Mount Sutro: An Electronic Periodical

2133Hours EDT

The Things That Do Not Get Lost

Wooden carving of a bear holding a fish at the "Welcome To Seward Alaska" sign between storefronts on Fourth Avenue.

214 Fourth Avenue, Seward, Alaska: Tuesday, 20 June 2017

part of the Alaska 2017: Seward album

Following our lunch at Thorn's Showcase Lounge — documented in "The Sweet Sound That Calls The Young Sailors" — we walked around the surrounding downtown area and visited several of the shops there. Exiting Thorn's and heading north, we walked past the building next door to get to the "Welcome To Seward Alaska" sign between storefronts on Fourth Avenue. It currently features a wooden carving of a bear holding a fish. The bear replaced a statue of a man panning for gold sometime after Sunday, 14 July 2013 and before Thursday, 01 June 2017.

Continuing past one more storefront, we came to Urbach's Clothiers (pronounced er–backs) at 218 Fourth Avenue. Opened on Monday, 26 July 1915 by Leon Urbach (1885–1965) as a one-room shop on Fourth Avenue, Urbach's started as a clothier and general store offering items such as men's and women's clothing, shoes, groceries, furnishings, tools and stationary. He was hoping "to capitalize on a federal government plan to build a rail line from Fairbanks to Seward" selling goods to the "railroad workers, gold miners and adventurers streaming through the port town."

Leon Urbach relocated from Idaho to Seward sometime from 1900–1915 and worked at Seward Commercial Company until quitting in 1915 to open his own store. Urbach ran for mayor in 1917, "was first vice president of the Seward Chamber of Commerce" and served "as its president for more than twenty years." In 1919, Urbach married Dorothy Mizenheimer and the couple had two sons, Kenneth (1921–2003) and Lawrence "Larry" (1922–1999). Sadly, Dorothy's death due to pneumonia was reported on Wednesday, 06 December 1933.

During World War II, Leon Urbach served as chairman of the Territory of Alaska Selective Service Board. Perhaps apocryphal, it is said that "the first young man he called to the draft was his son Larry." Either way, Larry did serve two years in the Army and then attended the University of Washington in Seattle. For his service to the Selective Service Board, Leon was summoned to Washington, D.C. sometime from 1945–1953 and recognized by President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972). Leon would also remarry at some point to a woman called Stella.

Disaster struck the stores of Fourth Avenue in 1941 as a fire advanced down the street burning many of the buildings there. As the fire approached Urbach's, several locals came to help Leon save some merchandise from the inferno by moving it out. Leon was pleased by the gesture, but since these items were taken to people's homes, it was necessary to acquire new unused goods to sell at the rebuilt store. Fortunately, Leon's good credit allowed him to restock and restart the business in the same location.

Back in Seattle, son Larry was studying business administration when he met zoology major Dorothy Weil of Hillsboro, Oregon. The two married in June 1950 and continued to live in Seattle where Larry managed two shoe stores. They next moved to Dorothy's hometown of Hillsboro, where her family owned a department store. As Leon and Stella decided to retire and move to Santa Barbara, California in 1954, Larry returned to Seward with Dorothy to take over the family business.

Disaster again affected the store when the great magnitude 9.2 earthquake and tsunami of Friday, 27 March 1964 rocked Alaska. As the temblor began, Dorothy "was standing in front of the cash register because all the men were home sick that day," she said. "It sounded like a locomotive coming through the store. We lost light fixtures. Some of the posts holding the ceiling came down. The shoe shelves toppled over. We lost a lot of structure on the front of the store." After crawling over the debris to retrieve her keys and evacuate the store, Dorothy managed to drive home to Larry and their two daughters Robyn and Susan "Susie" before quickly moving to higher ground.

"The earthquake and ensuing tsunami claimed thirteen lives in Seward." Due to the destruction of the waterfront, the city also lost its title as commercial center of Alaska to Anchorage where the seaport was still intact. This obviously changed the economic situation for Seward and resulted in the permanent closure of many businesses there. Dorothy, "who calls herself a relentless optimist," never considered anything but rebuilding. "The earthquake set us back," she said, "but it also pushed us ahead twenty years because everything had to be rebuilt."

Like his father, Larry was president of the Seward Chamber of Commerce for many years. Dorothy "led the boards of the hospital, the library and the League of Women Voters" among others and "was the publicity chairman of the Seward Silver Salmon Derby" for thirty years. She ultimately took over the store following Larry's death in 1999. Daughter Susie, "who was working there as a part-time bookkeeper" was promoted to partner soon thereafter. Dorothy and Susie Urbach continue to operate the store today.

At the time of my visit six months and nineteen days ago, Urbach's was in operation for 101 years, ten months and twenty-five days. Outlasting "all its original neighbors" and "nearly all the businesses that defined early twentieth century Alaska," Urbach's is the oldest continually operating store in Seward.

In its current incarnation, the store features unique clothing lines including women's wear, scarves, hats, gloves and jewelry. Looking closely, one can see several vestiges from throughout the store's centennial-plus history. For example, a roll-top desk in the back office was originally used by Leon when he did the store's books and typed letters.

In addition, cash payments are still deposited into the store's 1908 National Cash Register Company brass and oak register with fifty-four keys and two drawers. "No one knows how long" this ornate cash register has been in the store, but it has been a long time. The register of course caught my attention as Mom made a purchase. The woman processing the transaction, possibly Dorothy herself, noticed my interest in the cash register and mentioned that it was still functional. I commented that it was lovely, took several photographs of it and then left to continue exploring Seward.

The Sweet Sound That Calls The Young Sailors

Lighted signage on the facade of the Thorn's Showcase Lounge building.

208 Fourth Avenue, Seward, Alaska: Tuesday, 20 June 2017

part of the Alaska 2017: Seward album

One of the best parts of travelling is discovering and trying local bars and restaurants. Whether researched in advance or not, I generally have very good luck with my selections and often wish to return to them. Alaska was no different in this regard and although I enjoyed every place we visited, several of them stood out as immediate favorites. Among those is a restaurant and lounge that has been in Seward for many decades.

With its red padded seating, string lighting and erstwhile decor, walking into Thorn's Showcase Lounge is almost like a trip back in time. A short distance from Resurrection Bay on Fourth Avenue, Thorn's Showcase Lounge is probably best known for serving "bucket of butt" halibut meals, pouring stiff cocktails and displaying a large collection of vintage Jim Beam whiskey decanters. Some people say that the interior brings to mind the look and feel of Las Vegas in the 1960s; I saw a dimly lit retro joint delightfully filled with character, coolness and a bit of kitsch.

The origin of Thorn's Showcase Lounge is tied to another place, Gil's Lounge, which was established in 1946 or 1947 in the Palace Café Building by Harley "Hal" Otto Gilfilen (1903–1989) and his wife Clara or Clair. A few years later in 1950, Gil's Lounge relocated to 208 Fourth Avenue. The Gilfilens operated Gil's Lounge until 1961, at which time they sold the business to Dorothy Johnson.

Meanwhile on Sunday, 02 March 1952, a man called Louis Eugene "Gene" Thorn arrived in Seward and shortly thereafter started employment as a bartender. Born on Friday, 15 May 1931, Thorn used his time serving drinks to learn about the industry, leading to his future ownership of liquor licenses and businesses. He was professionally associated with several notorious bars including Palace (1904–1917, 1933–1985) at 133 Fourth Avenue in 1962; Solly's (1956–1980) at 406 Washington Street in 1966; and Gil's Lounge in 1967. In 1960, Thorn met and married a nurse who had moved to Seward from New York in 1959, Patricia "Pat" Ann Clancy Thorn (1937–2017).

Although signage on the southern exterior wall says that Thorn's was established in 1962, my research suggests that Gene and Pat purchased Gil's Lounge from Dorothy Johnson in 1967. Several fires and earthquakes had dealt devastating blows to Seward, but it was a fire in January 1971 that destroyed the Thorns' business. By Wednesday, 20 October 1971, they had rebuilt and renamed the bar, acquiring Alaska Alcoholic Beverage Control Board license number 1130 in their name. Together, the Thorns owned and operated their business for fifty years while also raising a family including children Craig, Steven E. and Karyn.

The alcohol license holder today is Thorn's Showcase Lounge LLC, formed and assigned entity number 61327D on Thursday, 26 June 1997. The initial documents have Pat and Gene's son Steven E. Thorn and his wife Shannon M. Thorn listed as the corporation's owners, but this was changed to Gene and Pat in a filing issued on Monday, 25 November 2002. Sadly, the corporation was again updated in a filing issued on Thursday, 14 December 2017 to remove Pat's name following her death on Wednesday, 20 September 2017. By his own account in April 2017, Gene had been housebound for the previous six months following a stroke that impacted his use of one arm.

With its relatively small interior and low ceiling, I can only imagine how smokey this place must have been during the heyday of cigarette smoking. Indeed, there was apparently an ashtray next to the toilet on Thursday, 21 May 2009. As part of a growing trend for Alaska businesses, Thorn's Showcase Lounge went smoke-free on Tuesday, 01 April 2014. By Friday, 23 January 2015, Thorn's had also signed a resolution of support for statewide smoke-free indoor workplaces legislation.

Thorn's Showcase Lounge has a number of neighbors in the building that have changed over the years. During my visits on Tuesday, 20 June 2017, the two other storefronts were occupied by The Seward Clipper barber shop and Lacuna Family Medicine. Other business tenants known to occupy space next to Thorn's at one time or another include Luxe Hair; Deb's Hair Salon; Seward Acupuncture and Massage Therapy; Seward Chiropractic Clinic; and Victorian Serenity by the Sea. In addition, several apartments are rented on the second floor above the street-level businesses.

Having learned about Thorn's Showcase Lounge from Mom and Ross, who stopped in for a meal several weeks prior to my arrival in Alaska, I knew that I wanted to see it for myself. It was cold and raining as we drove into Seward, so we decided to go ahead and have lunch first. Stepping through the small vestibule to the inside of the restaurant, I immediately decided that I liked the joint regardless of however my succeeding experiences might turn out. As it was only lunchtime, I had with my meal a pint of my favorite local beer: Alaskan Amber. Everything we ordered was fresh and delicious.

About seven hours later and after considering dinner at a few places like Ray's Waterfront at the marina, we walked back inside Thorn's and returned to our table from lunch, the easternmost half-booth along the northern wall. As before, everything we had was great but of particular note are the tater tots — perfectly cooked to be crispy on the outside yet fluffy on the inside — and the generously apportioned cocktails made at the bar and delivered by the waitress. I enjoyed a few Stolichnaya Razberi and Diet Cokes, my default cocktail, and remarked several times about their potency.

Speaking of liquor, the hundreds of Jim Beam whiskey decanters adorning the wall-to-wall showcases represent only part of a larger collection by Gene Thorn. During his visit, Ryan Reynolds learned that "Thorn has two full bottles in his basement for every one that is displayed" and that his "massive collection encompasses several decades worth" of the specialty bottles.

Jim Beam released a "wood top bowling pin" as its first specialty bottle in 1952. Starting in 1955, Regal China Company was commissioned to design specialty bottles and decanters, "originally created to help drive sales and offer bourbon fans more eye-catching packaging suitable for gifting." With many carrying the "C. Miller" mark, Regal China produced Jim Beam items "for more than forty years" including custom bottles for collector clubs. All specialty bottle production was discontinued in the "early 1990s" but resumed in 2012.

I do not know when I will next travel to Alaska, but Thorn's Showcase Lounge is the kind of place for which I would make a special trip to visit again. With its low-key casual nature, fantastic meals and killer cocktails, there is something for everyone at Thorn's. If they keep it up, they should be able to carry on for another fifty-plus years and I hope that they do.

Visit the Seward album to see all nineteen Thorn's photographs published.

A version of this article appears in the Alaskan Token Collector & Polar Numismatist, Volume XLIII, № 8, September 2021.

2021-08-13 Update
I learned via email correspondence on Wednesday, 28 July 2021 that Louis Eugene Thorn had passed away on Saturday, 29 August 2020. His obituary, as published in the Anchorage Daily News on Wednesday, 02 September 2020, is presented below.

Louis "Gene" Thorn

May 15, 1931 – August 29, 2020

The sea was angry that day my friend…

Louis E. "Gene" Thorn was born on May 15, 1931, in the small Minnesota town of Staples. Eighty-nine years later, in the comfort of his own home, Gene passed away on Aug. 29, 2020, in Seward, Alaska, surrounded by his five children.

Dad was raised on a dairy farm during the Depression, and these two things shaped his work ethic and attitude toward life. He was a Class Vice President and played football and baseball at Staples High School, graduating in 1949.

He married Ardith Nelson in 1949, and they had two daughters: LuJean and Jackie. In search of opportunity, he drove the Alcan Highway with his uncle Walt in 1952. He settled in Seward, becoming a fisherman, longshoreman and small-business owner. In 1960, he married Patricia Clancy and together they had three children: Craig, Steven and Karyn. As a business owner, at one point he simultaneously owned Solly's, The Palace and Gilfillen's bar. After a devastating fire in 1970, he rebuilt what would become the iconic Thorn's Showcase Lounge.

In the 1970s, he organized the construction of the Seward Little League baseball field. He was known as a very generous man and for many years supported athletics at Seward High School. He built what would become known as Thorn's (basketball) court, which he described as the best investment he ever made, as it was utilized extensively by Seward youth for decades. He loved attending his children's and grandchildren's sporting events and never missed a basketball game. He loved watching college basketball and his favorite team was the Duke Blue Devils. He was an avid Chicago Cubs fan and in 1985 went on a Hawaii Cubs cruise with his son, Steve. He was gregarious and always quick with a joke and had a nickname for everyone.

He is survived by his children: LuJean (Steve) Larson, Jackie (Chuck) Anderson, Craig (Debbie) Thorn, Steve (Shannon) Thorn and Karyn (Leif) Clemens. He has 13 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by Pat, his wife of 57 years.

The Lovers The Dreamers And Me

An extremely bright and vivid rainbow in the sky over Coldfoot seen from the parking lot of the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center (2004).

MP 175 James W. Dalton Highway, Coldfoot, Alaska: Friday, 23 June 2017

part of the Alaska 2017: Coldfoot (Northbound) album

Although it is tempting to stop at each and every turnout along the way, travelling the James W. Dalton Highway (AK 11) with lodging reservations requires that certain daily deadlines be met. In the case of our rental at the Hicker family's Arctic Getaway in Wiseman, we were to check-in by 2100 hours or contact them otherwise. Of course, there is no way to contact anyone on the Dalton save for the emergency satellite telephone we were carrying.

Passing through Coldfoot at 2036 hours, we still had about thirty minutes of driving before we arrived at Arctic Getaway. It was close; my first photograph of the Hicker's home, built as a gold rush dance hall in 1910, was taken at 2105 hours. Uta Hicker, who assured us that our tardy arrival time was no matter, got us settled into the Aurora Cabin and let us know when to come over for breakfast the following morning. As for dinner and gasoline, we needed to head back down to Coldfoot.

There was no doubt that we were hungry, but Mom pointed out that the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center closed at 2200 hours. Not knowing how much time we would have here on our way back down, it was best to visit now and not take any chances. Deciding to fuel up and eat at Coldfoot Camp afterward, we first went to the center so that we could explore its exhibits before they closed.

Opening with a commemoration ceremony on Tuesday, 29 June 2004, the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center is a facility of the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who have worked "collaboratively in Coldfoot since 1989 to provide information to visitors traveling the Dalton Highway." The Arctic Interagency Visitor Center is "almost ten times the size of the previous [center] and offers a wide array of interpretative displays and exhibits."

We spoke with the rangers on duty about our Dalton animal sightings and looked at some of the displays before we had to let them lock up. Walking outside at 2159 hours, I was immediately struck by the sight of a large, extremely bright and vivid rainbow stretching across the sky from north to south. Moving into the parking lot to photograph it, I remarked that this was the brightest rainbow that I have ever seen. Even the rangers were seemingly awed by the phenomenon.

I was frustrated while taking my photographs because I could only focus the images properly when at a wide focal length; each closeup was blurry despite my efforts. Processing these pictures now, I was disappointed how most failed to capture the awesome brilliance of the spectacle as we saw it in person. I do not know enough about the science to theorize why this rainbow was so spectacular, but perhaps our position sixty miles north of the Arctic Circle or the sun's twenty-four-hours of daylight had something to do with it.

While not as exciting as our numerous animal encounters, the welcome appearance of this rainbow followed the pattern of good fortune I experienced while exploring Alaska. As to the Arctic Interagency Visitor Center, we were fortunate to have the time to spend nearly an hour-and-a-half there during our southbound journey to Fairbanks on Monday, 26 June 2017.

The Pilot Of The Storm Who Leaves No Trace

The 1600-foot length of the Talkeetna Village Airstrip [AK44] (1940) with two small aircraft including Piper PA-18 N1244A (1957) parked alongside near Second Street.

D Street at First Street, Talkeetna, Alaska: Sunday, 18 June 2017

part of the Alaska 2017: Talkeetna album

One of the things that Mom wanted to see during our lunchtime stop in the small town of Talkeetna — first mentioned in "The Passing Of A Talkeetna Legend" — was the original village airstrip. Not unlike many air facilities throughout Alaska, the unattended Talkeetna Village Airstrip (AK44) on public land features an unmarked, unlit gravel and grass runway, few services and is "virtually unchanged since its construction" with "little to no modification except erosion" at the southern end.

The field, officially Runway 16/34, consists of one 1,600-foot long, thirty-foot wide rectangular field cut through the trees running north-south parallel to D Street. The northern half of the airstrip "passes between two areas of private residences where owners sometimes park their planes" while the southern half is "surrounded by wooded public lands with the Susitna River at its southernmost end." Jet fuel is available by truck only when arranged in advance and a local aviation business offers light repairs. It is possible to walk right up to the airstrip in several locations, so that is what we set out to do.

Walking south on C Street past the community ball park, we came to and turned east on Second Street. An unpaved and overgrown path connecting several residences, Second Street is one of two local roads bisected by the airstrip; the other is Third Street. At the end near where a Dodge B-Series Xplorer Camper Van (c. 1984) was parked, two signs warn people to keep themselves and their vehicles off of the active airstrip. This dead end is blocked by two wooden barricades set on both sides, an orange plastic mesh connected to each and spread across the path. Nearby, two small aircraft including Piper PA-18 N1244A (1957) were parked alongside the runway.

Wanting to get a better view of the airstrip, we doubled back our course, took the service road south of Main Street east to D Street and then headed south. The northern edge of the Talkeetna Village Airstrip is situated at the intersection of D Street and First Street, so it soon came into sight in front of us. Standing on the centerline just north of the small wooden fence delineating the property, you can see trees on an island in the Susitna River south of the airstrip. As on Second Street, there are two warning signs and a place to walk onto the field. Nearby, a small wooden pavilion has on display a propeller and an informational poster[1] from the Talkeetna Historical Society.

Once a remote area of Alaska, this region was difficult to access by early explorers and settlers who relied on hiking, boats, dog sled teams and horses. As gold prospectors started moving into the area in 1886, the Talkeetna settlement became a "major supply center" for miners, who at first received shipments via steamer and then by railroad following its arrival in 1920. Getting those supplies from Talkeetna to the mines was still a challenge as they had to be transported "overland on mired and rutted trails."

As early aviation arrived in Alaska, this novel form of transport was quickly adopted by settlers, explorers and miners. However, without any supporting infrastructure, initial flights ranged from risky to dangerous. Careful to avoid obstacles along the way, pilots had to land in open spaces or "on gravel bars along the rivers" as they first did in Talkeetna. Although an airstrip would be a significant safety improvement, Alaska pilots rightfully make their names being expert and daring in the face of the last frontier's unforgiving conditions.

The development of Talkeetna Village Airstrip was initiated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's (1882–1945) Executive Order 7783 issued on Friday, 31 December 1937. The order, modifying Executive Order 1919½ of Tuesday, 21 April 1914, "[set] apart certain lands for the use of the Alaska Road Commission for aviation-field purposes" in the Talkeetna townsite. The 1939–1940 construction of the strip was conducted by the federal civil aviation agency — first the Civil Aeronautics Authority and later one of two agencies created by its split, the Civil Aeronautics Administration.

During its first decade of operation, the Talkeetna Village Airstrip "played an important role in Talkeetna's economic development and in the aviation history of south-central Alaska" by helping to open up "previously remote and inaccessible areas" to miners, hunters and later, mountain climbers. With its proximity to the railroad depot, it became convenient to bring supplies in by rail and transfer them to an aircraft for delivery to the surrounding backcountry. Soon, early "bush pilots such as Haakon Christensen, Cliff Hudson, Don Sheldon and others" started using the Talkeetna Village Airstrip as their primary base of operations.

One of these pilots, Don Sheldon, was originally part of the work crew that built the airstrip. Returning to Talkeetna in 1948 after serving and learning to fly in World War II, Sheldon started a "bush aviation business and earned a reputation as one of Alaska's best pioneer aviators." Among those passengers who hired Talkeetna bush pilots was Dr. Bradford Washburn, an employee of the National Geographic Society. Washburn began visiting Talkeetna in 1936 on a mission to photograph and map the Alaska Range.

The postwar era saw an increased number of mountain climbers drawn to the area by Denali, the awesome 20,310-foot mountain unequaled in North America, as well as other elevations within the Alaska Range. Washburn used the results of his previous mapping mission to pioneer the West Buttress route up Denali, which he climbed in 1951 along with Barry Bishop, Henry Buchtel, Jim Gale, Mel Griffiths, Bill Hackett and Jerry More. Accounting for over ninety percent of attempts today, West Buttress is "considered the least technical way to get to the summit" and is the most popular Denali route with "as many as 500 to 600 climbers on it during the peak of the climbing season."

As news of the West Buttress route spread, Talkeetna soon became "the major point of departure for mountain climbers attempting to ascend" Denali, who would be flown out to the Kahiltna Glacier to begin their climb. Pilots Christensen, Hudson and Sheldon were sought out by "mountaineers from around the world [who] arrived looking for experienced pilots" to "reach the icy flanks of North America's highest peak." This successful enterprise "ferrying climbers from Talkeetna to the Alaska Range" was and is an important economic contributor, but the 1950s also saw the airstrip's decline in favor of a newer, modern neighbor.

Under development from 1941 until March 1949, Talkeetna Airport (TKA/PATK) was constructed on land across the railroad tracks on the far east side of town. The airport has a 3,500-foot long, seventy-five-foot wide asphalt-paved runway designated 1/19 and features markings, lighting, ground support services and partial attendance. The opening of this facility led to the Talkeetna Village Airstrip's "period of significance" ending in 1951, although it continues to be used year-round by pilots and clients who prefer it to the busier state-run airport and by pilots flying ski-equipped aircraft during the winter. It is currently overseen by the Talkeetna Airmen's Association.

Based on the significance of its operations from 1940–1951, the Talkeetna Village Airstrip was added to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP 02000814) on Friday, 02 August 2002. It joined the adjacent Talkeetna Historic District — which includes thirteen buildings that "reflect Talkeetna's history as a small village" — itself added to the register (NRHP 93000321) on Monday, 26 April 1993.

Visit the Talkeetna album to see all ten photographs from our exploration of the Talkeetna Village Airstrip.

  1. I do not want to call out the Talkeetna Historical Society, but I am compelled to point out one thing while publishing a photograph of their informational sign. During my research for this article, I discovered several discrepancies between facts presented on the sign and my research sources. Most of the variations involved dates. Although I consider the sign a primary source and utilized it as such, I used the figures from my own research when the two differed.