Tuesday, September 23, 2014

KFAR Radio, Cap Lathrop's gift to Interior Alaska

KFAR radio transmitter building on Farmers Loop road

 Within a few years of commercial radio’s birth in the Lower 48, radio stations began popping up in Alaska. In 1922 the Northern Commercial Company (NC Co.) started KLAY radio station in Fairbanks. Unfortunately for Fairbanks residents, the radio station was short lived. When the NC Co. discovered that in order to keep its license it had to offer airtime on its “company” radio station to other Fairbanks businesses, it decided to turn the transmitter off.

KFQD in Anchorage went on the air in 1924, Ketchikan’s KGBU in 1926, and KINY in Juneau in 1935. Not until Austin “Cap” Lathrop built KFAR in 1939 did radio come back to Interior Alaska.

It was at the prodding of Miriam Dickey, Lathrop’s executive secretary, that Cap decided to start a radio station. He was reportedly “the richest man in Alaska” and could have lived and spent his money Outside. However, he believed in reinvesting his wealth in the Territory, and Dickey convinced him a radio station to serve the needs of Interior Alaska would be a fitting legacy.

The Fairbanks area at that time had a population of about 8,000 people. Augie Hiebert, one of the radio engineers instrumental in setting up the new station, related in his book, Airwaves over Alaska, that a 100-250 watt transmitter would have been appropriate for a town of Fairbanks’ size. However, Cap envisioned a radio station that could reach all of Interior Alaska, so he installed a 1,000 watt transmitter. In a promotional book published the first year of the station’s operation, its coverage area was advertised as the Fairbanks vicinity; the railbelt north of Anchorage; the Circle, Kuskokwim, and Iditarod districts; the Seward Peninsula; and the region around Dawson City.

During commercial radio’s infancy, radio stations could choose their own call letters, and Cap held a contest to select the new station’s name. The winning entry was KFAR, which stood for “Key for Alaska Riches.” The station’s slogan became “From the Top of the Word to you.” It began transmitting on Oct. 1, 1939.

KFAR’s broadcasting studio was on the top floor of the newly completed four-story Lathrop Building on Second Avenue in Fairbanks, and a transmitter building (shown in the drawing) was constructed at mile 5 of the farm road (now Farmers Loop). The transmitter’s 300-foot tower can be seen in the background. The building, constructed of reinforced concrete, was designed by Marcus Pritica, who also designed the Lacey Street Theater for Lathrop. As with the Lacey, the transmitter building is decidedly Art Deco in design.

The 27-foot by 72-foot building, which has 14-foot ceilings in most of the building, is divided into three sections. The middle section housed the stations transmitters and other equipment. To the right of the central section is the radio engineer’s small one-bedroom apartment, and the other side contains a garage and storage area.

The transmitter facility is no longer in service and is currently used for storage by the Fairbanks Golf and Country Club, which has almost as long a history at KFAR. Cap entered into a gentleman’s agreement with the club for a 99-year lease on the 60 acres around the transmitter, and the golf course opened on June 21, 1946.

Borealis Broadcasting Company bought the radio station in the 1980s, and in 1989 sold the Farmer’s Loop property to the golf club. According to borough property records, the old transmitter building has settled considerably over the years, but is still in fairly good condition. Golf course manager, Matt Taylor, told me that some day the club would like to convert the building into its clubhouse.

For more history about Cap Lathrop check out these posts:


  • Airwaves over Alaska, the story of Pioneer Broadcaster, Augie Hebert. as told by his daughter, Robin Ann Chlupach. Sammamish Press. 1992

  • Alaska’s First Homegrown Millionaire, Life and Times of Cap Lathrop. Elizabeth Tower. 2006

  • Conversation with Matt Taylor, Fairbanks Gold Club manager

  • KFAR Keybook of Interior Alaska. Midnight Sun Broadcasting Company.  1939

  • “King of clubs: 50 years of swinging times.” Bob Eley. in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 6-16-1996

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Autumn hike to Colorado Creek Roadhouse - Chena River State Recreation Area

My grandson and I went looking for the old Colorado Creek Roadhouse this past weekend. It was one of three roadhouses built in the early 1900s along the old winter trail from Fairbanks to Chena Hot Springs.

This is the pullout at about Mile 31 where the trail we took starts. At Mile 31.6 is the Colorado Creek Trailhead, but that trail leads to a modern recreation cabin farther up the creek. It's possible to reach the roadhouse from there but the trail is longer than the one we took and leads through a marshy area that is hard to travel when the ground is thawed.
This is the start of the trail we took. It's probably a little over a mile from Chena Hot Springs Road to the roadhouse. The trail takes pretty much a straight path up the creek drainage until reaching the old winter trail about a mile from the road. It is marked as a non-motorized use trail.
 The trail a little farther from the road as it gently climbs through a black spruce forest. It was a little soggy in spots but not too bad.
 The short-cut trail we took meets up with the old winter trail a few hundred yards from Colorado Creek. This is our first view of the roadhouse--on the other side of the creek. You can see the creek peeking through the bushes at the lower right. There were plenty of fresh moose tracks all around, and a goodly scattering of bear scat.
 A closer look at one of the roadhouse cabins across the creek. We had heavy rains all summer and there was quite a bit of erosion along the creek bank. The log across the creek that we saw in that 2012 aerial photo isn't there any more.
 Looking back at Colorado Creek after we have crossed. Any other year in recent memory and the creek's water level would have already dropped and we probably could have jumped or easily waded across. This year the shallowest spot I found still had thigh-high water. I forded the creek with grandson on my back. Needless to say, we left some gear on the far side since we had to return the same way.
 The cabin closest to the creek. The roof is still on, but the walls have collapsed.
The second cabin, which appears to have been 1.5 stories, Two years ago it still had a roof. Both cabins have sunk about four feet into the muskeg.
 Peaking over the ruined wall of the second cabin
View out the gable-end cabin window. This window is located over a door (or maybe another window--can't tell any more). It used to be about 10 feet off the ground, now it's head height.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Found art - rusting pipe and fittings

I was walking downtown by the Big I Pub earlier today. There is a large pile of rusting cast iron pipe, fittings and machine parts behind the building and the early morning sun was casting marvelous shadows across and through the assemblage.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Chena River lagoon in Hamilton Acres - 9-6-14


This is a gorgeous "Indian Summer' weekend in Fairbanks--sunny with daytime temperature up around 60 degrees. I took this photo at the end of Hamilton Avenue in Fairbanks.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Eagle Creek mining area along Steese Highway - 8-30-14


This photo was taken from the south approach to Eagle Summit, looking southeast towards Eagle Creek. The creek drainage has been mined extensively. The horizontal lines across the hillside are old ditches dug by miners to bring water from the headwaters of the creek to diggings lower down the valley. Miners were able to increase the usable water pressure at their diggings by keeping the ditches high on the hillside, and then running the final cut straight down the hill to the mine site.

This is a photo of the old mining camp on the floor of the valley.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Circle's Rasmussen House a freighting pioneer's legacy

Nels Rasmussen house in Circle

Circle City, with a pre-1900 population of about 800 people, saw its population drop to a few hundred after the turn of the century. The town was established in 1894 as a supply center and winter haven for miners from the Circle Mining District 50 miles to the southeast. However, many of the miners moved on to other gold strikes, and those that stayed increasingly spent winters on their claims.

No longer a winter haven for miners, Circle survived as a supply center. Several companies, including the Alaska Commercial Company, operated stores and had warehouses at Circle, and the town was a regular stop for steamboats.

The first trails from Circle to the mines were rough — simple blazed paths across the rolling hills and muskeg, between the Yukon River and mountains. Josiah Spurr, who toured the mining regions along the Yukon for the U.S.G.S., tramped the trails of the Circle Mining District in the summer of 1896. He slogged along the muddy byways between Circle and the mines, sometimes along poorly blazed paths that disappeared into the muskeg, and always through clouds of mosquitoes. In his book, Through the Yukon Gold Diggings, Spurr wrote of the “Bloodcurdling stories told of the torments of some that had dared to try [the trail] and how strong men had sat down on the trail to sob, quite unable to withstand the pest.”

One of the early freighters along the route was Nels Rasmussen. Nels emigrated from Denmark to the U.S. in 1896 and eventually settled at Circle. His occupation in the 1900 U.S. Census was listed as logger and at one time he owned a small sawmill in the Circle area. (A typical Alaskan entrepreneur, he also owned a saloon in Circle, operated the town’s first telephone company, and had mining claims at Woodchopper Creek to the southeast.)

Nels began freighting with sure-footed mules, but as trails improved and eventually were upgraded to roads, he switched to horses, first in pack trains, and then pulling freight wagons. Nels eventually owned 16 horses, and employed several drivers. To feed those horses he raised oats and grain on a homestead he staked in Circle, and on acreage near Jump Off Roadhouse about 25 miles southeast of town.

In 1901 he married Axinia Cherosky, descendent of a Russian/Athabascan “Creole,” (the progeny of Russian men and Native women). Nels and Axinia had eight children, and to house their large brood, Nels built an expansive two-story log house (shown in the drawing) as his Circle homestead in about 1909. It had a two-story porch on the south end of the house, and a one-story addition on the west side. Early photos show the house surrounded by a picket fence. Located just a few hundred feet from the river, the big house became the de facto social center of town.

According to a 1976 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article, Nels was injured in a woodchopping accident in 1920 from which he never fully recovered. H died the next fall and was buried in the town cemetery. Axinia continued to raise her family in the house, and it is still owned by their descendants.

The house’s first-floor windows are level with the ground, and Nels’ granddaughter, Mary Warren, told me that just shows how much the structure has settled over the years. While it may have settled and sagged it is still in relatively good condition. Although the house is now vacant, its first floor windows and doors boarded up to prevent vandalism, Nels’ descendants want to keep the property and hopefully fix it up for future generations to enjoy.


  • Conversation with Mary Warren, granddaughter of Nels and Axinia Rasmussen

  • “Rasmussen House stands as memory.” Marjorie J. Hay. in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. March 20, 1976

  • Through the Yukon Gold Diggings. Josiah Edward Spurr. Eastern Publishing. 1900.

  • Yukon Frontiers—Historic Resource Study of the Proposed Yukon-Charley National River. Melody Webb Grauman. National Park Service. 1977