Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Historic buildings in downtown Anchorage, Alaska - Spring 2014

Kimball Building, 504 W. 5th Avenue - 1915

I was in Anchorage this past weekend talking pictures of old buildings. While the downtown area is now given over mostly to modern multi-story office, commercial and hotel structures, there still are a few historic buildings left. These are some of the significant historic buildings downtown.

Wendler Building, 400 D St. - 1915

Anchorage City Hall, 524 W 4th Avenue - 1936
Old Federal Building, 605 W. 4th Avenue - 1939
4th Avenue Theater, 630 W. 4th Avenue - 1941
Holy Family Cathedral, 5th Avenue & H Street - mid 1940s
Alaska Railroad depot, 411 1st avenue - 1942

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Creeping Juniper in my front yard

 I received a few questions about the growing habits of my creeping juniper, so I am posting two new photos, along with some comments on how creeping juniper (mine at least) grow.

I was asked how much the junipers spread out and how fast they grow. I'm surprised how much the creeping junipers have spread since I planted them. They are not fast growing plants, but they're not slow pokes either. When I planted them about seven years ago they weren't more that 12" in diameter. There is one that is now about 66" across.

The other juniper decided it wanted to be a "regular" tree and has this one branch that is trying to shoot for the sky. While most of the branches aren't higher off the ground that a foot, this one branch is about three feet high. If a person didn't want that to happen they could always prune.

I was also asked if the branches act like vines as they spread out. The branches are fairly stiff, so they don't hang limply, or climb, or entwine themselves like vines. They just spread out pretty much flat across the ground. When branches over hang a wall they just gently droop but still retain their linear form. The tips of the branches do curve upward though.

Just to provide some scale, the fence directly behind the junipers is two feet tall. If you are interested, the fence uprights are 2"x2" treated wood topped with metal caps I fashioned out of copper sheets. The horizontal fence members are 1/2" copper pipe. I curved the pipe to go around the corners of the yard.

And here is a link to my earlier post about creeping junipers

Monday, April 28, 2014

Denali from the Parks Highway in late April 2014

Drove down to Anchorage this past Friday. Came back on Sunday. Weather on Friday was cloudy with periodic snow showers through Broad Pass. Couldn't see much of anything. Sunday was clear. This is a photo I took on Sunday of Denali from Mile 170 of the Parks Highway.

Monday, April 21, 2014

From Fairbanks to Chicken, a long road for the FE Company's Dredge No. 4

Chicken dredge in 1999

The Fairbanks Exploration Company’s (FE Co.) Dredge No. 4 (also called the Pedro dredge) in Chicken originally operated along Pedro Creek just north of Fairbanks.

Built by the Yuba Manufacturing Company in California for the FE Co., it was shipped from Oakland to Fairbanks in the spring of 1938. Assembled at Pedro Creek, it began churning the creek’s gravels on July 11, 1938.  Specifically designed to extract gold from the shallow gravels along Pedro Creek, it was the FE Company’s smallest dredge, utilizing 3-cubic-foot buckets. (Most of the company’s dredges used 6- or 10-cubic-foot buckets.)

By the 1950s the FE Co. realized Dredge No. 4 would soon exhaust Pedro Creek’s gravel and made plans to move the dredge to new ground. Back in 1939-40, the company had acquired claims about 200 miles to the east, along Mosquito Fork and Chicken Creek (tributaries of the South Fork of the Fortymile River), as well as a small steam-powered dredge on Mosquito Fork that had been operated by the Alaska Gold Dredging Company.

According to the 1996 U.S. Geological Survey publication, "Gold Placers of the Historical Fortymile River Region," the Mosquito Fork dredge had been shipped in pieces from Skagway to Whitehorse on the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, and then transported by riverboat down the Yukon to the mouth of the Fortymile River. From there it was skidded during winter behind caterpillar tractors up the Fortymile to Mosquito Fork. And after all that effort it only operated about a year and a half.

The FE Co. contemplated renovating the Mosquito Fork Dredge for use on Chicken Creek, but with the opening of the Taylor Highway in 1953, decided instead to move its No. 4 dredge from Fairbanks to Chicken. No. 4’s hull design of welded steel pontoons allowed it to be transported in sections, and coupled with the dredge’s compact design, it was less costly to disassemble and truck it from Fairbanks to Chicken than to renovate the Mosquito Fork dredge.

No. 4 was disassembled and trucked to Chicken in 1958, re-assembled, and put into operation in 1959. The dredge had originally been supplied with electrical power from the FE Co.’s Fairbanks power plant. At its new remote location two diesel engines were installed onboard to provide electricity.

The dredge operated until 1967, when diminishing gold recovery and operational problems forced the company to permanently shut down operations. The dredge was “parked” on a ledge of bedrock, its buckets removed, and its doors and windows shuttered. The book, “The Northern Gold Fleet: Twentieth-century Gold Dredging in Alaska,” relates that No. 4 recovered more than $2 million in gold and silver during its nine years at Chicken.

There it sat on the tailings along Chicken Creek until 1998, when Alaska Gold Company (the successor to the FE Co.) sold the dredge to private investors. No. 4 had been sitting north of the Taylor Highway, and its new owners owned property south of the highway, so (in a not-so-simple operation) they jacked up the dredge, put huge trailers under it, and inched it a mile south across the highway. The drawing shows the dredge a year after the move (notice the still-shuttered windows).
After being moved, the dredge’s principal owner, Mike Busby, fixed up No. 4 and opened it to the public. The dredge was relocated again in 2009, but this time movers constructed and filled a pond around the dredge, floating it to its new home.

Busby and his partners also acquired all the equipment and parts associated with the dredge’s operation, including the dredge’s buckets. Because of this, and the fact that its remote location discouraged souvenir hunters, it is one of the most complete dredges in Alaska. Busby told me that it would actually take very little to make the dredge operational. Dredge No. 4 is open to the public every summer.


  • Correspondence with Mike Busby, owner of Dredge No. 4
  • “F.E. Company Dredge No. 4 National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Michael Busby. National Park Service. 2006
  • “Gold Placers of the Historical Fortymile River Region, U.S.G.S. Survey Bulletin 2125.” Warren Yeend. U.S. Geological Survey. 1996
  • History of Alaska Operations of Unites States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company. John Boswell. Mineral Industries Research Laboratory, University of Alaska, Fairbanks. 1979
  • The Northern Gold Fleet: Twentieth-Century Gold Dredging in Alaska. Clark C. Spence. University of Illinois Press. 1996

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Empress Theater brought several firsts to Fairbanks

Empress Theater as it looked in 2005, when the second floor still had one of its original multi-pane windows
Austin “Cap” Lathrop never cut corners. He felt that doing a job right the first time saved money in the long run, and when it came to constructing buildings he believed in substance—the more substance the better. So when Alaska builders started using reinforced concrete for construction projects, he began using it, too.

Lathrop owned a chain of Empress Theaters: in Cordova, Valdez, Seward and Anchorage. In 1916 he successfully constructed his Anchorage theater using reinforced concrete, so when Cap decided to build a theater in Fairbanks a decade later it was only natural to try it here.

Concrete had already been used in Fairbanks to form building blocks. (The Fairbanks Exploration Company office building is constructed of locally manufactured concrete blocks.) However, no one locally had ever built with solid concrete. Many people thought that concrete foundations would buckle when subjected to frost heaves, or that concrete would simply crumble in the region's frigid winter temperatures.

Lathrop was undeterred. He did change the building’s design before construction began though. According to Elizabeth Tower’s book, Alaska’s First Homegrown Millionaire, Lathrop originally planned to erect a four-story structure, with the top two stories envisioned as a hotel. By the time construction began in April of 1927 the plans had been scaled back to just the two-story theater.  Construction was finished that summer.

Tower’s book also relates that even after construction was finished, some people were dubious about the building’s durability. Federal inspectors checked the building annually for several years. Finally satisfied, in 1932 the federal government built its new Fairbanks federal building with reinforced concrete.

The Empress Theater's grand opening was August 25, 1927. A Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article written the next day stated that over 1300 people attended the gala. The theater had two performance in its 670-seat auditorium that evening, and each performance was sold out.

One of the Empress’s attractions was its 2/7 Kimball organ, the first pipe organ in Interior Alaska. The Kimball had two “manuals” (keyboards), and seven ranks (groupings) of pipes. All told the organ had about 500 pipes. Just for comparison, the concert organ at the Davis Concert Hall has about 2,000 pipes. Of course, being a theater organ, the Empress's Kimball also had percussion attachments such as drums, cymbals and glockenspiel.

As originally built, the Empress had a balanced front facade. The first floor (which has changed considerably) had recessed double doors on either side of a large expanse of plate-glass window. The second floor looked much the same as it does now, with four equally spaced windows—the two inmost windows with decorative arches.  Above were two small circular vents, and a cornice with denticulated (tooth-like) ornamentation.

The theater was remodeled in the 1950s, with major exterior changes to the front facade. The entrance on the right side of the building was converted into a small rental retail space. The central window area was reduced, and the entrance on the left was expanded. A marquee over the entrance was added and 50s-style neon signs were installed on top of the marquee.

In 1961 the Empress closed down and was assimilated into the Co-op Drug Store, another Fairbanks institution. The neon signs were removed, the first floor front fa├žade changed to its present configuration, and the auditorium, which spanned two stories, was torn out and converted into two levels of retail space and offices.

The theater's organ was removed and eventually found a home in the Steak and Pipes restaurant adjacent to the Big I Pub. When that restaurant closed down the organ was put into storage and currently sits at of another of Cap Lathrop's theaters—the Lacey, now the Fairbanks Ice Museum.

After Co-op Drugs closed, the building became part of the Co-op Plaza. The Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre used the second floor of the Empress Building as a performance space for several years, but recently moved out. Too bad, it was nice to have the building come full circle back to a performance venue.

For more history about Cap Lathrop check out these posts:


  • Alaska’s First Homegrown Millionaire, Life and Times of Cap Lathrop. Elizabeth Tower. Publication Consultants. 2006
  • Buildings of Alaska. Alison K. Hoagland. Oxford University Press. 1993
  • Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey. Janet Matheson. City of Fairbagnks. 1985
  • Northwest Theatre Organ History. Puget Sound Theatre Organ Society website. 1998-2014
  • “Return of the Empress.” Jeff Richardson. Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. January 1, 2007
  • “Thirteen hundred witness opening of new Empress.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. August 26, 1927