Thursday, September 20, 2012

Historic Fairbanks home offers glimpse of mysterious Kitty Hensley

Kitty Hensley is a bit of a mystery. No one is quite sure when she came to Fairbanks, when she married, or who exactly her husband was. Some say he was a lawyer from Nome, but no one is sure. We do know from records at the Kitty Hensley House that she was born Katherine Kilway in Michigan in 1867, and that by the 1880s she was in California, working on riverboats and in dance halls and saloons.

When gold was discovered in the Yukon and Alaska, she ventured north. It is unknown whether she came as a working single girl or as Mrs. Hensley. What is known is that by 1903 she was married and living in a small cabin on Eighth Avenue.

Her husband evidently owned the Florence S, a small steamboat. But Mr. Hensley abandoned both his wife and the Florence S in the early 1900s. After Kitty’s husband disappeared, she became owner of the Florence S, but E. J. Smythe, who was captain at the time, maintained control.

A publication titled “Yukon Riverboat Captains,” states that Smythe sailed north from Olympia, Wash., when word of the Klondike gold rush reached the West Coast. He traversed the Chilkoot Trail in July of 1898, and immediately began skippering riverboats on the Yukon River. Smythe spent five years on the upper Yukon before moving to Fairbanks as skipper of the Florence S.

According to folklore, Kitty traveled aboard the Florence S for a time while Smythe was captain, but her eccentric character and headstrong will clashed with that of the crew and captain. Complaints from the crew forced Smythe to banish Kitty from the boat in 1910.

After that Kitty stayed in Fairbanks. Several years later Smythe was returning to Fairbanks on the last run of the season when low water in the Chena River prevented him from reaching safe winter moorage. The Florence S spent the winter frozen into the Tanana River ice, and breakup the next spring damaged the boat beyond repair.

Smythe salvaged lumber and fixtures from the boat, and used some of the salvage to remodel Kitty’s home. Kitty’s original cabin was constructed of logs squared on three sides and mitered at the corners.   Smythe added a second story, replacing the cabin’s simple gable roof with a gambrel roof having two slopes on each side.

A porch and small room were added to the front of the house, topped with a sloping concave roof. The house was roofed with wood shingles, and the front of the house was also sheathed with wood shingles in varying shapes and patterns.

Smythe styled the remodeled house after the Queen Anne cottages popular in the Lower 48. He installed fancy windows (the upper sashes in each window were outlined with red glass squares and frosted-glass rectangles) and topped the bedroom window in the second floor with an arch.

The captain also labored at making the interior just as ornate. The crowning detail was an elegant false fireplace built out of the bench from the wheelhouse of the Florence S.

Kitty lived in the house until her death in 1931. She was eccentric and also a hoarder, stashing money in cans and packages hidden around her house. According to a brochure published by the Pioneers of Alaska, Captain Smythe went through the house after her death hunting for valuables she might have squirreled away. A subsequent owner removed the false fireplace and found, among other items, a package of gold dust worth $350 at the time.

Her house was moved to its present location at Pioneer Park in 1967. It is now operated during the summer as a museum by the Pioneers of Alaska, Auxilary No. 8.

·         Conversation with Joyce Wilson, Kitty Hensley House docent
·         “Kitty and the Captain,” Corrine Smith, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Dec. 15, 1996 
·         “Kitty Hensley House,” brochure produced by Pioneers of Alaska, Women’s Auxiliary No. 8, 2010  
·         Letters and other records kept at Kitty Hensley House 
·         “Yukon Riverboat Captains,” Jerry Green, 2011 

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