What was once one of the crown jewels of Central Alaska tourism could be making a comeback after more than a decade of idleness and a slow but steady drift toward ghost-town status.
Jim Simko of J&S Services in Fairbanks said last week that he believes he has at last found a buyer for the Arctic Circle Hot Springs Resort almost 140 miles north of Fairbanks.
The once celebrated lodge dates back to the 1930s. It sprang up in the heart of a gold-mining district that boomed off and on from the 1890s into the 1990s and then began to fade.
“When gold hit $800 in 1980, a gold rush took place in the district that lasted several years,” the late Ron Wendt wrote in ICMJ’s Prospecting and Mining Journal in 2006. “Most creeks in the district were overwhelmed with mining operations. In 1982, there were a dozen operations witnessed by this writer just on Deadwood Creek. The nearby town of Central was a busy community and Circle Hot Springs reaped many rewards from the sudden rich commerce pumped into the district.”
By 2006, though, most of the miners were gone and the lodge – lacking local customers and unable to entice enough tourists to make the three-hour drive north on the Steese Highway from Fairbanks – was shuttered.
By February of this year, the price was down to $1.8 million and the owners were conceding on Craigslist that the “property is in need of much TLC, however it is definitely one of a kind, and the potential to the right owner is virtually unlimited.”
It looked then that the days might be numbered for what was once a fabled Alaska retreat.
“A charter jet flight will leave Fairbanks at 3 p.m. Saturday for a weekend of skiing and swimming at the Arctic Circle Hot Springs resort,” the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported in March 1961. “The plane will return to Fairbanks at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday.”
Alaska Native lore had it the hot waters that filled the comfortable pool at the resort had rejuvenate powers, and there is no doubt that they once made the gardens at the hot springs flourish. Old photographs show them rich with produce and flowers.
The lodge had character, too, and color.
“The hotel supposedly even has its own ghost,” wrote Roy Bonnell in the News-Miner five years ago. “Some employees are reported to have seen or felt the specter of Emma Leach roaming the halls or haunting the kitchen.”
“The Dead Files,” an unreal reality show on Travel Channel visited in 2012, to try to make contact with Emma. And, of course, they found her ghost along with that of her husband, Frank, and possibly the ghost of a victim of a helicopter crash near what the show described as “an old hotel in the middle of nowhere,” which was the only real part of the reality show.
The episode was titled “Arctic Wraith,” and it was not kind to the Leaches, who are buried not far from the resort. Amy Allan, the shows “paranormal researcher and physical medium,” described Frank as a “like 7-foot tall” ax murder wannabe and Emma as an “overbearing grandmother type.”
But in the end, Allan assured the resort’s would-be caretaker, his could-be daughter visiting from Outside, and a mystery neighbor (all of whom are identified by first names only), that the ghosts were not a problem because the solution to dealing with ghosts is simple:
“Lay down the law….They do not want that….If they cause problems, you can put your foot down and demand that they leave.”
The potential new owners can probably rest easy that no one else has ever reported being threatened by ghosts at the resort. Most other sources seem in agreement the only ghost is Emma, who generally sticks to the third floor of the hotel.
And Emma has never been the big attraction. The big attraction has always been the refreshingly warm water.
Author Bobbie Ann Mason didn’t even bother to mention the ghost when she visited the resort for The New York Times in 1987. She was more impressed with the water and the wild character of the surrounding area.
“At the hotel, (hot) spring water is piped right to your room, and even to the toilets down the hall,” she wrote. “This is cozy, something you’d wish for in an outhouse when it’s 50 below. (Because excavating in frozen ground is extremely expensive, most Alaskan log houses don’t have plumbing.) The nonsmelly mineral spring water is 139 degrees, but it is tempered as it is piped into an Olympic-sized swimming pool where you hang lazily from an inner tube and order drinks brought from the bar. The day I was there, the air was 80 degrees and the water was 109. The mosquitoes greeted us in a warm, tickly buzz.
”’The best time to come here is in the winter,” one of our companions said. ”Then the water feels great, and the steam freezes on your hair and turns it white. You have to dunk now and then to thaw your hair.’
“The resort includes a general store and a little church and a saloon and a group of log cabins for year-round residents. Outside the log cabins are food caches, little houses on stilts to protect food from bears.”
The year-round residents are long gone, and Simko said it’s clear the resort is going to require a lot of renovation work before it can again start housing guests. But he believes the scent-free hot springs make the resort even more attractive than Chena Hot Springs to the south which entrepreneur Bernie Karl has turned into an Alaska tourism destination.
“Bernie’s a good friend of mine,” Simko said. “He’s done a tremendous job at Chena, but this is going to be as good or better.”
That’s saying a lot. Karl now runs the most successful winter tourism business in the state. The Financial Times featured it in a February 2017 story headlined “How a remote Alaskan town became a hit with Japanese tourists” – the “town” being Fairbanks, the jumping off point for the Chena hot springs 50 miles to the north.
“After Japanese television specials quickened interest in the aurora (borealis) in the 1990s,” reporter Pico Iyer wrote. “The first charter flight arrived in 2004 and their number quickly multiplied. Soon there were direct charter flights to Fairbanks not just from Tokyo, but from Nagoya, Sapporo, even from Hiroshima. According to the most recent state figures, 40 per cent of foreign tourists to Alaska in autumn or winter come from Japan. Surveys found that 100 per cent of those Japanese, some 5,600 people, visited Fairbanks.”
Japanese tourism is a steadily growing segment of the local economy. Simko said he was not at liberty to say who bought Arctic Circle Hot Springs or what they paid, but he did say the new owners, who are not Karls and his wife, have expressed interest in the tourism business.
“It has sold, and I think we’re going to have a closure here fairly shortly,” he said. “The plan is to reopen. Certainly we’ll qualify for a national historic site designation.
“I can’t say anymore at this time.”
There is no question as to the history in and around Circle City, a community named by early prospectors who didn’t quite realize their stopping point on the Yukon River was still about 50 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
A human outpost in a vast wilderness on the south bank of Alaska’s biggest and most famous river, the community was eventually renamed simply Circle. Now home to about 100 people, it is at the end of the Steese about 20 miles past the resort.
When established in 1894, Circle was “the supply center for the Circle Mining District 50 miles to the southeast. In winter, it became a haven for gold miners who couldn’t dig their frozen claims,” according to historian Laurel Downing Bill.
“Soon five general stores, two jewelers, two doctors’ and two dentists’ offices, an Episcopal Church, school, opera house, several dance halls and saloons and a few hundred log cabins lined the Yukon riverbank,” she wrote in Alaska’s Senior Voice. “It became known as ‘the largest log cabin city in the world.’ Some people called it the ‘Paris of the North.'”
Others had a different description given that there are few places in the world where beauty is more in the eye of the beholder than in Alaska.
“Circle City was a dirty, ugly, frontier town,” recounts the Alaska Humanities Forum in its history. “When Episcopal Bishop Peter Trimble Rowe visited Circle City in 1895, he described it as ‘a row of saloons, gambling houses and dance halls, and general stores.'”
Over the years that followed, Circle would fade as Gold Rush stampeders moved farther north to pursue their fortunes in the golden sand of the beaches at Nome, and then grow again as gold mining settled in as a mainstay of the sparse economy in central Alaska before fading as the mining faded only to resurge in the 1980s and fade again.
More than one interesting character showed up at the resort in those days – among them one Harrie Lewis Hughes, an oral diarist of sorts whose old “memory wire” recordings eventually fell into the hands of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program.
The memory recorder was the predecessor to the tape recorder. It recorded sound on thread-thin stainless steel wire. The product was the cutting-edge technology of the late 1940s and early 1950s, but it died a quick death with the invention of magnetic tape, the recording material first used in reel-to-reel recorders and later in audio cassettes.
Magnetic tape sometimes tangled, but tangled tape was nowhere near the nightmare of the fine stainless wire which when it unspooled often formed a bird’s nest that could not be untangled. (Audio cassettes, for younger readers, were the predecessors of CDs which were the predecessors of the digital recorders everywhere today).
Hughes’ memory recordings came to the attention of UAF’s Leslie McCartney 2015. She later wrote what fans of strange tidbits of Alaska history will find a marvelous story about the discovery of one tape in particular.
Ghosts on the Wire
The story is titled “Ghosts on the Wire” and records McCartney’s attempts to compile a history of Hughes, a man well known to UAF after having provided it more than 200 recordings and a man yet largely unknown.
“Harrie himself is quite a story,” she wrote. “He was born on April 29,1899 in Linden, Montgomery County,Indiana. He grew up in California and worked in Hollywood building scenery and working on machinery. He was very proud of his work card issued in 1918 by the International Alliance of Theatrical State Employees, Local No.33. He worked for Douglas Fairbanks,Mary Pickford and the Keystone Kops.
“He arrived in Alaska around 1929 and worked repairing machinery in fish canneries in Alaska’s coastal fishing communities. From there he moved around the state trapping,mining for gold, cutting logs and building cabins.”
By the late ’30s, Hughes had set up shop in Fairbanks as something of a jack-of-all trades who ran an electrical service, but sometimes filled in as plumber, telephone repairman, gunsmith, jeweler, and more.
In the ’50s, McCartney writes, Hughes was probably one of the few people in Fairbanks with recording equipment… and he loved to record anything. He talked with old miners, residents of many communities in Alaska,pioneers, anyone who was willing to let him record them. He would take his recorder on road trips with him and talk and talk about what he was seeing as he drove down the highway. A prime example are recordings he made describing in detail everything about one of his trips he took in July of 1963 through Alaska into the Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, North Dakota, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.”
Exactly how and when Hughes came to take up residence at Arctic Circle, McCartney does not say, but she reports the late Bob Miller, who owned the resort along with his wife, Laverna, had known Hughes since childhood. McCartney describes Hughes’ time at the hot springs as his “twilight years” when he stayed in one of the cabins “and came to eat his meals at the resort each day.
“After that he lived with Bob and LaVerna in Fairbanks. In total LaVerna told me they looked after Harrie for 16 years, from about 1989” to shortly before his death 2006 at the age of 107.
And the Millers never knew Hughes had a family.
“…At Harrie’s funeral,mourners were very surprised to meet Harrie’s grandson, Daniel Hughes, who according to (Laverna)Miller looked just like Harrie,” McCartney wrote. “Apparently when Harrie came to Alaska he had left a family in California without a trace and they had been looking for him all those years. With the Internet and obituaries posted online, his grandson had finally found the family patriarch albeit just after Hughes had passed away.”
When McCartney did some more digging into Hughes’ background, she discovered he “loved the ladies and was married at least five times but would never speak of any of the women he had married.”
McCartney ended up engrossed in a search for one of those wives, former Fairbanks resident Ruby Hughes.
“I have no idea what number Ruby was in Hughes’ marriage history,” she wrote. “I have been unable to trace what happened to her after their marriage obviously ended.”
Ruby entered McCartney’s world via an old wire-memory recording box with Hughes’ name on it. The tape inside detailed a love story that began with him meeting Ruby when she was visiting Alaska with a friend. Ruby went back to the states after the encounter, but eventually returned to join Hughes in the north.
“Harrie and Ruby are listed in the Polk’s Fairbanks City Directory until the 1964 edition when Harrie L. Hughes is listed as retired and at a new address,” McCartney writes. “Ruby is no longer listed with him or in the directory at all….Harrie takes his road trip across American in the summer of 1963 and there is no mention of Ruby on these recordings.
“I have yet to find anyone in Fairbanks who remembers Ruby….I have no idea what number Ruby was in Hughes’ marriage history. I have been unable to trace what happened to her after their marriage obviously ended.
“I did find a quote by Hughes in a newspaper interview he did for his 100th birthday about being married, ‘I picked up two lemons and I ditched them both,’ he said. Local historian Candace Waugaman laughed and said, ‘Two wives in Alaska maybe.'”
Cue the north’s most famous poet, Robert Service:
And now the Japanese come to view the Alaska nights.
With its rich history, therapeutic hot springs and the northern lights, a refurbished Arctic Hot Springs Resort might just appeal to them and the facility, while rundown, does have attractions.
“The all-natural, gin-clear, odor-free water (no sulfur smell) is what’s called a ‘filtration springs’ and flows at a constant temperature of 134 D Fahrenheit and a rate of 400 gal. per minute year round,” a craigslist.com advertisement notes.
“…It was used for very comfortable heating of the main lodge, eight of the 13 cabins, (including warm commodes) and most importantly the outdoor swimming pool and bath house, even at 50 below zero, totally eliminating heating costs.
“It’s important to note water is of such natural high quality there is no rust, corrosion or slag buildup anywhere especially in the approx 10,000 ft. of pipe (heating radiator) in the basement that runs clear and warm.”
Free, geothermal heat is a big plus in a land where winter temperatures can get so cold diesel fuel gels.