gold had been recovered. And when the railroad shut down in 1930 Olnes fate was sealed. It did not suffer the ignominious demise of places such as Chatanika and Eldorado City, however, where entire towns quickly disappeared as buildings were destroyed or moved to make way for gold dredges.

At Olnes, the town just faded away. Its buildings slowly collapsed, or were moved or torn apart to recycle the construction materials. Almost all of the town’s original buildings are gone. There used to be a small false-front building adjacent to the Elliott Highway that operated as a store up until the 1970s, but it burned down in the early 1990s.

There are still several buildings there, but according to borough land office records, most of them were built after the town’s heyday. The only structure left that might date from that period is a small outhouse located along the old railroad right-of-way. The picturesque outhouse has a wood-shake roof with decorative ridge-line, iron filigree decoration at the gables, and a diamond shaped window. The interior was decorated with red brocade wall paper — the same type of wall paper I found in an old cabin near Old Chatanika, six miles away.

It would seem, from the care lavished on the building, that someone spent a lot of time in this outhouse.


  • Fairbanks North Star Borough property records
  • “Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough,” Janet Matheson & F. Bruce Haldeman, 1981, Fairbanks North Star Borough
  • “Tanana Valley Railroad, the Gold Dust Line,” Nicholas Deely, 1996, Denali Designs