Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Northward Building still stands out in downtown Fairbanks

The Northward Building in 2014

 In 1950 Fairbanks, Alaska was still a modest little town of small frame houses and log cabins. The city’s business district, fronting on the Chena River, pretty much fit in a three block by four block area, and the tallest building was the four-story Lathrop Building on Second Avenue, built by Austin “Cap” Lathrop in 1939. (It was also the second building in Fairbanks to have an elevator—the first being the Federal Building on Cushman Street.)

1950 was also the year that one of the largest construction projects in the city up to that time was started. The eight-story Northward Building is credited with being the first apartment house in Fairbanks. It was designed in part to alleviate the city’s acute housing shortage, caused by the influx of workers involved in military construction, and of military personnel and their families moving into the area.

(Just a few years later the 11-story Hill Building, now the Polaris Building, opened two blocks away. It too, was an apartment building constructed to ease the city’s housing crisis.)

The Northward Building which is 97.5 feet high, is a roughly H-shaped structure that takes up the entire block between Lacey and Noble Streets, and Third and Fourth Avenue. In 1950 that location was at the very edge of downtown, and several smaller buildings, including boarding houses, were torn down to make room for the new “high rise.”

As constructed, the building had a steel frame with reinforced concrete floors, and was clad with metal siding. When opened in 1952 it included a basement with parking, laundry and storage areas; a first floor with retail shops (including grocery store) and a bank; and seven floors of apartments. It was also the third building in Fairbanks with an elevator.

A 1953 ad in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner noted that the rent for an apartment was $135 a month, including all utilities. That may have been a hefty sum in the 50s, but the Northward Building, which was essentially a self-contained community, was worth it to many.

Edna Ferber, who patterned the central building in her 1958 book, “Ice Palace,” after the Northward Building, wrote (perhaps exaggerating just a tad bit) that “It was Alaska’s first apartment house. People fought to live in it. Townsmen, dwelling in their frame houses and wrestling with the regional problems of heating, lighting, plumbing, water, were madly envious of Ice Palace tenants. There never was a vacancy unless a tenant accommodatingly died, rashly built a new house, or left permanently for Outside.”

Ferber’s novel, written on the cusp of Alaska statehood, immortalized the Northward as her Ice Palace. Fairbanks became the Interior Alaska city of Baranof, and almost everything she wrote about the city and its people became larger-than-life. The Ice Palace grew from the Northward Building’s eight-stories to fourteen-stories, its utilitarian steel siding replace by glass blocks that at times, “when the refraction was just right…took on an unearthly blue like the aquamarine tint of the vast Morganstern glacier that lay, a giant jewel, just outside Baranof.”

According to the 1978 book, Ferber, a Biography, the author made five trips to Alaska conducting research. She became very familiar with the territory and its inhabitants. In addition to “borrowing” settings, she also borrowed real-life people, again—building them into larger-than-life characters for her book. Eva McGown became the novel’s Bridie Ballantyne—her social ministry transferred from the Nordale Hotel to the Ice Palace, and Cap Lathrop morphed into the powerful Czar Kennedy.

The city’s downtown has grown considerably beyond the Northward Building in the past 60+ years, but the building has changed little. The exterior still looks the same, but the interior was renovated in 2001. Almost all the first-floor shops are gone, replaced by offices for various States agencies, but the upper floors are still devoted to apartments and utilities are still included in the rent.

  • Ice Palace. Edna Ferber. Buccaneer Books. 1958 
  • Buildings of Alaska. Alison K. Hoagland. Oxford University Press. 1993
  • Ferber, a Biography of Edna Ferber and Her Circle. Julie Goldsmith Gilbert. Doubleday and Company. 1978
  • Fairbanks, a Pictorial History. Claus-M. Naske & Ludwig J. Rowinski. Donning Company. 1981


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Marge Gull painting of Byler's Roadhouse, 18 miles from Fairbanks

Another painting by Alaska artist, Marguerite "Marge" Gull. This is of Byler's Roadhouse, which used to be located along the old Valdez-Trail near present-day North Pole. The roadhouse was established in about 1907 by Jonathan Byler, and was the first Orr Stage line station after leaving Fairbanks.

The roadhouse changed owners several times. When the Delta Winter Cut-off section of the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail was totally abandoned in the 1920s, John Sullivan and his wife (who had operated Sullivan's Roadhouse along the Cut-off) bought this roadhouse and operated it for several years. The roadhouse no longer exists.

Marge (who died in 2013) came to Alaska with her husband in 1938, living first in Fairbanks and then Anchorage. She was an amateur painter and painted 49 of the roadhouses along the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail.

I assume that at least some of the paintings were done from photographs since many of the roadhouses disappeared long before Marge came to Alaska.This painting is in the collection of the Valdez Museum.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Old cabin at Byers Lake is a reminder of Alaska's trapping heritage

Red amd Marydith Beeman's cabin at Byers Lake in 2011

Just a few minutes walk from Byers Lake campground near Mile 138 of the Parks Highway lies the picturesque remains of an old two-room cabin. From 1959 to the early 1970s, this was the headquarters site for trapper Edward “Red” Beeman.

Red came to Alaska in 1951 courtesy of the U.S. Air Force. He fell in love with Alaska and lingered after his discharge. In summer 1954, he began fishing commercially for salmon in Cook Inlet using set nets, which are gillnets anchored or “set” in one location.

Commercial fishing, like many Alaska occupations, is a seasonal activity. Consequently, Red also took on guiding hunters in autumn and trapping during winter. In an interview in Randy Zarnke’s book, Alaska Tracks: Life Stories from Hunters,Fishermen & Trappers of Alaska, Red says, “ ... that’s what I’ve done. Fish in the summer, guide in the fall, trap in the winter. It’s been a good life.”

His first few years of trapping were along Eagle River outside Anchorage and in various locations in the Talkeetna Mountains to the north of the Matanuska Valley. By the end of the 1950s, he had moved his trapline to Byers Lake on the western flank of the Talkeetnas.

Red also found time to woo a Chugiak school teacher, Marydith West. The two married in 1959, and Red whisked his new bride off to Byers Lake where they built a small cabin that same year a few hundred feet from the lake’s north shore. The original section of the cabin, about 10 feet by 16 feet, is constructed of unpeeled spruce logs with saddle-notched corners. The gabled roof has metal sheathing.

Later, the two added a 10-foot by 8-foot log-walled bedroom on the cabin’s north side, built into the hillside. That room was much needed after son Eric and daughter Susan were born.

The cabin has low side walls (about 5-feet high) and the middle of the main room underneath the ridgepole is only about 7-feet high. Susan Beeman, in an essay about the cabin in the book, Travelers’ Tales Alaska, writes of the doorway between the main room and bedroom, “ ... the doorway where my parents stapled a cut-out magazine photo of a mallard so they wouldn’t forget to duck.”

Marydith told me that she and Red spent winters at Byers Lake in 1959-60 and 1960-61, but after the children were born the family only visited the cabin. Byers Lake is about 40 miles beyond Talkeetna, and in the 1960s had no road access. The only way in would have been either hiking from the Alaska Railroad nine miles away or by small plane.

The Beeman cabin was not the only dwelling at the lake. Bureau of Land Management records show that two other cabins were located there. One of those cabins was situated about where Byers Lake public-use cabin No. 3 is now.

Red gained patent to his cabin and the 4.87 acres it sits on in February 1970. However, with the creation of Denali State Park (which surrounds Byers Lake) in 1970, and the completion of the Parks Highway in 1972, Red could feel civilization creeping in. He sold the Byers Lake property to the state and moved his family and trapping operations to the McGrath area in 1973.

The state has developed a campground and other recreation facilities at Byers Lake, including a trail around the lake. It has left the Beeman cabin untouched, though. The cabin’s windows are long gone, a porch at the far end of the cabin has collapsed, and a small stand of trees has taken root in deep moss covering the bedroom roof. Inside, the flooring over the root cellar beneath the middle of the front room has rotted away. Visitors can peer into the cabin’s dim interior through the vacant windows, but a sign warns the curious not to enter the dilapidated structure.

Red retired from trapping in 2003 and from guiding in 2007, but he still fishes commercially. He and Marydith now live in Chugiak.

  •  Alaska Tracks: Life stories from Hunters, Fishermen & Trappers of Alaska. Randy Zarnke. Publication Consultants. 2013
  • Correspondence with Red and Marydith Beeman. 2015
  • Cook Inlet Country. Alaska Geographic. Vol. 5, No. 1. 1977
  • Denali State Park Management Plan. Alaska Department of Natural Resources. 2006
  • “From Scratch.” Susan Beeman. in Travelers’ Tales Alaska. Travelers’ Tales. 2003
  • “Teachers revisit the early days of teaching in Chugiak School.” Chris Lundgren. in The Alaska Star. 2-15-2007
  • U.S. Bureau of Land Management records

Monday, January 4, 2016

Interior Sketches II books arriving soon!


The launch of my new book, “Interior Sketches II, More ramblings around Interior Alaska historic sites,” is only a few weeks away!

This second book in my “Interior Sketches” series will feature an additional 60 historic sites scattered across Eastern Interior Alaska. It will include sites such as Fannie Quigley’s home at Kantishna, Tisha’s schoolhouse in Chicken, Doyle’s Roadhouse at Gakona, mining remnants along Nome Creek, and an Alaska Road Commission shelter cabin on Brushkana Creek.

An advance shipment of books is due this week. Those books will be sent out to supporters of my Kickstarter fundraising campaign. More books will be arriving later this month for an official launch party. Watch this space for more information.