For those of you who grew up in the area and on Harding Lake in the 1940’s, 1950’s and early 1960’s, you will likely remember the two lodges pictured. The Aurora Lodge was about 40 Miles from town on the Richardson, on the left just before the Salcha River and it was owned and operated by Ada Jones. The Silver Fox Lodge was about 55 miles from town on the Richardson, past midway lodge and across from the Tanana River and it was owned and operated by the Merriman family. Harry “Butch” Merriman, Jr. still lives in the area and provided these photos. Both lodges burned down sometime in the 1960’s. A treat for many families when we were growing up was to go to either the Aurora Lodge or Silver Fox Lodge for breakfast on Sunday, and occasionally maybe a lunch or dinner on a Saturday. Breakfast was cooked on a big wood stove with the bacon cooked first and then the eggs cook in bacon grease. There was usually a choice in addition of sourdough pancakes, french toast or waffles. Somehow, we all survived and thrived on those sumptuous meals. Our thanks to Butch Merriman for providing these photos.
Harding Lake was originally reported by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1909 and was referred to as Salchaket Lake meaning the mouth of the Salcha , named for the Salchaket Indians who occupied the area at the time. The community of Salcha and the Salcha River derive their names from the Salchaket Indians. The lake was later named for Warren Harding, the 29th President of the United States who visited interior Alaska shortly before his death in August of 1923.
There is evidence that cabins were built on Harding Lake well before the U.S. Government officially subdivided the government lots on the lake in 1938. The Barrack cabin now owned by Andy and Judy Warwick, the Pollack Cabin now owned by Nancy Cook Hanson, the Mulrooney property now owned by Jeff and Sue Cook and the Collins cabin now owned by Lonnie and Barbara Paul were among the many summer cabins built on the lake before it was officially subdivided.
In 1938 George Parks, the Townsite Trustee, officially recorded the subdivision plat for what was referred to as U.S. Survey 1901 and called the Salchaket Townsite. The originally subdivided area included Blocks 1 through 10 of the Salchaket Townsite. This starts on the North end of the lake adjacent to the State Campground where the cabin (home) of Phil and Patti Anderson is now situated, which is block one. The blocks then ran south and east along the lakeshore to end in Block ten past the point. The last two lots in Block ten are where the cabin of Kay and Adele Virgin is now situated.
Many of the owners of cabins already built were able to acquire the title to land under those structures in and after 1938. Because of the angles of the lot lines and the fact that the surveys did not exactly match the cabin locations, there were many encroachments onto adjacent lots, some of which are still being discovered and dealt with to this day.
At the time of the survey and sale of Blocks one through ten, the Townsite Trustee, George Parks, set up an account for use of the owners of those properties. For each sale, ten per-cent of the proceeds went into the Salchaket Townsite account, which today has nearly $50,000 in a certificate of deposit at Mt McKinley Bank. This account is co-managed by BLM and Harding Lake owners Judy Warwick and Jeff Cook. Over the years funds have been used to support survey work for the lake diversion project and for rescue equipment for Salcha Fire and Rescue.
The U.S. Government was in the process of subdividing the far or east shore of the lake in the late 1950’s as Alaska was becoming a State and that land was actually sold by the State of Alaska as they had selected the land. The land was subdivided and surveyed as U.S. Surveys 3208 through 3214, with U.S Survey 3208 beginning at the far end of the road on the northeast side of the lake and ending with U.S Survey 3214 located adjacent to the Bingle Camp. That last property adjacent to Bingle Camp was owned for many years by Bill and Dorothy Green and is now owned by Mary Keskinen and James Beget.
There was a drawing and bid process for the sale of lots in U.S. Surveys 3208 through 3214. Winners had to make a bid and then receive the right to purchase by building a structure on the property. The winning bidder was allowed a set amount of time to build a structure at least 16’ x16’ in order to prove up on the land and receive title. At that time the road was not completed to the end of the lake, and the road did not get fully extended to the end of the lake until the early 1970’s. So those who built initially either had to haul materials across the lake by boat or take building or materials across the ice in the winter. Many of the original cabins on the east side of the lake were built or already existed in Fairbanks and were hauled across the ice and set in place during the winter. Many were just set down where they landed, not necessarily placed facing the lake.
On August 15, 1935, well known pilot Wiley Post and humorist and comedian Will Rogers were killed in a plane crash shortly after it took off from Barrow, Alaska. The two had left Fairbanks from the Chena River but were not able to load as much fuel there due to shorter take off distances. So they went to fully fuel the plane at the lake which gave them a longer take off distance for the plane once it was fueled.1
In 1938 there was a large earthquake that put a crack in the ice at Harding. Noel Wien flew his tri-motored Ford aircraft to the lake and landed on the ice. The purpose of landing on Harding was to transfer from wheels to skis, so he could take a load of freight and passengers north where there was snow. The snow on the airport in town had melted. The earth quake had made a crack in the ice which caused the ice around it to soften. When he taxied over the crack, the Ford fell through, up to the wings. A group of men from town headed by Sam White, volunteered to help get it out. They brought trucks loaded with timbers, cables, ropes, and winches. Ada Wien came out to cook. They stayed and operated out of the Girl Scout camp. They worked for three days and nights and were able to lift it up out of the lake. With new props, Noel flew it back to Fairbanks.2
Bert Bingle founded Camp Bingle on the southeast side of the lake in 1953. He was an Alaska Missionary and Pastor for the Presbyterian Church. The camp sits on 66 hilly acres and houses a number of cabin and lodge buildings today. A non-profit corporation Bingle Camp Ministries whose board of directors maintains close ties with several denominations in the interior operates the camp. Churches, schools, State Parks and non-profit agencies use the camp.
Up into the 1960’s, the U.S. Army had a large recreation camp on the south end of the lake that was sold by the government a few years back and subdivided by Tim Cerny. There are a number of new cabins now situated on that property. During its day, the Army Camp had camping and sleeping accommodations, along with boat and canoe rentals and a café. There is a picture of the Army Camp in the historic photos posted on the Harding Lake Association website.
At one time there was a store with café and marine fuel sales situated adjacent to what we now call Fifth Avenue on the west side of the lake. This is where the 2nd entrance comes into the lake. Fifth Avenue is located between the Niewhoner and Hoitt properties. The store burned in the early 1960’s and at the time was owned by Eugene and Pearl Philpot. The store sold a line of groceries and you could buy a burger or other meal items there. There was also a gas pump on the dock in front of the store to fuel your boat. There was also a garage door opening at lake level and you could drive your boat in for minor engine and boat repairs. Prior to this store, Jack and Juanita Boulet had a store at the current location of Mike Barker’s cabin (formerly owned by Howard Mackey and then Ellie Paul before Barker). A picture of this store is also in the historic photo section of the Harding Lake Association website.
What is referred to as the “Point” now has the homes of Bill and Bonnie Gordon. It was once owned by a Dr. Smith and referred to as “Smith’s Point” for many years. The point was later owned by Arthur and Grace Schaible, then Bill Stewart, followed by Dennis and Mary Wise. Dennis and Mary sold the end portion of the point to Bill and Bonnie Gordon and the inside portion of the point to Jerry and Dawn Sadler. The “point” was the setting for a murder mystery novel written in the 1940’s by Eunice Mays Boyd titled “Doom in the Midnight Sun.”3
Until around 1950, the Fairbanks Junior Chamber of Commerce had a camp located for years at Harding Lake on what is now the Shriners' Lodge property and the adjacent George Yurkovich property. It was not large, but had several permanent tent platforms. The camp was used by the Boy Scouts, church groups and other local organization for camps and outings. The Boy Scouts later built their large camp at Lost Lake, some 13 miles south of Harding Lake.
Cap Osborne built and resided in the first year-round structure on the lake. He and Margaret lived there in the '50s and '60s up until their deaths in 1966. The place had well, septic system and initially propane cook stove and lights. There is still a huge old hot air furnace in the basement. Cap was steward for the FE Company for years. The cabin was full of FE/mining memorabilia when it was purchased by Dennis and Olga Cook who still own the cabin.
The Farthest North Girl Scout Council owned a camp at Harding Lake until 1985. The camp occupied all of Block 7 of the Salchaket Townsite, which was subdivided into lots in 1985. The camp known as Camp Clegg was donated to the Girl Scouts by U.S. District Court Judge Cecil Clegg and his wife Jessie, probably in the 1940’s. We have a picture of Judge Clegg's original cabin on the Harding Lake website. The white two-story cabin owned by Jim Weed now occupies that original cabin site. The main lodge for the Camp Clegg Girl Scout Camp still exists and is owned by Dan and Margarita Gilbertson. Judge Clegg was an interesting person. He owned a prize-winning dog kennel and supported many mushers through his kennel. In 1923 Judge Clegg presented President Warren Harding with a lifetime membership pin in Igloo #4, Pioneers of Alaska.
The Harding Lake Water Ski Association was formed in the mid 1950’s and was active until the mid 1960’s. The club built a water ski jump that provided thrills for the skiers and entertainment for spectators. Club members also purchased trick skis and mastered water skiing sideways and backwards. They also skied in formation and with pyramids. Photos of these activities are on the website for the Harding Lake Association. One of the early water ski club members was Bob Hanson, who in the 1970’s became the only known person to master barefoot water skiing on the lake. The founders of the water ski club went to college, got married and had families and in that evolution the water ski club died a natural death without being continued by the next generation.
What is now known as St. Mary’s of the Lake, the Quonset hut used for Catholic Church servicers from Memorial Day through Labor Day, was moved to the lake in 1959. Mary Rogge, who owned the lake front cabin across Salcha Drive now owned by Dave and Nancy King, donated the land for the Church. Rollie Livesley was in charge of surplus property at then Ladd Air Field (now Ft. Wainwright Army Base) and he was able to procure (probably a generous term) the Quonset and move it to the lake, getting stuck part way across while fording the Salcha River. Dr. John Weston owned a farm at the time on the southwest bank of the Salcha and used one of his tractors to pull the truck and trailer carrying the Quonset the rest of the way across the river. Chairs in the Quonset to this day bear stenciled evidence of previous Army ownership. The Church is much the same as it was in 1959, through a new cover adorns the exterior and there are solar panels providing light.
The Harding Lake State Recreation Area on the northwest end of the lake was established in 1967. The camp features campsites, picnic areas, recreation areas, restroom, a boat launch and hiking trails. There is separate road access for the Harding Lake Recreation area and there is no direct road link between the State camp and Salcha Drive that serves the Harding Lake property owners.
The level of Harding Lake has fluctuated over the years, though more recently the level has been very low. In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, the lake level was close to what it is now. Frank Pollack who owned Pollock Airways landed his planes on the beach. The lake level was much higher in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, but slowly receded over the years. There were times the level came up. In the 1980’s lake pioneers Leo Schlotfeldt and Gene Rogge took a work party into the site of the current diversion project for the lake, taking out some beaver dams and installing a homemade diversion project that did bring up the lake level. The beavers managed to take out that project. The Harding Lake Association became concerned about the low level of the lake in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed pike fishing on the lake due to poor spawning conditions caused by the low water levels on the north end of the lake. In cooperation with government agencies, the Association helped plan, design and construct the Zach Warwick Diversion Structure which became operational in 2008. There was some early success with the project bringing up the lake level, but the structure required modifications to be more effective. Those modifications were completed in late 2012 and early 2013 and it is hope the lake will eventually rise to the elevation of 717 feet, the level agreed to by the majority of lake owners.
Rodger Hughes and Skip Cook remember as young boys a trail that ran along the bank on the west or highway side of the lake. The trail ran the whole length of that side of the lake which was nearly fully occupied by cabins. The trail was great for walking, but running was hazarded to your health because it was certain you would trip on a tree root and go tumbling and then get up and take off running again. In those days the water level was very high and at times there was no beach, so that also posed a risk for falling. At that time (late 1940’s and early 1950’s) bears frequented the lake. Many people had battery operated phones between cabins along the trail so warnings could go out if the bears were on the trail.
Harding Lake has long served as a summer and winter recreation area for Fairbanks area residents. There now are a number of year around homes and year around residents at the lake. The Harding Lake Association website has a number of historic photos that show summer and winter recreation in the early years, and also some of the historic structures that are now gone such as the Harding Lake Store and the Army Camp.
Harding Lake is the largest, deepest, and most easily reached of the four road- accessible lakes within two hours of Fairbanks (Birch Lake, Quartz Lake, and Chena Lake are the others). Located 45 miles from Fairbanks near Salcha in Alaska's Interior, Harding Lake is a rapidly improving sport fishery, and its accessibility makes it a popular Alaska destination. Harding Lake in the Tanana River Valley is a spring-fed lake. In addition, the lake has two inlets including one from 52- acre Little Harding Lake. There is no outlet from Harding Lake into a river or other lake. Although most lakes in the Tanana River Valley, including Little Harding Lake, are ringed and in some cases covered with lily pads, there are not any on Harding Lake. About fifty percent of the lake's shoreline is developed with cabins and private residences. According to Census 2010, there were 656 housing units in the community and 129 were occupied.
Because of its size, accessibility and proximity to Fairbanks, a deliberate decision was made to improve the sport fishing on Harding Lake. Northern Pike and burbot are indigenous to the lake, and there are also healthy populations of lake trout, arctic char, and salmon. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game began stocking the lake in 1956 with rainbow trout and steelhead. Most recently the lake has been stocked extensively with arctic char. Pike fishing is currently closed on Harding Lake, but fishing for lake trout, burbot, and arctic char is exceptional. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game also stocks Little Harding Lake with rainbow trout, arctic char and Coho Salmon.
February 21, 2013
By: Jeff Cook