Friday, August 22, 2014

Fairbanks Exploration Company's pump house --a watering hole of a different sort

Pump House Restaurant in Fall 2013

The Pump House Restaurant is one of the premiere dining establishments in the Fairbanks area, but more than 80 years ago it began its life as a different sort of watering hole. It was originally a pumping station to provide water for the Fairbanks Exploration Company’s (F.E.Co.) dredging operations in the Cripple Creek area on the opposite side of Chena Ridge.

The F.E. Co. began dredging north of Fairbanks in the late 1920s, with its first dredges located on Goldstream and Cleary creeks. Water for dredges north of the city came from the Davidson Ditch, which brought water to Fairbanks from the Chatanika River.

When the company decided to dredge near Ester, it needed another water source. To provide the volume of high pressure water necessary to hydraulically strip away thick overburden above the gold-bearing gravels and to thaw frozen gravels, it decided to pump water from the Chena River over Chena Ridge.

National Register of Historic Places documents state that from 1931 to 1933 the F.E. Co. constructed a pump house, three 26-inch pipelines from the river to the top of Chena Ridge, and three miles of open ditches beyond the ridge to carry water to the diggings.

The original pump house building was 20-feet wide by 108-feet long with a gable roof and five skylights to provide interior illumination. Both the roof and exterior walls were covered with corrugated metal sheathing. The pumphouse was set back about 100 feet from the river, with a raceway on the north side of the building carrying water from the river. (The water intake apparatus can be seen in the drawing foreground.) Ten 14-inch double-suction centrifugal pumps (rated at 6,000 gpm) pumped the water up Chena Ridge. Each pump had a 400-hp motor, and electricity was provided by the F.E. Company power plant on Illinois Street.

For those of you wondering where all that water ended up, eventually it flowed back into the Chena River. According to John Boswell’s history of the F.E. Co., two options were considered for routing the return water. The first was a 10,200-foot tunnel through Chena Ridge. The second was a six-mile-long open ditch. The company finally decided the open ditch was more practical. However, even it was not without engineering difficulties since keeping the ditch at the proper grade meant excavating 100-foot-deep cuts in places. The remains of this ditch can still be seen.

After the F.E. Co. shut down its Cripple Creek operations in the 1960s, it closed the pump house. The building sat derelict for years, surrounded by pieces of mining equipment and encroaching trees.
In 1976, Bill and Vivian Bubbel bought the property, planning to convert the building into a restaurant. In 1978 they completed initial renovations for the Pump House Restaurant.

The Bubbels wanted the building to retain its historical significance so renovations incorporated as much of the original structure as possible. The building north exterior looks much the same as it did when it was used as a pumphouse, with the exterior metal wall sheathing being original. A new main entrance on the north side of the building was added, and kitchen and service addition were constructed on the south side of the building.

Inside, the main dining room space has been kept open, and patrons can still see the underside of the original metal roofing. A new insulated roof was installed over the top of that.

The Bubbles, who still own the restaurant, had made additional improvements, including adding a large deck between the restaurant and river. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Bubbles intend to maintain the building’s historical authenticity.


  • Conversation with Bill Bubbel, co-owner of the Pumphouse Restaurant

  • Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Janet Mattheson & Bruce Haldeman. Fairbanks North Star Borough, 1981

  • History of Alaskan Operations of United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company. John C. Boswell. Mineral Industries research Laboratory, University of Alaska. 1979

  • “Chena Pump House - National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form.” Jane Galblum. National Park Service, 1980

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