Wednesday, February 20, 2013

White Seal Dock a reminder of Fairbanks early waterfront


White Seal Dock as it looked in Fall 2012

 According to the book, “Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey,” few of Fairbanks’ early commercial buildings remain. Most were destroyed by the numerous fires and floods that plagued early Fairbanks. Others were torn down to make way for newer structures. One of the survivors is the building known as the White Seal Dock. It originally stood on the Chena River waterfront but is now at the corner of 9th Avenue and Cowles Street. (The address is actually 821 8th Avenue.)

During the steamboat era in Fairbanks (up until about 1920) there were numerous docks along the waterfront. The two largest were the Northern Commercial Company Dock (in front of what is now the Key Bank parking lot) and the Pioneer Dock (in front of the present day Bridgewater Hotel). One of the smaller docks, the White Seal, was next in line, between Wickersham and Cowles streets.

The drawing shows the White Seal Dock as it looks now, which in layout is similar to how it was during its waterfront years. However, in old photographs it appears that only 1/3 of the building (to the right in the drawing) was enclosed, and the rest of the structure just provided covered storage. Apparently, after it was moved, that part of the building was also enclosed.

“White Seal” references the steamboat White Seal (named after a character in Rudyard Kipling’s “Jungle Book”). The ship was launched from Fairbanks in 1905 and was the first registered vessel built along the Tanana River.

At 97 feet long, the White Seal was less than half the size of some steamboats plying the Yukon and Tanana rivers. However, these smaller steamboats were essential in reaching the shallow headwaters of the major rivers, and serving side rivers such as the Kantishna.

E.T. Barnette was prevented from reaching his intended destination, Tanana Crossing, when the 140-foot Lavelle Young couldn’t get past the Tanana River’s Bates Rapids (just upstream from the mouth of the Chena River). However, smaller sternwheelers routinely steamed up the Tanana much farther in later years. If Barnette had been aboard a smaller vessel, who knows what the history of the Tanana Valley would be now.

The White Seal’s name appeared in newspaper articles and government reports until about 1912, when it was apparently sidelined. Ownership was transferred to the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad in 1915 and to the Alaska Railroad in 1925, but it seems the vessel never operated again.
The Fairbanks waterfront changed dramatically after steamboating ended. The docks disappeared, and most of the associated building were torn down or recycled. Sometime in the 1920s the White Seal Dock building was moved down Cowles Street by Fred Musjerd, who owned the Blue Crystal Well water hauling business. Fred’s well house was between Eighth and Ninth avenues on Cowles Street, and he moved the White Seal Dock there to use as a garage.

The book “Historic Fairbanks, an Illustrated History” relates a story about Musjerd told by Tom Hering. In the early years of Musjerd’s business he hauled water by horse-drawn wagon. Musjerd bought a truck in the 1920s, and quickly became known as the worst driver in Fairbanks. Fred talked to his truck the same way he talked to his horses, and supposedly ran the truck through the end of the garage once because it wouldn’t stop when he called out, “Whoa!”

The property’s current owners, Cheryl and Michael Egan, told me that after Musjerd sold the business, Sig Wold used the garage for his freighting business. It is still in relatively good condition and a rare example of early warehouse construction in Fairbanks.


Sources:

  • Conversation with Cheryl and Michael Egan, current owners
  • “Fairbanks, a City Historic Survey,” Janet Matheson, 1985, City of Fairbanks
  • “H. W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest,” Edited by Gordon Newell, 1966, Superior Publishing
  • “Historic Fairbanks, an Illustrated History,” Dermot Cole, 2002, Historic Publishing Network
  • “Steamboats on the Chena,” Basil Heddricks & Susan Savage, 1988, Epicenter Press
  • “Yukon River Steamboats,” Stan Cohen, 1982, Pictorial Histories Publishing



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