Saturday, December 31, 2016

Parts of the Valdez-Eagle Trail can still be walked

Segment of Valdez-Eagle Trail at Eagle Trail State Recreation Site in Fall 2016

In the wake of the Klondike Gold Rush, U.S. Army Captain P.H. Ray was sent to Alaska in 1897 to investigate rumors of unrest among gold-seekers along the U.S. portion of the Yukon River. During his travels, Ray heard from prospectors clamoring for an “All-American” route to the Yukon gold fields that would bypass the Canadian-controlled White Pass and Chilkoot Trails.

Ray recommended that a military trail be built from the ice-free port of Valdez on Prince William Sound to the Yukon River Basin. In the summer of 1898 U.S. Army Captain William Abercrombie came to Alaska to reconnoiter routes for the trail.

Abercrombie discovered horrendous conditions at Valdez. Unscrupulous promoters had convinced 4,000+ Yukon gold-seekers to attempt a trail out of Valdez. However, the trail they promoted took travelers across the Valdez and Klutina glaciers and down the tumultuous Klutina River.

Ken Marsh, in his book, The Trail, the story of the historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, estimates that only a quarter of those who attempted the Valdez Glacier trail made it as far as the Copper River, and only a handful pressed on to the Klondike. Numerous gold-seekers lost their lives on the treacherous glacier crossing, and Abercrombie estimated that 95% of those who survived the glacier trek wrecked their boats descending the Klutina River. Of those who gave up and returned to Valdez, most ended up destitute.

The Captain returned to Washington, D.C. later that year to present his report. In 1899 he traveled back to Valdez to begin construction of a “Trans-Alaska Military Road” from Valdez to Eagle (via a glacier-free route). Abercrombie hired many of the destitute argonauts as construction workers.

Workers built 93 miles of packhorse trail, and blazed another 112 miles of foot trail that year. The military road, also referred to as the Valdez-Eagle Trail, was completed by 1901.

Following Native trails for much of its length, the 425-mile-long trail crossed the Chugach Mountains, then followed the Copper River north and northeast before crossing the Mentasta Mountains. Coming out of the mountains near the Tanana River, the trail swung northwest, crossing the Tanana near present-day Tanacross and going on to the Athabascan village at Lake Mansfield. Thence it climbed northeast through another Athabascan village called Ketchunstuck into the Fortymile River region before tacking to the east through the gold camp of Franklin and then north to Eagle.

The Trans-Alaska Military Road was never more than a packhorse trail, and its years of service were few. By the time the trail was completed the Klondike Gold Rush was winding down.

Then, the discovery of gold in the Tanana Valley diverted attention away from Eagle. Starting in about 1903 gold-seekers began peeling off from the Valdez-Eagle Trail at Gakona, headed for Fairbanks. The lower half of the trail became part of the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail, while travel along the northern half declined.

During the trail’s early years, the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS) constructed telegraph lines between Valdez and Eagle, with telegraph stations located approximately every 40 miles. A Bureau of Land Management brochure states that soldiers operating and maintaining the telegraph system frequently used the trail, but even that usage began disappearing in 1909 as WAMCATS gradually converted to wireless telegraphy.

There was active mining in the Fortymile region so the trail between there and Eagle remained well-traveled.  However, subsistence activities and other localized travel became predominant along most of the Valdez-Eagle Trail north of Gakona. It would take later mineral development and transportation needs to resurrect other portions of the trail.

The section of trail shown in the drawing, located 16 miles south of Tok at Eagle Trail State Recreation Site, is one of the few easily accessible segments of the original trail. Winding along the base of the mountains, it is now part of a short nature trail through the recreation site.


  • ·         “History of the Valdez Trail.” Geoffrey Bleakley. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve website. No date
  • ·         “The Eagle-Valdez Trail, Northern Portion.” U.S. Bureau of Land Management. No date
  • ·         The Trail: the story of the historic Valdez-Fairbanks Trail that opened Alaska’s vast Interior. Kenneth Marsh. Trapper Creek Museum. 2008
  • ·         Signage at Eagle Trail State Recreation Site.

Vole tunnels in the snow - Fairbanks - December 2016

I went tromping through the woods today. We received about 15 inches of fresh snow in the last couple of days, followed by winds last night that strewed snow, leaves, branches and what-not around.   I came across these depressions in the snow, snaking across the trail.   It took me a while to recognize them as vole tunnels from which the wind had scoured the tops off.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Anchorages's Fourth Avenue Theatre is opulent sister of Fairbanks' Lacey Street Theatre.

Anchorage's Fourth Avenue Theatre as it looked in 1971

A few months ago, a funeral was held in Anchorage for the city’s Fourth Avenue Theater, Austin “Cap” Lathrop’s opulent re-imagining of what the Lacey Street Theater might have been like had it been constructed a decade later.

Mark Twain, in response to a newspaper story about his demise, wrote that, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” The organizers of the Anchorage theater’s funeral are hopeful that their event is also an exaggeration — seeing it rather as a wake-up call to save the building from decades-long neglect.

During my college days in Anchorage, I spent quite a bit of time at the theater and have fond memories of it. I thought it might be appropriate to write a column about Cap Lathrop’s “other” art deco theater.

Lathrop came to Alaska in 1895 as part-owner of a small auxiliary sailboat that he and his partners used for freighting along the Alaska coast. He kept the “Cap” moniker after his maritime career ended and built a small Alaska empire based on shipping, mining, broadcasting and entertainment.

One of his ventures was a string of theaters located in Southcentral and Interior Alaska. His first art deco-styled theater was built here in Fairbanks — the Lacey Street Theater, completed in 1939.

He began a second art deco theater on Anchorage’s main street, Fourth Avenue, in 1941. The primary architect for both theaters was the well-known Seattle theater designer, Benjamin Priteca. Unfortunately, World War II intervened and work on the Anchorage theater ceased until the war’s end.

Faced with a five-year construction delay, Lathrop might have scaled back his plans for the new building. However, Elizabeth Tower, in her book, “Alaska’s First Homegrown Millionaire,” relates that the delay only added time for Lathrop to plan an even more elaborate theater.

Completed in 1947, the building is three stories high, 87-feet wide and 130-feet long. Built of reinforced concrete, the front facade is symmetrical with two uniformly-ornamented side bays flanking a slightly taller central bay. In the middle of the central bay stands a 40-foot tall pylon adorned with the theater’s name in art deco lettering. The exterior of the first story is finished with travertine marble, and a marquee extends over the sidewalk along the front of the building.

A penthouse was added in 1959, which is probably about the time the word “theatre” was added to the front of the building. (Lathrop preferred the British spelling.) The sign above the marquee announcing movies playing was also added at a later date.

The interior of the theater was even more opulent than the exterior, with walnut woodwork and bas-relief artwork (where elements of the artwork project slightly from the wall) highlighted with silver and gold. A lobby capable of holding 200 people greeted visitors, with one wall featuring a large bas-relief mural of Denali (formerly Mount McKinley). Curved stairs, with another bas-relief artwork depicting Alaska wildlife adorning the outside wall, led to balcony seating.

The auditorium could hold 960 people (at a time when Anchorage’s population was only about 5,000 people). On either side of the movie screen was a large floor-to-ceiling bas-relief mural depicting Alaska culture: sled-dogs, airplanes, riverboats and other Northern scenes. The ceiling had the Big Dipper inset with lights.

The Fourth Avenue Theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. It survived as a movie venue until the economic slump of the mid-1980s. Alaska businessman Robert Gottstein purchased the building in 1991, restored the theater and operated it as an event hall. It was purchased in 2009 by Peach Investments Company, and has sat vacant since then, boarded up and deteriorating.


  •  “Alaska’s First Homegrown Millionaire: Life and Times of Cap Lathrop.” Elizabeth Tower. Publication Consultants. 2006
  • “Buildings of Alaska.” Alison Hoagland. Oxford University Press. 1993
  •  “Fourth Avenue Theatre, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Michael Carberry. National Park Service. 1982
  •  “Fourth Avenue Theatre.” Sandra Faulkner. Historic American Buildings Survey. 1996
  •  “Fourth Avenue Theater shows signs of life at own funeral.” Lisa Maloney. “Anchorage Press.” 7-18-2016

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

2017 Sketches of Alaska calendars are out

I just picked up calendars from the printer. These calendars, including the cover drawing, feature 14 historic sites from Deadwood Creek near Central to Eureka Lodge along the Glenn Highway.

I will be selling them at the Fairbanks Holiday Marketplace this weekend. They are also available at Gulliver's Books. Price is $10.00 a piece.

If you can't make it to either place drop me a line. I will mail them for a small additional charge.


Saturday, November 5, 2016

Clarence Berry had major impact on Interior Alaska mining history

Berry Camp along Eagle Creek at about Mile 103 of the Steese Highway

Clarence Berry was one of the “Kings of the Klondike,” that small cohort of early gold-seekers who made fortunes in the diggings around Dawson City in the Yukon Territory.

Born in 1867, Clarence grew up near Fresno, California and by 1893 was operating a fruit farm. However, the depression of the 1890s forced him to abandon his fields. Eager for fresh opportunities, he headed to Alaska in 1894 with friends.

The group landed at Dyea, hiked over Chilkoot Pass, and eventually reached the diggings along the Fortymile River. Clarence ended up mining at Franklin Creek, a tributary of the Fortymile where gold had been discovered in 1886.

In the fall of 1895 he returned to California, and married his childhood sweetheart, Ethel Bush, in March of 1896. The day after the wedding, with little money but high hopes, Clarence, Ethel, and Clarence’s youngest brother, Fred took off for the Yukon.

Settling back into the Fortymile country, Clarence was unsuccessful at prospecting. He ended up bartending at Bill McPhee’s saloon in Forty Mile, the community at the confluence of the Fortymile and Yukon Rivers that served as the region’s administrative center.

George Carmack, who was one of the first men to discover gold in the Klondike, had to register his claims at Forty Mile, and Clarence was behind the counter when Carmack came into the saloon to announce his good fortune. Encouraged by Ethel, Clarence and Fred immediately set off up-river to stake a claim.

Their claim, along with others they acquired interests in, proved rich. According to a 2013 article by Michael Gates in the “Yukon News,” when Clarence and Ethel arrived in Seattle on the S.S. Portland in July of 1897 they carried $130,000 in gold with them—$9 million at today’s gold price.

Clarence used some of his profits to become one of the first miners in the Klondike to invest in steam equipment to improve efficiency. After noticing that steam exhaust from his boiler was thawing the ground, he ingeniously channeled the exhaust into a rubber hose and through a rifle barrel rammed into the frozen ground, consequently being credited as the first to use steam to thaw frozen ground.  He was also the first to install electric lights at his mines.

When the placer gold deposits supporting the Berrys’ mines began petering out, they moved operations to Ester Creek west of Fairbanks. Matthew Reckard, in a 1999 article in “The Ester Republic,” states that the mining camp of Berry, where the Berry family made another fortune, was located a couple of miles down Ester Creek from the camp at Ester.

From Ester, the Berrys moved on to the Circle Mining District in about 1909. Oscar Bredlie, who carried mail between Chatanika and Circle, told Jane Williams in a 1983 interview that the Berrys’ first venture in that area was at Berry Camp, on Eagle Creek south of Eagle Summit.

Berry Camp, which can be seen below the Steese Highway as you climb Eagle Summit, is shown in the drawing.  The camp, which is on the south side of Eagle Creek, was the support camp for a hydraulic mining operation. The two lines of vegetation seen at the top of the drawing mark the remains of ditches excavated to carry water from Upper Eagle Creek to mining areas lower down the creek.

The camp was located along the old winter trail over Eagle Summit.  Although never billed as a roadhouse, it was a frequent stopping place for travelers, and evidently supported a lively little community. During construction of the Steese highway in the late 1920s it was utilized as a road construction camp.

The Berrys also mined over the divide along Mammoth Creek where they successfully operated a dredge for many years. Clarence, who eventually resettled to California with Ethel, died in 1930.

Berry Camp is located on private property. Please check land status and get property owners’ permission before exploring the area.

  • “Berry, the Post Office on Ester Creek.” Matthew Reckard. In “The Ester Republic.” Vol. 1 No. 10, October 1999
  • “Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, Geological Survey professional paper 567.” Donald J. Orth. U.S. Geological Survey. 1971
  • “The Horation Alger Story of Clarence Berry.” Michael Gates. In ‘Yukon News.” 5-3-2013
  • Oscar Bredlie interview with Jane Williams on 11-2-1983. Oral History Collection at UAF Archives