When 18-year-old Clara Hickman first set foot in Fairbanks in the fall of 1908, it wasn’t from a stage just arrived over the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail or down the gang-plank of a steamboat at one of the city’s docks. It was from a windswept rowboat onto the Chena River's cold, muddy bank.
Clara had indeed come by steamer. Her 32-day journey entailed traveling by steamship from Seattle to St. Michael (near the mouth of the Yukon River), and then by stern-wheeled riverboat up the Yukon, Tanana, and Chena Rivers.
Unfortunately, Clara was traveling in September and there was already frost on the ground. The water level of the Chena River was dropping as winter approached, and the small steamboat she was a passenger on (with an inexperienced captain) kept running aground. When the steamer grounded one last time within sight of Fairbanks, the captain acquiesced to frustrated passengers and lowered a lifeboat to take people ashore.
Clara’s family already lived in Fairbanks, so she had a comforting cabin waiting for her. Zach Hickman (her father), was an itinerant newspaperman and ran the Daily News, one of three papers in Fairbanks. He and Clara’s mother and younger sister lived in a small cabin on 8th Avenue, then the edge of town.
Clara quickly adjusted to Fairbanks, obtaining a job at Mary Anderson’s Dry Goods and Dress Shop. Since the Hickman cabin, like most in town, did not have running water, the Hickmans took baths at the First Avenue Bathhouse. Her mother became friends with Cora Madole, who owned the bathhouse, and the two Hickman sisters went there often. During this period Clara slipped into the community’s social life and fell in love with Mrs. Madole’s son, Jess Rust, who mined on Pedro Creek.
Clara’s parents were not happily married, and it wasn’t long before her mother and sister returned to Seattle. After Clara’s mother wrote requesting a divorce, her father also returned. Clara stayed in Fairbanks, however, knowing there was little in Seattle for her and wishing to stay near Jess. Before leaving town her father deeded the family’s cabin to her.
Clara was still working at Mary Anderson’s store, but living alone in the family cabin. The empty cabin eventually proved too much for Clara, and she ended up rooming with Mrs. Madole at the bathhouse.
According to Jo Anne Wold’s book, This Old House; the story of Clara Rust, Clara woke one morning in late 1909 to a frigid bathhouse. The boiler had broken, and despite work done on it during the following day, the bathhouse’s pipes froze and burst. Mrs. Madole was out of business.
Fortunately, Mrs. Madole also owned the small cabin (shown in the drawing) at 828 Second Avenue, directly behind the bathhouse. The cabin happened to be vacant so Clara and Mrs. Madole quickly switched residences.
When Cora and Clara moved in, the cabin was still in its original configuration—a 16-foot by 34-foot structure made of peeled logs with dovetailed corners. It had a living room, dining room and kitchen on the first floor, and two tiny bedrooms upstairs, tucked under the eaves. Normally, such an arrangement is referred to as 11/2 story, but there is so little headroom upstairs in the cabin that the Fairbanks North Star Borough Appraiser’s Office calls it a 11/4 story cabin. A shed-roofed addition was tacked onto the rear of the cabin at a later date.
Clara and Mrs. Madole only lived there a short while. Clara married Jess in 1910 and moved to the creeks, and Mrs. Madole mortgaged the 2nd Avenue cabin to help bankroll their mining. When Jess’s mine on Little Eldorado Creek flooded, they lost everything, including the 2nd Avenue cabin.
The drawing shows the cabin as it looked in 1990, and you can see the bathhouse in the background. The cabin is still standing. Clara and Jess continued to live in the Fairbanks area and their life is chronicled in Jo Anne Wold’s book. A recommended read.
- Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey. Janet Matheson. City of Fairbanks. 1985
- Fairbanks North Star Borough property records
- More than Petticoats: Remarkable Alaska Women. Cherry Lyon Jones. TwoDot Books. 2006
- This Old House: the story of Clara Rust, Alaska Pioneer. Jo Anne Wold. Alaska Northwest Publishing. 1981