Fire Lake Lodge on the Old Glenn Highway in Chugiak



THE HISTORY OF FIRE LAKE LODGE
on the
OLD GLENN HIGHWAY THREE MILES NORTH OF
EAGLE RIVER, ALASKA

 
(As I remember it)

By Coleen Mielke 2018

 
coleen_mielke@hotmail.com



If you grew up in Chugiak or Eagle River in the 1950's and 1960's, you probably know a story or two about the old Fire Lake Lodge. In the mid-1950's, it was a small, nondescript, flat roofed building that sat on a hill above the north end of Upper Fire Lake, 17 miles north of Anchorage, on the (old) Glenn Highway. As a kid, I remember seeing the landmark almost every day, because it was only 1/2 mile south of my parents homestead.

The lodge sat on a piece of land that was originally staked (as a homestead) in 1934, by Kenneth Brown Laughlin of Anchorage. Laughlin came to Alaska in 1929 and worked for Cap Lathrop, playing mood music during silent movies at the Empress Theater in Anchorage. When "talkies" finally made their way to Anchorage in 1931, Laughlin lost his job at the theater and went to work at KFQD radio. He also worked as an advertising manager for the Anchorage Times and taught music on the side.

In 1934, there were no roads (north or south) out of Anchorage, so Laughlin and friends would ride the train north to Fire Creek and then walk 3+ miles to Fire Lake and fish for trout. He liked the area and decided to stake a 160 acre homestead claim with the U.S. Land Office in Anchorage. The lake, known locally as Upper Fire Lake, was about 1/2 mile long and averaged about 200 yards across; Laughlin's homestead surrounded one end the lake. (Alaska DNR Precinct Book 13, Page 336, recorded 1/28/1935).

Laughlin built a small cabin on the homestead in 1935 and cleared 5 acres; two of those acres he planted with clover and vetch. In 1936, the Alaska Road Commission began building a one lane dirt road from Anchorage to Palmer. The road crossed right through Laughlin's new homestead, so he and his first wife Ruby Pearl, made the best out of the encroachment and built a "hot dog stand" right next to the new road, where they sold food to the road crews; they called their new business, "The Shack".

When the road was officially opened to the public, Laughlin started selling gasoline and "The Shack" morphed into the "Fire Lake Roadhouse". It was a popular Sunday destination for people anxious to see the countryside north of Anchorage.

In 1937 and 1938, Laughlin cleared 5 more acres and planted them with raspberries and strawberries which he sold commercially.


Fire Lake Roadhouse about 1944
Unidentified Customers
University of Alaska Archives



The next couple of years were hard on the Laughlin's. Not only did they divorce in 1939, but in 1940, the Federal Government withdrew 40,000 acres of public land from the homestead program and tagged it for the construction of Fort Richardson. This meant that Laughlin's application for a homestead at Upper Fire Lake was now null and void. I doubt that Laughlin was initially aware of this major change in the program, because he continued to describe his land as, "my homestead of 160 acres" on documents until 1946.

On an application for a free land survey, dated 4/26/1941, Laughlin listed upgrades he made to his homestead as: One house built in 1936, at the cost of $600; a hot dog stand at the cost of $200; two cabins, one for $300 and the other for $400; an ice house he built for $75; a gasoline pump for $250, a swimming float and cat walk for $25 and a dock on Upper Fire Lake for $65. (Alaska DNR Precinct Book 17 pages 318-320).


In 1945, Laughlin leased most of his homestead to
Myron "Pete" and Vesta Merriman. Their lease read: "Leasing Fire Lake Roadhouse, comprising of 160 acres situated near mile 17 of the Anchorage-Palmer Highway at north end of Upper Fire Lake, for the term of 10 years: from 4/20/1945 to 4/19/1955 at $60 per month from the time of this lease, and for the duration of World War II and one year thereafter. The rate thereafter, at $80 per month. Laughlin included the following details in the lease: The Merriman's had the right to move the roadhouse to another part of the homestead as long as they didn't damage it and any cabins they might build in the future would remain theirs at the expiration of the lease. Laughlin's private cabin, known locally as "Ken's cabin", and his 16 acres under cultivation were not included in the lease. (Lease recorded 12/5/1945 Alaska DNR City Book 48 Page 93-94).

The Merriman's worked hard to upgrade the roadhouse and changed it's name to Fire Lake Lodge. They installed a 16' x 16' dance floor and a two-way radio that customers could use like a telephone for $1.50 per call ($18 per call by today's dollar value). "Pete" had worked as an assistant chef at the Waldorf Astoria in New York from 1914-1916, so he took charge of the menu, offering one pound New York steaks for $3.50 and Lobster Thermidor for $3. Many of their customers were young soldiers, from Fort Richardson, who came out to socialize and fish at Fire Lake on the weekends. In the spring of 1948, Pete Merriman suddenly passed away and his wife gave up their lease on the lodge.

With Laughlin's original 160 acre homestead no longer available through the Homestead Act, he applied for a five acre section of it through the U.S. Trade and Manufacturing Site Act on 6/18/1946 and received the patent to it on 3/18/1960. (Lot 95, Section 30, Township 15N, Range 001W, Seward Meridian) (U.S. BLM Application # AKA011002) (U.S. BLM Patent # 0001206914)

In 1950, Jim and Lillian Polyefko leased the Fire Lake Lodge because (according to their oldest son Dennis) they were tired of the stress of "big city life" in Anchorage. They also had a sentimental reason for moving out to the country; their first date was at the lodge. They worked hard to make their new business venture a success by offering a quality menu and a full length movie once a week.

The lodge had no water well when the Polyefko's took over. They hauled water from Upper Fire Lake with an old surplus Army truck that only drove in reverse!! This task was assigned to their teenage son Dennis, who drove the truck backwards, down the steep and narrow road (across from the lodge) to the lake below, where he bucketed water into 10-gallon milk cans. The water cans (15 to 20 a trip) were then trucked back up to the lodge (in reverse gear) and transferred to a holding tank, no easy task.

The next season, the Polyefko's decided to pump water directly to the lodge with a generator. To do that, they built a pipeline from the lake to the top of the bluff. It then went UNDER the Anchorage-Palmer Highway and to the lodge. This system worked well for about a week before the generator caught the dock on fire and fell into the lake.

The next summer, Jim and Lillian installed a new diesel generator and put insulation and heat-tapes around the water pipeline to keep it from freezing during the winter months. A 500' deep well was eventually drilled near the lodge.





Fire Lake Lodge  Before the 1954 Fire

 Just before Christmas, in 1954, Mrs. Polyefko decided that the furnace in the lodge wasn't working very well, so she put a double dose of Red Devil chimney cleaner in the furnace which caught the building on fire. The lodge was a total loss because the sub zero temperatures disabled the fire truck.

The decision to rebuild the lodge was a family one. The Polyefko's construction company started at ground zero, lowering and leveling the original lot and building a new lodge. A few years later, they built a subdivision on nearby Lower Fire Lake.

In 1959, the lodge was leased to Sally and Michael Johnson, but they went out of business by 1963. After that, the lodge was rented out as a private residence. I attended my 8th grade graduation party at the lodge when the Bruton family lived there in 1963.

John Carpenter told me that his family lived in the lodge from
the summer of 1967 through July of 1969. He said that he and his older brother Ken were assigned the "men's bathroom"  in the lodge and he was "the only kid in school that had his own urinal". John's sister Jean told me that the lodges original bar (which sat on a row of glass blocks) was part of their living room and since the old Fire Lake Lodge sign was still on the roof of the building, they occasionally had people stop by, thinking the lodge was open for business. John Carpenter was kind enough to share this great photo of his family in front of the lodge in about 1967.


Len and Betty Carpenter
with children Lee (standing in front of Betty), Jean, John and Ken


Sam Cotten told me:  "I remember stopping at the Fire Lake Lodge with my folks. The lodge had a joke painting of a lady in her underwear in the bathroom.... if you lifted the cover (that was over her underwear) a buzzer would go off out in the bar. I also recall a great jukebox."

Dennis Christian, who contributed generously to the Polyefko's story, told me that his parents once ended up with 2 goats as partial payment on a bar tab. The goats were allowed to roam the lodge parking lot until they
ate a door gasket out of a customers new convertible.

In the fall of 1970, Laughlin (the original owner of the land) and his 2nd wife Esther, sold the lodge to David and Loretta Spaulding for $33,000. The deed described the sale as: "All and the whole of Government Lot 95, Section 30, Township 15 North, Range 1 West, Seward Meridian in the Anchorage Recording District, save and except the west 132' of said lot, together with perpetual right of ingress and egress over the presently constructed 20' roadway, together with water system and 500' deep well, unto Kenneth and Esther Laughlin." (Alaska DNR Deed Book 415, Pages 92-93).

On 5/4/1973, the Spaulding's sold the lodge to the Jehovah Witness Chugiak Congregation and the church put a big sign on the front of the building that said "Kingdom Hall". (Alaska DNR Deed Book 454 Page 479).
 
On 8/31/1977, two years before his death, Kenneth Laughlin gave the final 132' piece of Lot 95, to Loren and Jane Sasseen. The deed said that the transfer of ownership was "for the sum of love and affection". (Alaska DNR Deed Book 226, Page 610).

On 11/27/1978, the Sasseen's sold the 132' section of Lot 95 to Everette and Ilona Calkins (Alaska DNR Deed Book 358, page 383). Four months later, Calkins sold it to Robert Phillips (Alaska DNR Deed Book 394 Page 664).

On 2/22/1983, Robert Phillips sold the 132' section of Lot 95 to Boyd and Shirley Bennett. On this document, is a description of where the 500' deep water well was: "Northwest corner of said Lot 95; thence S89° 51' 00"E a distance of 50' more or less to the true point of beginning; thence on a bearing S55° 42' 00" W, a distance of 80' more or less, including said well with 6" casing". (Alaska DNR Deed Book 853, Pages 93 and 95).

In 2006, the Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility, in conjunction with the Alaska Department of Transportation and the Anchorage School District, installed a sewer main that serviced 22 properties along the Old Glenn Highway as well as the Chugiak High School. To accomplish that, the State of Alaska purchased Lot 95 from the Jehovah Witness Church and demolished the old building. (Alaska DNR Document 2007-020038-0, dated 1/28/2007)

There are, no doubt, many more Fire Lake Lodge stories out there.  If you know of any, drop me a line.



coleen_mielke@hotmail.com


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A special Thank You to:
 Dennis and Leslie Christian
John Carpenter
Jean Carpenter
Ken Carpenter
Sam Cotten
Lee Jordan
and
Phyllis Smith