The world famous Malemute Saloon is set to reopen today. The historic bar, located in Ester, Alaska, has been basically closed for the past 11 years. It would open for a month every summer to keep its liquor license, but otherwise, the Ester institution has kept its bat doors shuttered.
New ownership is gearing the Malemute and the adjacent Ester Gold Camp towards the locals, and tourists who are looking to get off the beaten path and not arrive by tour bus. Live music by local musicians and shows by other local artists are expected to be scheduled for daily events throughout the summer.
Ester is a uniquely Interior Alaskan community, and it is a trip back in time. Once a thriving gold camp, now it’s a very laid back community reveling in the Alaskan lifestyle. The Malemute, made famous in the poetry of Robert Service, has kept the memories of the gold rush era alive. When my Dad would visit, the Malemute was one of his favorite places to go.
Ester City traces its history back to the early 1900’s serving the small local mining claims. The Fairbanks Exploration Company moved in and enlarged the footprint, building the gold camp in 1936. Large scale mining ended in the Ester area in the 1950’s, but small claims are still being worked today in the area.
The gold camp then became a tourist resort and the Malemute Saloon was opened. The bar in the saloon was obtained from the Royal Alexandria Hotel in Dawson City. The building itself dates back to 1906.
As a local resident, I have to admit, I’m thrilled to see the Malemute and Gold Camp reopening.
On our tour of uniquely Interior Alaska, we made the drive out to the Republic of Ester. The first stop was the Golden Eagle Saloon, where you grill your own burgers. We sat out on the front porch, mingling with the regulars. But we didn’t venture out to Ester for a “grill your own”. We came out for the Malemute.
Gold was discovered in Ester Creek in 1903. By 1907, Ester had become a thriving mining community with a population of 200. Ester Gold Camp developed into a support facility for the F.E. Company’s gold dredges operating in the Cripple Creek & Ester Creek areas.
With dredging winding down, the F.E. Company sold the gold camp to local investors who turned the historic camp into a resort in 1958.
“Service with a Smile”, inside the Malemute
The F.E. Company used the old building as a garage, but the new resort owners turned it into the “Malemute Saloon”. Robert Service, the poet whose works include “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”, became an honorary patron of the Malemute. The bar inside the Malemute is circa 1900, and came from the Royal Alexandra Hotel in Dawson, YT. It was barged down the Yukon River and up the Tanana.
At its peak, the Ester Gold Camp had all you can eat crab, and meals were taken on long tables like the miners of the F.E. Company. It allowed visitors to interact, and residents were as common as the tourists. The Malemute would be packed to the rafters, with shows dedicated to Robert Service and life in the Interior of Alaska. I took my Dad out there a few times, and it became one of his favorite Alaska hangouts. With sawdust on the floor, Alaskana on the walls, and cold beer flowing, it was a favorite of many locals as well.
On this night in 2019, we ordered our beer at the historic bar, then went outside to sit on the deck, which had a significant lean down & away from the building.
The Gold Camp and the Malemute closed in 2008, although the Malemute Saloon does open on occasion. This year, it was open, serving Alaskan brews for the month of June.
The Ester Camp Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
The Shooting of Dan McGrew
A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o’-love, the lady that’s known as Lou.
When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and the glare,
There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog-dirty, and loaded for bear.
He looked like a man with a foot in the grave and scarcely the strength of a louse,
Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks for the house.
There was none could place the stranger’s face, though we searched ourselves for a clue;
But we drank his health, and the last to drink was Dangerous Dan McGrew.
There’s men that somehow just grip your eyes, and hold them hard like a spell;
And such was he, and he looked to me like a man who had lived in hell;
With a face most hair, and the dreary stare of a dog whose day is done,
As he watered the green stuff in his glass, and the drops fell one by one.
Then I got to figgering who he was, and wondering what he’d do,
And I turned my head — and there watching him was the lady that’s known as Lou.
His eyes went rubbering round the room, and he seemed in a kind of daze,
Till at last that old piano fell in the way of his wandering gaze.
The rag-time kid was having a drink; there was no one else on the stool,
So the stranger stumbles across the room, and flops down there like a fool.
In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway;
Then he clutched the keys with his talon hands — my God! but that man could play.
Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,
A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;
While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept in bars? —
Then you’ve a hunch what the music meant. . . hunger and night and the stars.
And hunger not of the belly kind, that’s banished with bacon and beans,
But the gnawing hunger of lonely men for a home and all that it means;
For a fireside far from the cares that are, four walls and a roof above;
But oh! so cramful of cosy joy, and crowned with a woman’s love —
A woman dearer than all the world, and true as Heaven is true —
(God! how ghastly she looks through her rouge, — the lady that’s known as Lou.)
Then on a sudden the music changed, so soft that you scarce could hear;
But you felt that your life had been looted clean of all that it once held dear;
That someone had stolen the woman you loved; that her love was a devil’s lie;
That your guts were gone, and the best for you was to crawl away and die.
‘Twas the crowning cry of a heart’s despair, and it thrilled you through and through —
“I guess I’ll make it a spread misere”, said Dangerous Dan McGrew.
The music almost died away … then it burst like a pent-up flood;
And it seemed to say, “Repay, repay,” and my eyes were blind with blood.
The thought came back of an ancient wrong, and it stung like a frozen lash,
And the lust awoke to kill, to kill … then the music stopped with a crash,
And the stranger turned, and his eyes they burned in a most peculiar way;
In a buckskin shirt that was glazed with dirt he sat, and I saw him sway;
Then his lips went in in a kind of grin, and he spoke, and his voice was calm,
And “Boys,” says he, “you don’t know me, and none of you care a damn;
But I want to state, and my words are straight, and I’ll bet my poke they’re true,
That one of you is a hound of hell. . .and that one is Dan McGrew.”
Then I ducked my head, and the lights went out, and two guns blazed in the dark,
And a woman screamed, and the lights went up, and two men lay stiff and stark.
Pitched on his head, and pumped full of lead, was Dangerous Dan McGrew,
While the man from the creeks lay clutched to the breast of the lady that’s known as Lou.
These are the simple facts of the case, and I guess I ought to know.
They say that the stranger was crazed with “hooch,” and I’m not denying it’s so.
I’m not so wise as the lawyer guys, but strictly between us two —
The woman that kissed him and — pinched his poke — was the lady that’s known as Lou.