I had several friends travel Outside over the Holidays, while I was quite content to enjoy the cabin life in Fairbanks. Getting out wasn’t the problem. It was getting back to Alaska which has proved challenging. Most friends had layovers in Seattle, which were long enough to officially be reclassified as detours. One had a detour in Anchorage; getting oh so close to Fairbanks, but yet divided by a mountain of snow.
Two friends attempted to travel from Arizona to Fairbanks. There was a detour in Seattle, followed by a last minute flight to Anchorage. A second detour was then encountered. All flights between Alaska’s largest cities were booked out for days. Determined to get home, they booked a ride on the Alaska Railroad. I was excited for them, probably more excited than they were. I have never ridden that set of rails in the winter.
Out of the blue, I received a text from them. They were in Denali Park. “How long is this ride?” they asked. I hesitated, but eventually told them it was a 12 hour trip. One way. The Alaska Railroad is not high speed travel.
Late on New Year’s Day, I get a call. Taxis from the depot are three hours out. It’s -35F, but I head out the door to provide pickup/limo service.
The locomotive did look good, all decked out in Christmas lights.
The ice hockey arena, where the University of Alaska Nanooks play their home games, was recently converted to an overflow, field hospital. The arena adds 100 beds at the moment, to the 38 beds at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital set aside for Corvid-19 patients, and the 26 beds in the intensive care unit. Like every community around the globe, everyone here hopes the arena beds are never used.
Alaska had 13 new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday. The state total was now at 226 cases, still the lowest of every U.S. state, but our population is also among the lowest. 27 Alaska residents have been hospitalized, and the state has seen seven deaths, with two of those deaths taking place Outside.
Fairbanks had six of those new cases, for a total of 71 in the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
The city of Dillingham, Alaska and the Curyung Tribal Council recently sent a request to the governor to close the Bristol Bay commercial fishery. That was huge news in Alaska. Bristol Bay is the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. Both entities told the State of Alaska that there was no way to limit the small communities exposure to the virus, and the communities lack the health care resources to handle a pandemic. Tens of thousands of fishermen and fish processors will soon start their migration into the region, as we get closer to the fishing season. There has been no official response from the State of Alaska, although fishery workers are considered “essential” by the State.
Conoco Phillips, the oil field giant, has shut down its remote North Slope oil fields, and have placed them into long-term storage due to coronavirus concerns. A BP worker at Prudhoe Bay had recently been diagnosed with the disease, putting several workers in quarantine.
Travel to Alaska by nonresidents is obviously frowned upon. Visitors are expected to quarantine for 14 days if they do arrive in the state. The cruise ship industry will not be visiting Alaskan ports until July at the earliest. Alaska has little, to no say in that. All Canadian ports of call are closed until July 1. An intriguing maritime law prohibits international cruise ships from carrying U.S. citizens from one U.S. port to another. In other words, they can not go from Seattle, Washington to Skagway, Alaska without a stop at a foreign port – namely a Canadian port. Until Canada opens its ports, Alaskan ports will remain closed to the cruising industry.
Several blogs that I follow have asked the question: “What is the proper way to blog during this event?” A few have even stopped blogging altogether. I honestly don’t have an answer. I rarely spend much time worrying about proper, so I’m probably not the guy to ask. As for Circle to Circle, I don’t intend to ignore the current situation, but I’m not going to dwell on it either. Every post will not be Covid-19 related, but that doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention to world events or that I’m not sympathetic to the suffering and losses. It isn’t hard for me to get as much coverage as I want on the Covid-19 virus, the difficulty is in limiting it to a manageable amount. One can quickly get overwhelmed, and then it’s hard to pull back out of the funk.
For now, I will continue to do what I do here, which is mainly to blog about Alaska, and its wonderful quirks. Circle to Circle started out to chronicle a long trip, and I still think it’s at it’s best when I’m writing about traveling. Travel will have to stay close to Fairbanks for the foreseeable future, so maybe I can pull some rabbits out of the local hat.
I sincerely think it’s important to remember that there are a lot of beautiful things happening every day out there, among the chaos and uncertainty. Maybe now, more than ever, it is worthwhile to point those things out as they happen. The moose cows will give birth this spring, and I will have little, gangly moose calves wandering about in short order. The sandhill cranes will soon be flying into the region, bugling their ancient call from the skies and tundra. The puddles and ponds will be full of ducks and muskrats, and the beaver will emerge from their domed hut – hopefully with kits.
Everything changes, and, of course, this blog can change at the drop of a wood duck chick. This was/is always going to be a work in progress. Stop by for a virtual Alaskan break, if that pleases you; feel free to fly over, if you feel Circle to Circle is not your pint of choice. Ask questions, leave comments, drop me a line if you’d like. We are all in this together, even as we stay apart.
On 17 July 1897, word spread like wildfire through the streets of Seattle over the cargo in the hold of the S.S. Portland. The S.S. Excelsior had already docked in San Francisco, bringing news from the Yukon.
“A ton of gold!” The arrival of the S.S. Portland was about to cause a mad rush to the Klondike.
68 miners and over a ton of gold had boarded the Portland in St Michael, Alaska. Fresh from the Klondike in Canada’s Yukon Territory, the gold was packed in anything the miners could find: coffee cans, socks, sacks, and boxes. Anything that could get the gold dust to Seattle. The estimates were off: The Portland carried two tons of gold in her hold that day.
At the time, the country was in a recession. Over 5000 people were waiting for the Portland at the dock, when she arrived. The streets were so crowded, the streetcars had to stop running. Reporters, longshoremen and others immediately quit their jobs and booked passage to Alaska. The mayor of Seattle was in San Francisco at the time; he wired his resignation via telegraph, and hopped on the first steamer heading north towards the Klondike. Seattle merchants sold out of mining gear and equipment within hours of the Portland’s arrival.
Plaque dedicated to the S.S. Portland, Photo credit: CtoC
Today, there is a historical marker near the place where the S.S. Portland docked. The plaque is located between Piers 57 and 59, along the sidewalk that runs beside the road, Alaskan Way. The plaque is mounted on an anchor, and looks down on the boardwalk that runs along the water.
The S.S. Portland served between 1885 and 1910. The above picture shows the Portland in the Bering Sea in 1901. Seamen are out cutting the ice in front of the ship.
The wreck of the Portland near the Katalla River, Alaska 1910
The Portland spent much of its life going from the west coast of the United States to the Alaska Territory. In 1910, the ship was caught on a shoal in rough seas. The waves pounded the old vessel, smashing her to pieces. The S.S. Portland remains at the mouth of the Katalla River. The ship was the subject of an episode of the PBS show History Detectives in 2004: Series 2, episode 9.
Historic photos come courtesy of the Alaska State Library Archives
After checking into the Panama, I went out exploring downtown Seattle. First stop was a brewery and lunch. The second stop was the Gold Rush Museum. I have been to the Klondike Museum in Skagway, but this was the first time I have been to its Seattle counterpart.
The museum is located in the historic Cadillac Hotel building. The museum is not large, but they do a great job telling the story of the Klondike.
When word of the Klondike strike reached the outside world, men and women from all over, flocked to the port cities of San Francisco and Seattle. The effort just to get to Alaska was huge, let alone to get to the backcountry of the Klondike.
The museum offers you six people who joined the gold rush, to follow their journey from start to finish. One young man made his way across the country from Michigan when he heard of the strike. Buying passage to Alaska, he was offered either first class accommodations or second. First class slept with the horses, second class slept with the mules. He chose to sleep with the mules.
An estimated 100,000 individuals made their way to the Klondike in search of gold. 40,000 actually made it to the Klondike. Of those, only half (20,000) worked claims or prospected for gold. Roughly 300 Klondikers made more than $15,000 in gold, which would be around $330,000 in today’s dollars. Of that number, only 50 individuals kept their wealth for any length of time.
Klondike Packing List
The RCMP required that all stampeders entering Canada have a ton of provisions. That’s a lot of gear to haul on your back. That’s a lot of bacon!
The Golden Staircase on the Chilkoot Trail
Two young men who were visiting the museum at the same time, overheard that I was from Alaska. They hit me with quite a few questions, but it was obvious that they had one thing on their mind: The Chilkoot Trail.
As I’ve written on here before, I have hiked The Chilkoot, which runs roughly from Dyea, Alaska to Lake Bennett, British Columbia. I highly recommended that they get up to Skagway and hike the trail. Hopefully, they will do so, it’s a wonderful hike.
The Panama Hotel, located in Seattle’s International District, opened for business in August of 1910. The five story, brick building was designed by Sabro Ozasa, Seattle’s first architect of Japanese heritage. The building was to house Japanese laborers from the area, but also catered to fisherman heading to, or coming back from Alaska. The International District was known as the city’s “nihonmachi” – Japan Town, or translated literally: Japan Street.
The Panama Hotel provided a full-service traditional Japanese-style sento, or public bath house in the basement. In 1910, most private homes in the area did not have their own baths, so the sento provided a neighborhood service.
There was a separate bath for men, and one for women and children. The bath house is still intact in the hotel, and it is the only surviving bath house of its kind in the U.S. today.
Takashi Hori was the owner of the hotel in December of 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans were rounded up on the west coast and placed in internment camps. Many local residents approached Hori to store their belongings in the basement of his hotel, because they were allowed to bring only minimal processions. Hori was also eventually sent to the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho in 1942. He returned to run the Panama Hotel after the war ended in 1945, having an acquaintance watch over the hotel during his incarceration.
The Panama Hotel today
With the Panama Hotel just blocks from King Street Station, I decided it was the perfect time to stay at this historic hotel during my time in Seattle.
The Panama Hotel stairway
The first impression of the Panama’s interior is the dramatic stairway to the office, which is on the third floor. This hotel really is a trip back in time, and there is no elevator.
A room in the Panama
The rooms are basic, and reflect the times they were made for. Spartan as they may be, I found them comfortable, clean and they met, even exceeded, my expectations. Each room comes with a sink, but guests share the bathrooms and showers. I did not have any issue with that, and I found no morning competition for the shower.
The “refrigerator” armoire
As a contractor, I loved the building details, as much as the history. The trim, bannisters and railings were all clear, beautifully grained wood. The lighting in the hallways was designed to use natural light as much as possible, and it was fascinating to see that change over the course of the day, although the electric lights were hardly needed until sunset.
Several rooms had armoires that were built out of refrigerator crates back in the 1930’s. The workmanship was quite impressive.
The Panama Hotel Tea House
Originally, the ground floor of the hotel had a dentist, a tailor, a laundry, a bookstore, a billiards room, and a sushi restaurant. Today, the lower floor is home to the Panama Hotel’s Tea Room. A complementary continental breakfast is served here for guests of the hotel. The tea selection is extensive, and the squash bread phenomenal. It’s a great place to hang out at the end of the day after exploring Seattle’s downtown.
The Tea House has a great collection of historic photos from the area displayed on the exposed brick walls of the two main rooms. The Panama Hotel is both a working hotel, and a living museum.
A window into our past
When Takashi Hori returned to the Panama in 1945, the hotel’s basement was holding over 50 steamer trunks from the displaced Japanese-Americans. Many trunks and other belongings remain in the basement today. Hori made several attempts to find the owners, but most were never located. The owners had simply vanished. A window in the floor of the tea house gives visitors a glimpse of the private belongings left behind.
Personal belongings stored in the Panama due to Executive Order 9066
The Panama Hotel offers a unique opportunity to explore Seattle’s past. It’s a wonderful hotel. Don’t stay here if you need Five Star accommodations. It’s comfortable, but 1934 comfortable. Unfortunately, the front entrance is enough to deter anyone who needs an elevator. It’s a living time capsule, and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit. The current owner, is the hotel’s third. That in itself, is remarkable.
Tours of the bath house are available upon request. I highly recommend joining one.
The Panama Hotel is a U.S. National Historic Landmark, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2006.
Because I never seem to do things the easy way, I decided to take Amtrak across the northern border of the U.S. to Seattle from the Twin Cities.
The Empire Builder lounge at Union Depot- St Paul, Minnesota
The entire Empire Builder line from Chicago is 2206 miles, and I had already done the Chicago to Saint Paul section.
The line originated in 1929 by the Great Northern Railway and James J. Hill.
The Great Northern was eventually succeeded by Burlington Northern in 1970.
Minot, NoDak train depot
The Empire Builder averages 1285 riders daily, which is Amtrak’s busiest long distance route. The max speed is 79 mph, with an average speed of 50 mph.
I did not get a sleeper car for the roughly 36 hour ride, although they are available. This isn’t air travel: the seats are wide and they actually recline, complete with a foot rest. I did not get a seat mate until Spokane, and that only lasted until Everett.
Sunset from the observation car
The Empire Builder runs the double decker rail cars. There is seating below, but I have always gone up the narrow staircase to the top section. The restrooms are on the lower level.
Since I had been visiting family in Minnesota, I was loaded down with food for the ride. I had no need to visit the dining car on this trip. I did spend a fair amount of time in the observation car, which also offers a basic cafe.
Lately, I find myself in no hurry to climb on board an airplane. Plus, Amtrak has been running some super saver fares, so the rail ride and flight from Seattle to Fairbanks was actually cheaper than the flight from Minneapolis to Fairbanks.
But that had very little to do with my decision to ride the rail. I simply wanted to experience the Empire Builder, and this was the only way to get that thought out of my head.
Skykomish River, eastern Washington
The Empire Builder travels through some beautiful country, as well as some that one wouldn’t mind speeding through. It does stop within Glacier National Park, and the trek through the Cascades is simply wonderful.
The Cascade Tunnel was built in 1929 by Great Northern. It’s just short of 8 miles long. Not much is visible for those eight miles, as you can imagine/see from the photo above. The tunnel is near Stevens Pass, Washington, and there was much grumbling about the lack of cell coverage during those dark, eight miles.
Like cell-free tunnels, Amtrak doesn’t have much say in the weather either. A fog rolled in for our arrival to western Washington, and not much was visible from Everett on.
King Street Station, Seattle
Our train pulled into the King Street Station nine minutes early. Not bad, considering the distance. Amtrak also does not get priority over the freight trains. There were a few times when we had to wait for a freight train to get out of our way.
Overall, I really enjoyed the trip. Once again, this isn’t air travel. One needs to have the time available to ride the rails. One also must be in the proper frame of mind. It’s a good time to drop the petty thoughts and just sit back and relax. I watched one woman get incredibly upset that we were late getting into Havre, Montana. We had just spent 20 minutes waiting for two freight trains to pass, so the delay was hardly a surprise. She was on the train to Seattle, so I couldn’t figure out why she was so upset. Of course, my lackadaisical attitude about the delay didn’t improve her mood either.
King Street Station
Other than her, I met some pretty cool people on the train, and had some great conversations in the observation car. I do recommend the trip, if you have the time.