Monday, July 30, 2012

Fairbanks Hidden History - A few examples

Inside some of the ordinary-looking houses in downtown Fairbanks are hidden log cabins dating from the city's earliest days. There are also bits of area history hidden inside some of the larger commercial building around the borough. Here ae a few examples:

Big Dipper Ice Arena on Lathrop Street - The Big Dipper, owned by the Fairbanks North Star Borough, started life as a World War II aircraft hanger at Tanacross. The airstrip there was used by the U.S. Army as part of the Northern Staging Route, the series of airfields through which military aircraft were ferried from the U.S. to the Soviet Union during World War II. After WWII ended, the hanger was seldom used. In 1968 it was dismantled and moved to Fairbanks, where it was reassembled and turned into an ice skating venue.

Arctic Bowl bowling alley on Cowles Street -  The core of this building was originally the Weeks Field hanger for Pan American Airlines. It was built in 1933 by Pacific Alaska Airways (a subsidiary of Pan Am). Later it was used by Northern Consolidated Airways, and then served as a bus barn for Northern Overland Company.

 Denali State Bank on Illinois Street -
This used to be the addition (built in 1951) to St. Josephs hospital. The original hospital building was torn down in 1973. The addition (which sat empty for many years) was converted into office space in the 1980s and eventually became the headquarters for Denali State Bank.

Silver Gulch Brewery in Fox. -  Before the brewery took over the building it was the Fox Roadhouse. Before that it was the Max Rede General Mercantile Store, and before that the Fox Gulch House (wine, liquor and cigars) and Dining Room.  It was originally a two-story log building (built in about 1905) but was eventually covered by sheet metal siding. Additions and changes over the years altered the building's appearance, but if you knew where to look you could still see parts of the original structure peeking through. With all the changes in recent years Im  not sure anything original is left.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Blueberry picking expedition to Olnes Pond turns into good excuse for a hike

My wife and I went blueberry picking today along the pipeline access road just past Olnes Pond, about 20 miles northwest of Fairbanks off the Elliott highway. It is a beautiful area adjacent to the Chatanika River.

We found a few good berry bushes, but the pickings were spotty. Our berry picking turned into a good excuse for a hike.

We followed a four-wheeler path north of the road that wound through the black spruce and ended up on the banks of a beautiful slough.

Along the way we found lowbush cranberries just starting to ripen, rose hips, highbush cranberries, and even some cloudberries. There were also a fair number of mushrooms pushing up through the moss and lichens.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

UAF's Rainey-Skarland cabin rich with history

Perched atop the ridge just north of the main section of the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, the picturesque Rainey-Skarland Cabin seems slightly incongruous surrounded by modern buildings such as the Reichardt natural sciences building, the Cutler Apartment Complex and the Moore-Bartlett-Skarland residence halls. However, the small cabin is still a cherished and important part of the university.

Froelich Rainey (the university’s first professor of anthropology) and his wife had the cabin built in the summer of 1936. When they arrived at the university earlier that year, there was a shortage of housing. With the regents’ permission, the couple’s contractor erected a cabin in the woods about a half-mile above the campus. This was with the proviso that the university had the right to purchase the cabin if the Raineys ever wanted to sell.

It was built in the American rustic style—a romantic vision of earlier pioneer dwellings that emphasized the use of natural materials and melding of structures into their surroundings. The three-room cabin (with basement) is carefully crafted from peeled logs and has unusual exterior design elements such as asymmetrical gable roof, pointed-arch living room window and plank doors with iron strap hardware. The interior is just as distinctive, with its split-level design and massive stone fireplace in the center of the living room. Small clay figures tucked into the fireplace mortar also add to the cabin’s eclectic charm.

The Raineys stayed in Fairbanks until 1942, and the university then purchased the cabin to use as faculty housing. A succession of faculty and visiting scholars, mostly in the department of anthropology, have since resided there. This has included a veritable who’s who of northern researchers including Helge Larsen, J. Louis Giddings, Frederica de Laguna and Henry B. Collins.

The most well-known (to Fairbanks residents at least) was anthropologist Ivar Skarland, who moved into the cabin in the late 1940s and lived there for 15 years. He was as well-known for his hospitality and skiing prowess as he was for his academic achievements. “Ivar’s cabin” became one of the social hubs on campus. After he died in 1965, the university ski trail system and a residence hall were named in his honor. The Rainey-Skarland cabin was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

Skarland had several roommates during his tenure in the cabin, including Otto Geist, the pioneering northern paleontologist. I used to work with the curator of ethnology at the university museum in my student days, and she told me an amusing story (possibly apocryphal) about Otto. He recovered bones and other remains of Pleistocene fauna from the Fairbanks Exploration Co.’s dredging operations and apparently amassed a sizable collection of mammoth tusks. With nowhere to properly store them, he sealed the tusks in oil cloth and buried them somewhere on campus. No one had ever found them. It’s possible that beneath the roots of some spruce tree near the cabin where Otto lived lies a small fortune in mammoth ivory.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Holt crawler tractor at Chena Hot Springs

Here is a Holt 5-ton tractor, probably dating from about 1924. Holt Manufacturing is credited with developing the first practical crawler-type tractor in 1904. The company named its creation the "Caterpillar" tractor. Holt merged with Best Gas Traction Company in 1925 to form Caterpillar.

Morris Minor 1000 woody I found hidden in Alaska's hinterlands

What a cool find! An old Morris Minor 1000 Traveller rusting away in the bushes. I'm not telling where it is because if I did it would probably disappear.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Found Art--Old pipe thread cutter in burned building

Here is a photo of an ancient pipe thread cutter lying in a burned out building in the hills north of Fairbanks. It is a massive hand-operated cutter.  Each of the handles is about two feet long.

Wildflowers aplenty in Interior Alaska

On a recent field trip I spotted numerous species of wildflowers in bloom. Here are just a few of the different flowers I spotted. All of these flowers were located within a two acre tract by the Tanana River

Shrubby Cinquefoil, also called Tundra Rose (Potentilla fruticosa)

Four-petalled Gentian (Gentianella propinqua)

Cow Parsnip  (Heracleum maximum also Heracleun Lanatum)

Arctic or Northern Goldenrod (Solidago multiradiata) 


Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris)

Star Gentian (Swertia perennis)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Old Eagle courthouse dates back to days of Territorial justice

U.S. Courthouse in Eagle, Alaska as it looked in 2000

On June 6, 1900, Congress enacted a civil code for the Territory of Alaska that, among other things, split Alaska’s single judicial district into three districts. Eagle City (less than two years old) became the headquarters for the Third Judicial District, and James Wickersham was appointed as its sole judge.

Wickersham, his family and staff arrived in Eagle via riverboat from Dawson City on July 16, 1900. In his book, “Old Yukon: Tails, Trails and Trials,” Wickersham says the entire town (about 500 people) turned out to greet them. He went on to add that in addition to Fort Egbert, (which had been established the preceding year adjacent to the town) and the numerous cabins housing the town’s residents, the community consisted of several stores, a customs house, Presbyterian church, Catholic church, two restaurants and four or five log-cabin saloons.

Wickersham and his clerk quickly set to work collecting license fees from businesses in Eagle, Circle and Rampart to fund the construction of a courthouse and jail, and by 1901 the two structures had been completed. That same year, Eagle City became the first incorporated city in Interior Alaska (and the second in the territory).

The courthouse (shown in the drawing) is a two-story wood-frame structure with shiplap siding and a gable roof. It originally had offices for the judge and his staff on the first floor, and a courtroom on the second floor. The jail, with an office for a U.S. marshal, was a separate log structure directly south of the courthouse.

Wickersham relates in his book that during winter when the Yukon River was frozen over and there was negligible risk of prisoners fleeing, they were allowed to roam about town during the day, having only to return to their cells each evening. With the threat of being locked out of their warm cells at night, few if any prisoners failed to check in.

The Third Judicial District’s office moved to Fairbanks in 1903, but the Eagle courthouse was maintained as a court until the 1950s. After the jail burned down (for the second time) in 1911, a room in the courthouse was used to hold prisoners, and an adjacent room was reserved for a guard.

One of the consequences of relocating the Third Judicial District was the marshal also moving to Fairbanks. After that the Eagle resident who apprehended a suspected criminal had to guard the prisoner until a marshal could arrive. An unintended effect was that during winter, when the trip to Eagle was a long and arduous one, few arrests were made.

During the 1950s the city of Eagle assumed ownership of the courthouse building. From then until the 1970s the rooms allotted for the jail were kept for that function, and a portion of the first floor was used as the community library, but the rest of the ground floor was used for storage. The second floor courtroom was preserved.

The appearance of the courthouse has changed little through the years. The covered porch on the east end of the building was torn down in 1926 due to decay, and a boardwalk along the north side of the building was removed in the 1950s for the same reason.

When the building was restored in the 1970s, the boardwalk and covered porch were rebuilt. The entire building is now operated as a museum by the city, with the courtroom on the second floor maintained in the same state as it was during Judge Wickersham’s tenure.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Duo-toned field of fireweed in eastern Alaska

I was driving from Fairbanks to Tok this past Saturday and did a double-take as I passed a field of fireweed. Were there two colors of fireweed?

Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium), can range in color from pink to rose to magenta, depending on soil and growing conditions, but I have never seen two different colors of fireweed in the same location--until now.

Monday, July 16, 2012

St. Timothy's Church in Tanacross celebrates 100th anniversary

Current church, dedicated in 1981
I spent the day at Tanacross yesterday. The people of Tanacrosss, along with friends from all over Interior Alaska, were celebrating the 100th anniversary of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church there. St. Timothy’s was one of several missions established by the Episcopal Church in the Tanana Valley to serve the Athabascan Indians.

The church we celebrated in is actually a re-creation of the original church across the river. For a variety of reasons the community relocated from the north bank to the south bank of the Tanana River in the early 1970s. Once at the new location residents pitched in and built a new church patterned after the old one.

Old church, built in 1920s
After yesterday morning's church service, we, along with other attendees, were given the privilege of going across the river to see the old church. (There is no bridge across the river. We had to go by boat.) 

As you can see from the photos, the old and new churches look much alike. The old church is still in decent shape and I believe the Episcopal Diocese is planning to preserve it. 

Dedication page of church bible
The church’s original bible is still sitting on the altar of the old church. The dedication page in the bible says the first service at Tanacrosss (then called Tanana Crossing) was held September 25, 1912.   

I came cross a letter from one of the first missionaries to Tanacross. The missionary writes that they poled a loaded boat up the Tanana River, leaving McCarty Station (now Big Delta State Historical Park) on September 8th, and arriving at Tanacross on September 25th. They held the community’s first service that same day.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Ghost Birch at Byers Lake

On out last trip to Byers Lake we hiked around the lake (about a four mile hike). At one point we came across a clump of mature birch trees. Wedged in between two of the trees was the remains of a third. Most of the wood from the third tree had rotted away and pretty much all that was left was the propped up bark--a ghost birch to haunt the woods.

Higher up  (hanging between the two living trees) was another segment of the ghost birch--toothy splinters of wood pointing downward.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

St. Matthew's Episcopal Church retains its rustic charm

When Episcopal Bishop Peter Trimble Rowe mushed into Fairbanks in February 1904, he found a certified boom-town. The previous time an Episcopal priest had visited the gold camp, in March 1903, it consisted of E. T. Barnette’s store, a partially-constructed two-story log hotel, two saloons, a half-dozen rough cabins and a few tents.

The earlier priest, under-awed by Fairbanks and its prospects, held church services and promptly returned to Circle City. What a difference a year made. Bona fide big gold strikes were made on several creeks in the fall of 1903, and by 1904 Fairbanks had several thousand residents. Bishop Rowe was warmly welcomed, and with the encouragement and financial support of Fairbanks residents, set in motion efforts that culminated in the building of St. Matthew’s Church and hospital.

Work began that spring on St, Matthew's Hospital, a 30 by 50 foot two-story frame building (perhaps the first frame building in Fairbanks). The shell of the hospital was up by August, and in mid-September was finished enough to admit patients. By the end of September 1904 the hospital was overcrowded. (In 1915 St. Matthew’s hospital closed, the victim of Fairbanks shrinking population.) It is somewhat telling of the mission’s priorities that St. Matthews Church was not even started until after the hospital was completed.

Work on the church began Sept. 26, 1904 and the first service was Oct. 16. The church was a 40- by 25-foot log structure constructed of rough logs with the bark still on. It had a vestibule (entry) on the north end, and a belfry (bell tower) on the roof of the nave (main part of the church).

In February 1947 the church was seriously damaged in a fire. Parishioners were able to save the hand carved altar, lectern, altar rail and the original bell.

Fortunately, plans to replace the church building had already begun. In 1946, a year before the fire, the parish had realized the church structure was not in good condition and contracted with Bell and Upjohn Architects of New York City to design a new church.

Thomas Bell and Hobart Upjohn were well-known New York ecclesiastical architects and had already designed numerous churches (including Episcopal) up and down the East Coast. Hobart’s father and grandfather were also architects. His grandfather, Richard Upjohn, introduced the Gothic Revival style to the U.S. and designed Trinity Church in New York City.

The new church was patterned after the original’s simplicity. It was constructed of peeled logs sawn flat on three sides, and featured similar gable-fronted nave and vestibule. Two major differences in the new church were the more steeply pitched roof, and the belfry’s location on top of the vestibule — tucked under the nave’s roof. When the building was completed the altar, lectern, altar rail, and bell from the old church were re-installed. The first services in the new church were held on Christmas Eve, 1948. Additions have been made to the rear of the church, but the structure still retains its simple rustic beauty.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Russian-American Company's Kolmakovsky Redoubt blockhouse re-built at UAF's Museum of the North

Kolmakovsky Redoubt blockhouse
Last year the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North put the finishing touches on a re-built Russian blockhouse near the woods behind the museum. The blockhouse was built in 1841 by the Russian-American Company at its Kolmakovsky Redoubt (fort) on the Kuskokwim River Delta near Aniak, and is one of the oldest Russian-era structures in Alaska.

The blockhouse was taken apart in 1929 and shipped to the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, where is sat in storage for over 50 years. In 1982 it was re-constructed behind the university museum, but even with preservation work done on it over the years, time and weather took their toll. 

A grant from the federal Save America’s Treasures program allowed the Museum of the North, beginning in 2010, to install a concrete pad for the blockhouse to rest on, replace some damaged logs, stabilize the walls, and replace the sod roof. Click here for photos of the reconstruction taken by University of the North staff.

Gun slot on side of blockhouse
It’s a fascinating structure—eight-sided—made of spruce logs with interlocking dovetail notches. A defensive structure, it has no windows. The only daylight would have been filtered through the gun slots on the sides and back of the redoubt. The front door (the only door!) is small, probably deliberately so that anyone entering would have to stoop, making themselves easy targets. (As an aside, the Russians found the natives in the area friendly and the redoubt was never used for its intended purpose.)

Roof detail showing birch bark on top of timbers
The sod roof is also interesting. According to a Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article, most Russian blockhouses had plank roofs, and the Kolmakovsky Redoubt is apparently the only one ever found with a sod roof. I thought it was ingenious how the exposed top edges of the roof timbers have been protected by birch bark strips.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Alaska wild iris - New blooms with old seed pods

Here is a photo of the wild iris (Iris setosa) in my front yard. I left last year's seed pods standing for a contrast with this year's blooms. There is also so wild larkspur mixed in with the iris. Here are some photos of just the seed pods taken this spring. These are  photos of the iris in winter.

Historic buildings on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus

Here are some historic building on the UAF campus that are worth visiting.

 Bunnell House--the residence of the school's first president, Charles Bunnell. Bult in 1921, it is one of the oldest buildings on campus.

 Signers' Hall--built in 1931. It was the first concrete building on campus, and started life as the school gymnasium. The proposed state constitution for Alaska was signed here on February 6, 1956.

Rainey-Skarland cabin--built in 1936 by Foelich Rainey, the first professor of anthropology at the university. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Carl Ben Eielson Memorial Buidling--completed in 1940 as a tribute to pioneering Alaskan aviator, Ben Eielson. Here is a link to a drawing and post I did on the building.

Consitution Hall--completed in 1955 as the Student Union Building. It was finished just in time to host the Alaska Constitutional Convention. Delegates met here for 75 days drafting the state constitution.