Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Historic Mary Lee Davis House - From plush early Fairbanks home to popular modern B&B

Mary Lee Davis House in Fall 2000, before restorations began

In today’s world of mega-houses, the wood-frame bungalow at 410 Cowles Street known as the Mary Lee Davis House doesn’t stand out, but in early Fairbanks, this “cottage” was one of the most elegant houses in town.

According to the Borough’s Commission on Historic Preservation, it was built in 1916 by Arthur Williams (who owned the Arcade Café) for his new bride, Lucille. Depending on who tells the story, Lucille was either a young socialite visiting Fairbanks with her family when she met Williams, or a “good-time girl” whom Williams reformed. In either case, she evidently needed enticement to endure Interior Alaska, and Williams provided it in the form of a grand home.

The 32-foot by 48-foot 1 ½ story house was probably based on plans from one of the builders’ guides popular at the time. It has five rooms on the main floor, three upstairs (each with a dormer window), and basement. Some of the luxuries built into the house were oak floors, doors and trim; leaded glass windows; indoor plumbing (with elaborate porcelain fixtures); and a large veranda running along the entire front of the house, which faced Cowles Street. It was set back from the street in the middle of a large yard, unusual in early Fairbanks.

Williams “imported” workmen and much of the finish material for the job from Seattle. In addition to the house, the workmen also built a 20-foot by 20=foot attached garage and a small heated greenhouse.

Arthur and Lucille only enjoyed the house for three years. In May 1919, just a few months after a disastrous fire destroyed much of the downtown business district (including the Arcade Café) Arthur died of heart disease. Lucille quickly sold the house and moved to Seattle.

The new owners were Allen and Mary Lee Davis. Allen was a mining engineer, sent by the U.S. Bureau of Mines to open a mining experiment station in Fairbanks, and Mary was a writer. Together they fixed up the still unfinished house.

Mary wrote three non-fiction books about Alaska, and enjoyed talking about her home in them. In her first Alaska book, We are Alaskans, she wrote that they, “bought and completed a frame bungalow that had staunch double walls filled in between with several inches of sawdust, to make it warm in winter and cool in summer. This was really a charming cottage, gray painted, green roofed, with wide and spacious porch, window-boxes full of bright blossoms, hanging baskets with flowering vines in them, and the house was set back restfully from the street in a lawn of smooth-clipped grass that was our particular pride, for lawns were a true luxury and a daring experiment in this land of moss and under-frozen soil.

Mary also wrote that they equipped the house “with every electrical devise we could have to make our living easy and less complicated.” Other niceties they installed (which Mary credited to her engineer husband), included the first open fireplace in Fairbanks, open oak bookcases on either side of the fireplace, a built-in vacuum system with fireproof  bin in the basement, and the first coal-fired furnace in Fairbanks.

The Davises sold their home to the Fairbanks Exploration Company in 1927, which used it to house company executives. It also became a popular venue for hosting company parties and gatherings.  

The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. It underwent major renovations between 2003 and 2007, and is now owned by Van Newstrom and William Albee, who operate it as Alaska Heritage House Bed and Breakfast.


  •   A place of belonging: five founding women of Fairbanks, Alaska. Phyllis Demuth Movius. University of Alaska Press. 2009 
  •  Conversation with Van Newstrom, current owner
  • Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey. Janet Matheson. City of Fairbanks. 1985·         Fairbanks North Star Borough property records
  •  “Mary Lee Davis House, National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form.” Carol A. Rawlinson. National Park Service, 1979 
  •  “The House that love built…and rebuilt.” Mara Severin. Alaska Home Magazine. Spring 2009
  • We are Alaskans. Mary Lee Cadwell Davis. W.A. Wilde Company. 1931

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Drawing of Tanana River from John Haines' homestead

This is a drawing of the Tanana River and Alaska Range as seen from the top of the ridge above John Haines' homestead. A clearing is there, with a bench where John came to sit and contemplate the world.

According to historical accounts, this stretch of river was one of the most difficult for early riverboats to navigate. Small steamboats could operate on the Tanana above Fairbanks, but the section between the Chena River and Big Delta was the most dangerous. It is one of the river's steepest and  most braided sections--shallow and swift, with ever-changing channels, hidden snags and large rocks.

Riverboaters found the going much easier on the Tanana above Big Delta where the river's descent was much gentler, and the river's channels were generally narrower and deeper.  During the 1913 Chisana gold strike in Eastern Interior Alaska, small steamboats would run up the Tanana to its headwaters near Northway. The Chisana and Nabesna Rivers merge there to form the Tanana, and a few boat were even able to progress further up the Chisana.

For more posts about John Haines see:

Little remains of Richardson

An afternoon at John Haines homestead

John Haines homestead still provides inspiration

John Haines cabin on a sunny February morning

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Old McCarty's trading post foundation shows up though Fall's leafless trees

 We have had a very nice lingering Fall this year. It is October 17th and normally everything would be frozen already, but we are still having + 50 degree days. We took a drive down the Richardson to Delta Junction about a week ago and stopped at Big Delta State Historical Park.
Fall, when the leaves are gone from the trees,  is one of the few times of the year that you can see what remains of the old trading post site east of Rika's Roadhouse. I've upped the contrast in the photo quite a bit, but the dark outline in amongst the trees is all that it left of the trading post. It was built in 1904 and used as a trading post until John Hajdukovich bought the property in 1909 and built his roadhouse. After that it was used just for storage. Not sure when it finally collapsed.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Alaska Road Commission's Big Delta ferry - of roads, truckers and tolls

Ferryman's cabin at Big Delta

When the Alaska Road Commission (ARC) was created in 1905, it undertook the herculean task of building roads and trails throughout the Territory. 

One of its first projects was upgrading the winter-only Valdez-Fairbanks Trail to a year-round wagon road. With limited funds and manpower the ARC avoided building bridges along the trail if at all possible. Small streams were simply forded, larger ones crossed with wooden culverts constructed on site.

The preferred alternative for crossing large rivers during the ARC’s early years was by ferry.  Ken Marsh’s book, The Trail, the story of the historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, lists at least four ferry-crossings along the route: over Chena Slough; and across the Salcha, Tanana, and Tazlina Rivers.

A cable-ferry across the Tanana River was installed at Big Delta in 1909, and over the next few years road improvements allowed motor vehicles to begin replacing horse-drawn wagons. A 1915 report records that the ferry could accommodate two Model T Fords, or a single four-horse wagon.

The ferryman's cabin at Big Delta (shown in the drawing) was constructed in 1929 by Louis Grimsmore. (He also constructed the 1926 addition to Rika's Roadhouse.)  The cabin is made of peeled logs, and is 14' 9” wide by 18' long, with 6-foot eaves extending over the door. A 1930s photo in the UAF Archives shows the cabin much as it appears today, except with a sod roof.

Bridges gradually replaced ferries along the route, but the Tanana River ferry still operated up through the 1930s. This meant that Big Delta was a chokepoint along the trail, a situation the ARC took advantage of starting in 1935 when the federal government sought to collect tolls from road users. This was partly to equalize costs between motor freight carriers and the government-owned Alaska Railroad so the highway wouldn’t divert traffic from the railroad.

The ARC set up vehicle scales at Big Delta and began charging truckers 2.5 cents per mile per ton to cross the river. Truckers vehemently opposed the toll. Some sporadically blocked the ferry approach, others temporarily commandeered the facility. They eventually set up a competing ferry, flying the skull and crossbones as they crossed the river.

Several were arrested and a few even prosecuted, but no Fairbanks jury would convict them. Claus-M. Naske wrote in his book, Alaska Road Commission Historical Narration, that (regarding the trial of truckers for commandeering the ferry) “most Fairbanksans considered taking the ferry as a protest against the toll as a type of 'Boston Tea Party patriotism'.”

World War II brought an end to the escalating dilemma by filling Alaska Railroad cars with freight and personnel headed for war-time construction projects. Goods moving along the Richardson Highway no longer mattered and tolls were quickly eliminated.

The war brought other changes along the Richardson as well. The newly constructed Alaska Highway connected with the Richardson a few miles from Big Delta.  Wanting unimpeded access to
Fairbanks, the Army built a temporary wooden bridge across the Tanana River in 1942. Spring break-up in 1943 destroyed the bridge, but the ARC constructed a steel-truss bridge across the river the same year and realigned the highway, bypassing both the ferry and Rika's Roadhouse.

After the State of Alaska acquired the ferry location in 1976 as part of the Big Delta State Historical Park project, it renovated the scales and ferryman's cabin. The cabin's foundation, floor, and the first three courses of logs were replaced. Its sod roof (by then covered with metal roofing) was removed and new roof decking and rolled-roofing installed.

Facilities at Big Delta State Historical Park are closed for the winter, but you can still explore the park.


  • Alaska Road Commission Historical Narrative – Final Report. Claus-M. Naske. State of Alaska. 1983
  • “Big Delta Historic District, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.” Judith Bittner. National Park Service. 1991
  • Paving Alaska’s trails, the work of the Alaska Road Commission. Claus-M. Naske. University Press of America. 1986
  • The Trail, the Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. Kenneth Marsh. Trapper Creek Museum. 2008
  • Woodrow Johansen Papers. UAF Archives