Thursday, August 6, 2015

"Eva's Place" can still be found at Pioneer Park

Building 23 (Eva's Place) at Pioneer Park as it looked in 1989

One of the oldest buildings at Pioneer Park (formerly Alaskaland) is associated with Eva McGown, who was known as Fairbanks' "official" hostess.  Building 23 is a cabin located next to the ice cream parlor in Gold Rush Town. According to park records this 14-by-18-foot log cabin was constructed about 1903-04 on Fifth Avenue between Noble and Dunkel Street, and was used by Orr Stage Lines as a bunkhouse. Ed Orr opened the stage line in 1904 and ran passengers and freight between Fairbanks and Valdez.

A close look at the cabin’s front façade shows that the building may have served another purpose before becoming a bunkhouse. The space between the front window and door is framed in and sheathed with wooden shiplap siding, as is the wall below the window. Sans window and door, the front entry for the building was wide enough to admit a wagon or sledge, and the building may have been used by the stage line for equipment storage. Sourdough Roadhouse has a cabin (originally used for wagon storage) that shows similar modifications.

The stage line closed down in 1914, and at that point Building 23’s history fades into obscurity until it was donated to Alaskaland by the Nordale family. However, about the same time the stage-line closed, a tiny leprechaun of a lady arrived in Fairbanks who would figure into a later chapter of the Orr Stage Line building.

Eva Montgomery was a 31-year-old mail-order bride from Ireland. She journeyed to Fairbanks to marry Arthur McGown, part-owner of the Model Cafe on Second Avenue in downtown Fairbanks.

Eva made the monumental journey from Ireland to Alaska during the winter of 1913-14, first on a steamer from Belfast to New York, then by train across the U.S. to Seattle, where she boarded another steamer that sailed up the Inside Passage to Valdez. From Valdez she ventured over the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail via horse-drawn sledge and dog sled. Eva arrived in Fairbanks on Feb. 26 and was married to Arthur that evening.

According to Jo Anne Wold’s book, The Way it Was, Arthur and Eva lived in a small house on Perry Street. Five years into their marriage Arthur became ill and was an invalid until his death in 1930 from bone cancer.

After Arthur’s death Eva found herself alone and struggling financially. She paid the bills selling magazines and taking odd jobs, but the loneliness was almost unbearable. Eva coped by comforting other lonely women and visiting patients in hospital. She was soon involved in most aspects of Fairbanks social life, and developed a keen knowledge of the housing situation in town.

Dermot Cole wrote in his book, Fairbanks, A Gold Rush Town that beat the Odds, that her “friendly and outgoing manner soon evolved into a one-woman housing and greeting service that became vital during the many years when demand for housing outstripped supply.”

The community recognized her value and during World War II (when the military commandeered local hotels) the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce hired her at $75 per month to run a housing office to find temporary quarters for the hundreds of people flooding into town.

She was later hired by the city (at $110 per month) and continued her social ministry from the lobby of the Nordale Hotel, where she had moved. In a 1991 interview, Joe Vogler said, “She sort of held court there … She was the town hostess, and Eva McGown was a queen in her own right.”

When Alaskaland opened in 1967, Eva spent her summers there, running her hospitality center out of Building 23. She continued holding court, either at her Alaskaland cabin, or her room at the Nordale Hotel, until her death in 1972.

  • A Gold Rush Town that Beat the Odds. Demot Cole. Epicenter Press. 2003
  • Alaskaland Cabin Lore. Alpha Delta Gamma. 1978
  • “Alaskan memories: A Fairbanks woman with a big heart of gold,” In Fearless Men and Fabulous Women: A Reporter’s Memoir from Alaska & the Yukon. Stanton Patty. Epicenter Press. 2004
  • Pioneer Park property records
  • The Way it Was, Of People, Places and Things in Pioneer Interior Alaska. Jo Anne Wold. Alaska Northwest Publishing. 1988

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