Thursday, January 24, 2013

Claypool/Berry house a reminder of Fairbanks judicial history

Claypool/Berry houe in early winter of 2011

When James Wickersham became sole judge for Alaska’s new 3rd Judicial District in 1900, he was not a lone ranger tasked with bringing justice to Interior Alaska. As a representative of the U.S. government, he needed a considerable staff to manage the far-flung district.

According to the 1901 report from Alaska’s governor to the U.S. Department of the Interior, the court’s staff in Eagle alone (the district’s headquarters) consisted of the judge, marshal, deputy marshal, U.S. attorney, assistant attorney, clerk, stenographer, and commissioner. Additional court representatives, including 15 commissioners, were scattered across the district, from Kodiak in the south, to the Colville River in the north, Unalakleet in the west, and Eagle in the east.
Commissioners were court-appointed representatives — the equivalent of magistrates or justices of the peace. They provided the court with local representatives, albeit with limited powers and jurisdiction.

One of those commissioners was Charles Claypool (who, by the way, was from Tacoma, Wash., as was Judge Wickersham). Claypool came to Alaska in 1900 and was first stationed in Circle City. He transferred to Eagle in 1901 and then to Fairbanks when the court’s headquarters moved in 1904.
Claypool was accompanied to Fairbanks by his wife, Annie Cowles Claypool, and their two children. They built a house on the outskirts of town at 1309 First Avenue, across from what is now the Aurora Power Plant.

In the early 1900s the bank of the Chena River across First Avenue from the Claypool house was where steamboats were pulled up on “ways” (long wooden rails) during the winter. Early winter-time photos of Fairbanks looking west show the Claypool house surrounded by log cabins, with beached steamboats in the background.

The house’s exact year of construction is a bit of a mystery. Borough records estimate it was built in 1922, but other records indicate 1911. However, biographies of Claypool, including one in Volume II of “Biographies of Alaska-Yukon Pioneers,” state that Claypool left Alaska in 1909 and was the city attorney for Olympia, Wash., until 1913, when he was appointed as judge to the Washington State Superior Court.

A photograph in the Alaska Historical Society collection shows Charles Claypool and family in front of their house and is dated to about 1906, which fits in with the claim that the Claypool house is one of the earliest frame houses in Fairbanks.

The house is a square-built structure, with a basic design similar to the Joslin House on Cowles Street. The Claypool house is a 24-foot by 22-foot two-story frame home with a hipped roof, and is symmetrically designed with a centrally located front door. What is now an arctic entry was originally a covered front porch supported by Doric columns.

Otis Berry, Sr., purchased the house in 1925. He jacked it up during the 1930s and put in a center cross-beam salvaged from an abandoned steamboat beached across First Avenue. During the next 50 years, Berry’s son-in-law, Robert Young (married to Virginia Berry); and his son, Otis Berry, Jr.; built a shed-roofed kitchen addition at the rear of the house, replaced windows, changed the siding from ship-lap to bevel, and enclosed the front porch. In recent years a deck was installed over the rear addition, but the house remains faithful to its original design.

By the way, the inverted-u-shaped window at the rear of the house on the second floor is not original. That part of the second floor used to be a bedroom, but was converted into a bathroom. The window is built of glass blocks and wraps around a wall cabinet over the toilet.

The property just went on the market, so if you are interested in owning a piece of Fairbanks history, check it out.


  • “Biographies of Alaska-Yukon Pioneers,” Volume II, by Ed Ferrell, 1995, Heritage Books

  • Correspondence with Debbie Currence, granddaughter of Robert Young.

  • “Early History of Thurston County, Washington,” edited by Geogiana Blankenship, 1914, no publisher, Olympia, Washington

  • “Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey,” by Janet Matheson, 1985, City of Fairbanks

  • Fairbanks North Star Borough property records

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A haunting end to life at Circle Hot Springs

For countless years before Westerners entered Interior Alaska, only Athabascan Indians used the hot springs located on the northeastern edge of the Tanana-Yukon Uplands, near where Birch Creek meandered out into the Yukon River lowlands. Then, in the 1890s, gold was discovered in the region and prospectors scattered into the hills in search of the motherlode.

Circle City (now just called Circle) was established on the south bank of the Yukon River in 1893 to supply the mining camps in the Birch Creek area about 50 miles to the southwest. (Miners erroneously thought the town was on the Arctic Circle, which is actually about 40 miles to the north.)
A roadhouse was built along the trail at Central, about 35 miles from Circle. Then, in the fall of 1893 a prospector named William Greats stumbled on the hot springs while chasing a moose about eight miles southeast of Central.

Other prospectors quickly learned of the Arctic Circle hot springs and began spending their winters there, at first in tents, then building cabins. In 1905 Cassius Monohan homesteaded 106 acres around the springs, and Franklin and Emma Leach bought the homestead from Monohan in 1909.
According to the Alaska Community Database, the Alaska Road Commission began building a wagon road from Circle to the mining camps in 1906, and by 1908 the road had reached Central. The ARC completed the road to Fairbanks in 1907, and in 1930 the Leaches decided to build a hotel at the hot springs.

They hired local sourdough Billy Bowers to oversee construction, and work on the hotel begun in March 1930. Some accounts say most construction materials came by river to Circle and then by wagon to the springs. However, in a 1970’s taped interview, Emma Leach said the logs used for lumber were felled at Medicine Lake several miles northeast of the springs, and that additional lumber was trucked from Fairbanks. The hotel was completed by that fall.

The hotel itself has changed little over the years and for the most part kept its rustic charm. The bay windows on the first floor can be seen in photos from the 1930s and 1940s, and appear to be original features. The only significant changes are the addition of a restaurant at the rear, and a front entry vestibule.

Until the 1950s the hot springs pool remained in a relatively natural state. A 1947 photograph shows the grass-fringed pool with a few Adironack-style chairs along the edge, and a diving board at the pool’s far end. Other early photographs show expansive gardens and several greenhouses to the right of the hotel (where the pool and other buildings are now).

Frank Leach died in 1955, and Emma managed the hotel until her death in 1974. They are both buried in a small cemetery (which contains about three dozen graves) on the hill above the hotel. In 1980 Bobby and Laverna Miller purchased the hotel and hot springs, which remained open until 2002.

In its heyday Circle Hot Springs attracted visitors from all over Alaska and beyond, and was well-known for its aurora viewing. The hotel supposedly even has its own ghost. Some employees are reported to have seen or felt the specter of Emma Leach roaming the halls or haunting the kitchen.

The hotel and hot springs are now closed and the property is for sale. Most of the land around the hot springs is private. You can drive by and see the hotel, but get permission before wandering around the property.


  • Alaska Community Database Community Summaries, 2013, Alaska State Department of Community and Regional Affairs

  • “It’s Still the Water at Circle,” Dermot Cole, no date, “Fairbanks Daily News-Miner”

  • “Roadside Geology of Alaska,” Cathy Connor & Daniel O’Hare, 1988, Mountain Press Publishing

  • “The Healing Water of Circle Hot Springs, no author listed, 2006, University of Alaska, Anchorage


Saturday, January 5, 2013

Golden-tipped trees in Winter's evening light

A few days ago there was a beautiful golden cast to the evening light. (In Fairbanks, evening in late December comes about 3 p.m.) Here are a few photos taken in my back yard.