Thursday, November 27, 2014

Chena River on Thanksgiving day -- sunny and beautiful

Thanksgiving day here is Fairbanks. My wife and I walked down to the river and back just now. It is clear and cold, about -5 degrees F. Actually pretty good weather for the end of November. Beautiful. So this is a photo of the Chena River on Thanksgiving at about 2 p.m.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Main School, now City Hall, is a Fairbanks fixture

Soon after Fairbanks was established, residents began clamoring for schools. In the fall of 1903 (even before the city was incorporated), a small private school opened. Thirteen students and their teacher met in a small cabin at the corner of Wendell and Noble streets. Unfortunately, a funding shortfall closed the school just before Christmas.

In spring 1904, a public school opened in a rented facility near Lacey Street and Third Avenue. The next fall 50 students moved into a new school building at the corner of Second Avenue and Noble Street.

The Fairbanks school population continued to grow, and in 1907, a new two-story frame schoolhouse with full basement was built on Cushman Street between Eighth and Ninth avenues, the site of the present Old Main School. (A few school board members objected, saying the location was too far out of town.)

The new school building had wide front steps surmounted by a portico, and a hipped roof topped by an open belfry. In a town composed primarily of one story log cabins, the two-story school seemed a magnificent building, likened by one local pastor to an English cathedral.

The school, along with a 1929 addition, served Fairbanks children until 1932 when fired consumed the building. The structure was a loss, and classes were moved to nearby churches and civic organization facilities until a new facility was constructed.

In 1933 construction began on a 35,500-square-foot, reinforced-concrete building on the site of the old building. Plans for the new school were drawn up by the engineer responsible for the Federal Building then under construction in Fairbanks, and the school building shares many of the same Art Deco exterior design elements. As originally constructed, the building had three stories with a ground floor daylight basement. The building faced Cushman Street, with classrooms and office on all three floors and a 4,000-square-foot gymnasium extending to the rear. It was officially opened on Jan. 22, 1934.

A burgeoning student population meant the addition of a south wing in 1939 and a north wing in 1948. With both additions, close attention was paid to blending in with the old exterior. However, consistency between old and new interior floor plans was not maintained. Differing floor levels and confusing connecting hallways made the interior a maze. In his booklet, The Spirit of Old Main, a History of the Old Main School, Chris Allen related a joke that, “suggested that any senior who was able to find his way from the center of the building to the outside should be handed a graduation certificate.”

Main School remained the Fairbanks School District’s only school until 1951 when the district began building schools in outlying areas. By 1959 only junior high students remained. All students had been moved to other facilities by 1976 and the school district’s administration offices moved in. The district’s offices remained there until 1993 when a new administrative center was completed. Main School was then relinquished to the city. The building’s ground floor windows were boarded up and the heat was turned off.

The next December (1994) the city began moving its offices into the building. A year of no maintenance and no utilities meant a great deal of work needed to be done on the building.

Old Main School is in the National Register of Historic Places, and the city has a goal of restoring the building to its original floor plan. Some major renovations have already been accomplished, such as fixing the roof, refinishing the gym floor and bleachers, replacing all the windows that had been boarded up, and opening up all the hallways. Much of the credit goes to former Mayor Jerry Cleworth, who attended Main School.


  • Conversation with Jerry Cleworth, former Fairbanks City Mayor
  • “Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey.” Janet Matheson. City of Fairbanks. 1985
  • “Our Schools, a History of Elementary and Secondary Public Education in the Fairbanks Area.” Fairbanks North Star Borough. 1989
  • “The Spirit of Old Main, a History of the Old Main School – 1932-1995.” Chis Allen. 1995
  • “National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Russell Sackett. National Park Service. 1990

Monday, November 24, 2014

Kickstarter campaign starting soon for "Interior Sketches II"

This is for fans of my historical essays, drawings, and  first book, "Interior Sketches, Ramblings around Interior Alaska historic sites." Response to the first book was positive, and since I have continued to write and draw, its time to begin working on a second book.

After Thanksgiving I'll be starting a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to publish "Interior Sketches II, More ramblings around Interior Alaska historic sites." The book will feature 60 more historic sites in Eastern Interior Alaska, plus additional drawings of Interior Alaska.

The fundraising campaign will have the same sort of premium levels as my first Kickstarter campaign: notecards, post cards, calendars, copies of the book, and original drawings. Watch this page for additional information.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Birch seeds and catkin scales as miniature leaves for dioramas

So all you Northern types who live surrounded by birch trees--there are those winter days when the wind blows and the snow ends up with piles of birch seeds and birch catkin scales all over the place. Very pretty, but do you know what all those itty bitty birch bits are good for? I didn't until this week when something odd happened on my blog.

I did a blog post several years ago about a blustery winter day and posted photos of birch seeds and catkins strewn all about. In recent blog statistics I noticed multiple hits for that old blog posting--almost 50 hits coming from all over the world.

I finally tracked the hits to a link posted on a website for large-scale model builders who construct dioramas for their models. Turns out if you put down a thin layer of glue on your diorama and then sprinkle birch seeds and catkin scales liberally over the glue you end up with piles of just-the-right size autumn leaves! Here is a link tp that page.

The person posting the link evidently thought my piles of miniature leaves were good examples. The power of the internet! Here is a link to my original post.

Who knew?

Monday, November 17, 2014

Icy tree in the winter sun - Fairbanks in November

Had a friend  tell me about an ice-laden tree near the old library at the corner of 1st and Cowles here in Fairbanks. The tree stands beneath the downspout of the building's gutter and with the warm winter we have had so far many of the branches are coated in ice. The icy branches looks very interesting in the changing light conditions. Pick a different time of day and the tree will look different.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Rocks n' Snow - November 2014

We have had a paucity of snow so far this year. I took these photos several weeks ago in my front  yard. There was still some residual heat in the rocks so the snow melted where ever the rocks were. It is the middle of November now and the rocks are still uncovered.

"Sketches of Alaska" now appearing in "Last Frontier Magazine"

Last Frontier Magazine is a relatively new publication. Based out of Palmer, it is going into its second year of life. Produced by Alaskans for Alaskans, its web page states that the magazine's "goal is to provide individuals with stunning photography and insightful stories that celebrate the place we call home and the people in it."

Its a monthly magazine and the editors say as long as I keep feeding them material they will keep publishing it. Starting with this month's issue, the magazine will be reprinting some of my columns. This issue features my story and drawing about Constitution Hall.

Its a lovely little magazine--nicely produced. It has a print and on-line issue. You should check it out <> .

Friday, November 7, 2014

The early Richardson Highway and the Gibson stage line

The Richardson Highway stretches 368 miles from Valdez on Prince William Sound to Fairbanks in the Tanana River Valley. In its earliest form — the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail — it was the dominant overland route into Interior Alaska.

The Valdez-Fairbanks Trail also was called the Richardson Trail after Major Wilds P. Richardson, the first president of the Alaska Road Commission (ARC). The trail was blazed in about 1903 as an offshoot of the Valdez-Eagle Trail, After the ARC formed in 1904, improvement of the Richardson Trail became a priority. By 1910 it had been upgraded to an all-season wagon road (albeit a very primitive wagon road in places).

A few automobiles had already appeared in Fairbanks (freighted in on steamboats), and as the Richardson’s road conditions improved, adventurers began testing their vehicles against it. By 1909 autos could be driven as far as Birch Lake about 60 miles southeast of Fairbanks. According to the book, The Trail, the Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, some entrepreneurs teamed up with stage lines to take passengers part-way to-and-from Valdez via motor vehicles.

By 1912 road conditions improved enough that some dared think it might be possible to drive all the way between Fairbanks and Valdez. All the major streams and rivers except five had been bridged, and those five had ferry service across them.

Bobby Sheldon of Fairbanks was the first to succeed in driving the Richardson. He had been interested in motor vehicles even as a youth. While living is Skagway in 1905 he built the first automobile in Alaska. (That home-built vehicle is on display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.)

In early 1913 he ordered a Ford Model T from Samson’s Hardware. It wasn’t long after its arrival in June that Bobby began toying with the idea of driving the car from Fairbanks to Valdez. With two burly passengers (who helped pull the little flivver out of mud holes and across flooded streams) Bobby made the groundbreaking trip between July 29 and Aug. 2.

His wasn’t the only vehicle to successfully make the trip that year, though. The ARC sent a truck out from Valdez on July 28 loaded with supplies for camps along the trail. It accomplished the same feat in a slightly longer time, arriving in Fairbanks on Aug. 6.

With motor vehicles having finally conquered the trail, auto usage picked up. In 1914 Bobby started an auto stage line, partnering with another Fairbanksan, Tom Gibson. The next year Gibson started his own line, “Gibson Auto Stage.”

According to a 1958 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article, Gibson operated 23 vehicles, such as the 1916 Dodge Model 30-35 Touring car shown in the drawing. The Dodge, now owned by David Stone and Don and Ray Cameron and on loan to the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum, was modified by Gibson for his business’s special needs. The fuel tank was originally at the back of the vehicle, but in order to make more room for luggage the tank was repositioned under the front seat. The frame was jacked up several inches, and a metal support bar was installed between the front fenders to keep them from rattling.

The Valdez-Fairbanks Trail was officially designated the Richardson Road in 1919. Between 1920 and 1927 the road was gradually improved to automobile standards, eventually becoming the Richardson Highway.

With the completion of the Glenn Highway in 1945 (linking Southcentral with the Interior’s road system) the Richardson became a conduit for drivers traveling between Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Construction of the Parks Highway in the 1970s reduced traffic on the Richardson, but recent improvements to the Glenn and Richardson Highways have brought a resurgence in travel along the scenic roadway.


  • “Gibson ran early-day stage.” In Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 7-18-1958

  • “History of the Valdez Trail.” Geoffrey Bleakley. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve web site. 2013

  • “Major Roads of Alaska.” National Park Service. 1944

  • Signage at Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum

  • The Trail, the Story of the Historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail. Kenneth Marsh. Trapper Creek Museum. 2008