Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fairbanks' early Pioneer Hotel no longer stands, but history remains

The Pioneer Hotel and riverfront as it looked in the mid-1910s

The Pioneer Hotel on First Avenue was one of the landmarks in early Fairbanks. Located on the waterfront a half-block west of the Northern Commercial Company (where the Bridgewater hotel is now), it grew along with Fairbanks.

In 1904 it was the Pioneer Bar, a two-story log building with the bar on the first floor, and perhaps rental rooms on the second floor. Within two years the bar had become secondary to the hotel. A false-front facade replaced bare logs, and the hotel’s distinguishing features throughout its life were the bay windows installed on the second floor facing the river. The hotel gradually expanded into neighboring buildings, always adding bay windows on the second floor.

By the mid-1910s it was the premier hotel in Fairbanks. An ad in the 1915-16 edition of the “Alaska Gazetteer and Directory” (an annual publication highlighting communities and businesses across the state) described the Pioneer Hotel as the “largest, best equipped and most up-to-date hotel in the North.” It boasted of the hotel’s 100 rooms, bar, private offices, telephone room, billiard room, steam heat, electric lights and ... flush toilets. The ad went on to say the hotel also had a steam-heated stable, dog houses and sleigh storage.

It became the place for visiting dignitaries to stay. President Harding roomed there on his trip to Fairbanks in 1923 and aviator Wiley Post, along with humorist Will Rogers, overnighted at the Pioneer in 1936 before their ill-fated flight to Barrow. The hotel survived until 1952, when it was destroyed by fire.

The Pioneer Hotel was an integral part of the Chena River waterfront, and in the drawing (which shows the hotel as it looked in the mid-1910s) a corner of the Pioneer Dock can be seen in the lower left corner. The Pioneer Dock, adjacent to the N.C. Company Dock, was constructed in 1906 to serve the North American Transportation and Trading Company (NAT&TC). The NAT&TC was the main rival to the N.C. Company-affiliated Northern Navigation Company.

Obviously, the waterfront in those early years looked much different than it does now. The N.C. and Pioneer Docks dominated the area between Cushman and Wickersham Streets. Because of frequent flooding, the river banks (which had been stripped of vegetation) were prone to erosion and collapse, and residents attempted to stabilize the banks in numerous ways. Revetments (retaining walls) of vertical logs were constructed, mainly in the area near the N.C. and Pioneer docks. In other areas pilings were driven at the water’s edge and brush and other debris sandwiched behind the piling. The covered docks disappeared in the 1920s (after the demise of steamboating) and the N.C. powerplant then dumped its ash and clinkers over the riverbank to stabilize it.

Most of those early efforts at riverbank containment have disappeared, replaced by rip-rap. However, if you know where to look you can still see vestiges of the old waterfront — scattered stumps of pilings, and collapsed sections of log revetment peeking out from under willows and grasses along the shore.

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