Friday, January 31, 2014

Hoar frost rose bush in Fairbanks

Weather in Fairbanks is tending back towards normal, which means it is getting colder. Yay! Was out taking photos in the woods behind out house and saw this prickly rose bush covered in ice.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Paxson -- a tale of two roadhouses

The remains of the second Paxson’s Roadhouse as it looked in early spring 2013

The tumbled-down building in the drawing, located about three miles south of Isabelle Pass along the Richardson Highway, is the second incarnation of Paxson’s Roadhouse.

According to a Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article by Judy Ferguson in 2000, Alvin J. Paxson came to Alaska in 1898 with the flood of gold seekers headed for the Klondike. However, he took the less frequently traveled trail out of Valdez to reach the gold fields, was seduced by Alaska’s charms and never made it to the Klondike.

In early winter 1905 he bumped into Ed Young at Doyle’s Roadhouse at the confluence of the Gakona and Copper rivers. Ed was a mail carrier and headed to Fairbanks from Valdez with the first mail of the winter season.

Heavy snow already blanketed the ground, and Ed needed someone to break trail for him. Alvin agreed to help if they could also locate a good location for a roadhouse near Isabelle Pass. They found a sheltered spot just south of the pass near the Gakona River. Alvin quickly bought supplies at Copper Center and set up a large tent-based operation called Timberline Roadhouse.

He learned the Alaska Road Commission (ARC) was working on a new section of the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail that ascended the Gulkana River between Gulkana and Summit Lake, bypassing the Gakona River trail — and Timberline Roadhouse. Consequently, after a busy winter running the roadhouse Alvin began scouting for a better location.

After looking over the proposed route and talking with ARC engineers, he decided on a site just a few miles to the west (on the opposite side of the ridge) in a sheltered area about three miles south of Summit Lake. In 1906 Alvin erected a 30-foot by 80-foot two-story log structure just east of the new trail, surrounded by thick spruce and protected from the harsh winds blowing down out of the pass.

His choice of location proved to be an excellent one, and the small community of Paxson sprang up around the roadhouse. Orr Stage Line appreciated the location and made Paxson a regular stop. Within a few years of the roadhouse’s establishment, trails to new mining areas (Slate Creek to the east and Valdez Creek to the west) were blazed that took off from the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail in the vicinity of Paxson, so the little community became a junction and supply point.

Alvin ended up building several barns and outbuildings to support his growing operation. The Washington Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System erected a telegraph station nearby. A general store quickly joined the little community, and in 1912 a post office was established. Fred Nichols, who also operated Yost’s Roadhouse along the Delta River, bought the roadhouse in 1913. Nichols ran the roadhouse until 1923, when it was destroyed by fire.

Dan Whiteford acquired the operation in 1928 and rebuilt the roadhouse —or rather converted the roadhouse’s old single-story horse-tack drying barn into a new roadhouse. He began by sectioning off the interior with temporary walls made from cheesecloth hung from the rafters. Over the next few years he improved the building and constructed log additions at its north and south ends.

Emil Goulet, who mined and trapped in the area during the 1930s, wrote in his 1949 book, Rugged Years on the Alaska Frontier, that Paxson was a popular tourist stopover. The lodge was a mecca for hunters and fishermen, and its walls were adorned with wildlife trophies.

According to Walter Phillips’ book, Roadhouses of the Richardson Highway, the roadhouse (which by now was called Paxson Lodge) was sold in 1934 to Russell Keith, and in 1943 to John Windust.

In 1957 a fire consumed the roadhouse’s southern addition and most of the central section. The newly constructed Denali Highway was opened that same year, and Windust built a new lodge about a mile to the south, at the junction of the Richardson and Denali highways.

The old roadhouse (No. 2), its northern addition still in fairly good condition in the 1980s, crumbled over time. For many years it was obscured by brush, but recent highway right-of-way clearing has revealed it once again.


  • “Denali maintenance issue hits Paxson Lodge,” in  Alaska Journal of Commerce. Nancy Pounds. July 2002
  • Roadhouses of the Richardson Highway. Walter Phillips. Alaska Historical Commission. 1984
  •  Rugged Years on the Alaska Frontier. Emil Goulet. Dorrance & Company. 1949
  • “Tent or modern inn, Paxson’s still a refuge,” in “Heartland Magazine.” Judy Ferguson. Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.” 2-20-2000
  • The Trail, the Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. Kenneth Marsh. Trapper Creek Museum. 2008

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Cool beats - Drum set ice sculpture in Fairbanks, Alaska

Icy drum set in front of Design Alaska, an Engineering and Design firm in Fairbanks, Alaska

Monday, January 20, 2014

1942 GMC truck and Northway Airfield - part of Alaska's aviation history

Old GMC truck near Northway in early winter 2011. This truck was used by the Civil Aeronautics Administrations at the Northway Airfield.

The vehicle in the drawing is a 1942 GMC dump truck sitting on a hillside at about 1620 Mile of the Alaska Highway. Stenciled on the door is “Department of Commerce, Civil Aeronautics Administration.” The CAA was the precursor to the Federal Aviation Administration, and this truck (probably surplus Alaska Highway construction equipment) was undoubtedly used at the Northway airfield just a few miles away.

Northway’s airfield was one of the links in the “Northwest Staging Route,” through which thousands of aircraft were ferried from the U.S. to the Soviet Union during World War II. Although it was used during the war’s lend-lease program, the airfield was actually built a year before the aircraft ferrying operation came into being.

Canada entered World War II in September 1939. The Canadian government was primarily concerned with the war in Europe and the Atlantic, but it did begin planning for a series of airfields stretching from northern Alberta to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. 

According to Stan Cohen’s book, “The Forgotten War,” after the Canadian-American Permanent Joint Board on Defense was created in August 1940, Canada authorized construction of airfields at Grande Prairie, Alberta; Fort St. John and Fort Nelson, British Columbia; and Watson Lake and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. These airfields were to “provide protection, permit aircraft to be deployed rapidly…in times of emergency, and allow men and supplies to be moved into the region by air.” Canada constructed the airfields during 1941, the same year the Northway airfield was built.

The United States began beefing up its northern defenses in 1940. As part of this build-up, the CAA built emergency landing fields across the territory. Air fields were built or improved at Nome, Naknek, Galena, McGrath, Bethel, Big Delta, Tanacross, and Northway. (The hanger built at the Tanacross airfield is now the Big Dipper ice arena here in Fairbanks, and the airfield near Big Delta is now Fort Greely.)

Work on the Northway airfield started before construction of the Alaska Highway, so the site of the proposed airfield was as isolated as the nearby Athabascan village of Northway, after which the airfield was named.

The nearest road and airstrip were about 60 miles to the south near the headwaters of the Nabesna River, at the Nabesna Gold Mine. The Nabesna landing strip became the staging site for shipping supplies to the new airfield. Supplies were trucked from Valdez to the mine, and then hauled by tractor to the landing site.

The Morrison Knutson Company (MK) was the primary contractor, and it sub-contacted with pioneer Alaska aviator Bob Reeve and others to airlift supplies. Beth Romulo describes the operation in her book, “Glacier Pilot.”

The first task MK faced was blazing a rough airstrip at the proposed airfield. Reeve flew two engineers into the Native village of Tetlin on Tetlin Lake (southeast of present-day Tok) then chartered a motorboat down the Tetlin River and up the Tanana and Nabesna Rivers to the construction site. They hired 20 Athabascan laborers who hacked an 800-foot airstrip out of the wilderness.

With the airstrip in place, Reeve and other pilots began an almost non-stop airlift of supplies. Between June and October of 1941 they flew about 1,000 tons of supplies and 300 workmen to the new airfield. In addition, MK ran a cat-train along the Nabesna River to haul in scrapers and other heavy equipment. By the end of 1941 the airfield was operational.

It is still used today. U.S. Customs has an office at the airport, and small private airplanes entering Alaska from the Whitehorse area in Canada must land there.


  • “The Forgotten War, Volumes One and Two.” Stan Cohen. Pictorial Histories Publishing Company. 1981, 1988
  •  “Nabesna Gold and the Making of the Historic Nabesna Gold Mine and Town.” Kirk Stanley. Todd Communications. 2005
  • “Glacier Pilot; the story of Bob Reeve and the flyers who pushed back Alaska’s air frontiers.” Beth Day Romulo. Henry Holt. 1957

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Snowy January fence in Fairbanks

Went for a walk late in the afternoon today and the atmospherics were lovely. Took this photo by the large community garden plot next to the river. Love the chiaroscuro effect.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Blue Crystal Water Company delivered tasty water to early Fairbanks residents

Blue Crystal Water Company well house on Cowles Street

We take plentiful clean water for granted, but in early Fairbanks, clean water was a limited commodity. Most wells in Fairbanks were shallow — yielding foul-tasting, organic-rich water. Consequently, many residents had water delivered.

There were other water delivery services around Fairbanks in the early 1900s, but Fred Musjerd’s was the best known. He had several wells on his property between Eighth and Ninth avenues on Cowles Street. They produced good quality water, and during the 1920s and 30s he operated the Blue Crystal Water Company.

According to Cheryl Egan, who, with her husband, Michael, now owns the property, a well was located inside the garage on the corner of Cowles Street and Ninth Avenue. This building. which can be seen behind the well house, was formerly the White Seal Dock. It was originally on the Chena River waterfront, but sometime during the 1920s Musjerd moved the structure to its present location.

In his early water hauling years Musjerd ran a horse-drawn water wagon out of this building. During the summer the wagon sported wheels and in winter Musjerd ran it on sled runners. Winter photos show a wood-sided wagon with the words “Blue CrystalWater Co. – No Limit” printed on the side. Sticking out of the top of the wagon’s mid-section was a small smoke-belching stove used to keep the water from freezing. There were two spigots at the back of the wagon for filling pails, with several pails usually made from recycled Hills Bros. 5-gallon coffee tins.

Some winter photos show the wagon encased in ice. According to Dermot Cole’s book, “Historic Fairbanks, an Illustrated History,” Musjerd, who was a large man, was even more imposing during winter, muffled in a large fur coat and hat, “with frost or small icicles hanging from his walrus mustache.” In later years Musjerd replaced the horse-drawn wagon with a truck.

Customers placed empty 5-gallon pails outside their doors and Musjerd replaced them with full ones. In a 1993 interview, long-time Fairbanks resident Marge Haggard said that residents displayed cards in their windows indicating how many pails of water they needed. The water cost 10 cents per pail, but Haggard also related that customers set out bingles (tokens purchased in advance) to pay for their water.

Another well was located in the well house shown in the drawing. According to borough records this building was built in the mid 1930s. It is an 18-foot x 24-foot wood-frame structure with beveled wood siding and metal roofing, most of it original.

During the 1930s Musjerd also built a house on his property, similar in construction to the well house. Both are what Janet Matheson, author of “A Fairbanks City Historic Survey,” calls “Pioneer Neoclassical,” a take-off on American Neoclassicism in which elements from classical Greek and Roman architecture were melded with contemporary building materials and designs. Neoclassicism was popular between 1900 and 1940, and there are several other buildings of similar construction in town.

The house is still there, and Musjerd installed a third well in the house basement. As built, his home was a two-story 15-foot x 31-foot gable roofed house with the same siding and roofing as the well house. The Egans doubled its size in the 1980s by essentially constructing a similarly proportioned house beside the existing structure. The addition matched the original’s styling. Cheryl saved all the doors and molding taken down during construction and painstakingly re-finished them for use in the newly remodeled house.

Michael Egan told me that some people have urged him to tear down the well house and old garage. Fortunately he has ignored them, saving these little-known but important elements from Fairbanks past.


  • Conversations with Cheryl and Michael Egan, current owners
  •  “Fairbanks, a City Historic Survey.” Janet Matheson. City of Fairbanks. 1985
  • “Fairbanks, a Pictorial History.” Claus-M. Naske & Ludwig Rowinski. The Donning Company Publishers. 1981 
  • Fairbanks North Star Borough property records
  • “Historic Fairbanks, an Illustrated History,” Dermot Cole, 2002, Historic Publishing Network 
  • Marie Haggard interview. Recorded by Margaret Van Cleve on September 15, 1993. University of Alaska, Fairbanks Oral History Collection
  • Photos of Blue Crystal Water Co. water wagon. Charles Cann photographer. Alaska State Library – Historical Collections