Underground Palmer: Infrastructure reveals history of New Deal experimental town

mdunham@adn.comDecember 27, 2013 

PALMER - For 30 years, the theater Kathy Sexton's family ran was "the center of the universe in Palmer," she recalled, especially if you were young.

The Center Theatre shut down in 1978. Today, extensively remodeled, the building houses the Eagle Hotel, Restaurant and Lounge, about a mile's stroll from the Alaska State Fairgrounds. The movie seating area was long ago leveled into a single flat floor. But the original slope of the auditorium, supported by concrete pillars, is still plainly visible from below.

There's a lot of history in Palmer's underground spaces. The old storefronts along Colony Way and Alaska Street were usually built with full basements, many interconnected, that served as shops or offices.

"The Palmer Bar was in a basement," said long-time Palmer resident John Stuart, a trustee with the Palmer Historical Society, which organizes periodic tours of Palmer's "netherworld."

On a blustery December morning, Stuart, fellow trustee Carol Lombardo and society president Sheri Hamming revisited the basement of the former movie palace. The bathrooms were down here, Stuart said; the gutted lavatory was easily located, once accessed by stairs, now closed off from the ground level.

"There were tunnels and all kinds of things," said Sexton. "The Army stored stuff in the basement. It connected to the laundromat. My dad opened a teen club down there."

It was also a place where theater patrons could drop in before, after or during a show and visit incarcerated friends and relatives. Retired Palmer police officer Kelly Turney said the basement served as the first headquarters when the town started its police department in 1951. "Their office and jail were in the basement of the old movie theater," he said. "The first jail was a closet door with a logging chain to secure it."

There wasn't a need for much more in those days, Turney said. "Basically, you had drunks whose family wouldn't take 'em or people needing transfer back to Anchorage. It was a different time."

The Palmer Police Department was basically located under the sidewalk on Colony Way, Turney said. The start-up department didn't have patrol cars or a radio system, but eventually got a couple of real cells with bars to replace the closet accommodations.

The subterranean hoosegow stayed in use until the current City Hall was built in the early 1960s, at which time new cells were built in that building, also in the basement. They were used to hold detainees into the 1980s. Those cells -- or parts of them -- remain. They're included in the society's annual tours.

Turney, who now runs Alaska Picker, an antique store and architectural salvage business in Wasilla, noted that at one time the city council also had its chambers in the theater basement.

Today, he observed, "it would be impossible to tell where things were."

No bars, steel doors or meeting rooms can be seen today. Instead, the hotel basement is filled with bits and pieces from other restaurants that once occupied the building, old booths, a buffet table, assorted chairs and hardware. There's also a working laundry and maintenance shop area.

Dirty work

In stark contrast to the clean, modern, up-and-running hotel and restaurant at the former Center Theatre, the old Power House is an open, battered concrete bunker slowly returning to the elements.

It once supplied energy for the complex of buildings associated with the federal Matanuska colony project, officially the Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation. Adjacent railroad tracks brought tons of coal to a massive cast iron boiler. It generated electricity for the immediate vicinity and sent steam heat to the major structures -- the warehouses, the co-op store, churches, hospital, school and dormitories. It even heated the nearby water tower.

The steam ran through underground utility corridors, "utilidors," mostly blocked off now but originally big enough for workmen to squeeze in to work on pipes.

It would have been a tight fit. The story that the tunnels are big enough to walk through comfortably, standing up, and that they connect almost everywhere is a "myth," Turney said, and a destructive one. Some of the city's most historic buildings have been vandalized or burned by intruders trying to find the storied tunnels, he said.

The wind was roaring through the gutted structure as Howard Bess, with the Palmer Arts Council, showed visitors through. The council owns the 1935 building and uses some of the more sheltered space to store sets and other equipment.

"We tried to secure the building," Bess said. "It was impossible."

A volunteer sealed up the myriad gaps and doors with wood, he said. But vandals pried a few boards loose to get in and, once the first opening was made, wind and storms took out the rest. A somber padlock on a chain now swings mockingly, uselessly, in front of the biggest opening.

"All of this became a playground for kids," Bess said.

The mouths of the utilidors remain obvious, however, as does the firewall where a mighty boiler once stood. The facility supplied electricity into the 1960s, Stuart said. Cast iron doors from the coal-fired boiler stand in another room. The doors and a few old gauges, cogs and cranks, accessed by ladders and catwalks, are all that remain of the old generation system.

The locker room remains identifiable, however, as does the bathroom with its shower. "Working with coal was very dirty work," Stuart noted.

Steam heat

From the Power House, steam heat was pumped across the compound to the house of the project manager, the only personal residence with its own garage and entryway. The home is now owned by Janet Kincaid. The steam heat was replaced long ago with more modern systems -- a good thing, Stuart said, since steam heat and its underground tunnels are conducive to silverfish and other pests.

Kincaid is also the owner of the Colony Inn, a recently remodeled hotel and restaurant that originally provided housing for the colony's teachers and nurses. Lombardo stayed there when she came to Alaska as a teacher in 1962. (She also remembered attending dances in the basement of the Center Theatre.)

The formerly tiny rooms have been expanded and feature separate bathrooms instead of the shared facilities of the early days. The cooking area has undergone significant updating to meet safety codes.

But the bottom walls of the Inn look similar to how they appeared when the place was built in 1935. "Real two-by-fours," Kincaid said, patting the bare supports in the first basement. Shelving has been added where she keeps decorations for the Inn and assorted antiques from Palmer's past.

There's a second basement under the first. Here one can see where the utilidor connected from the Power House, a quarter-mile away. It features a Kewanee Type C coal-fired boiler, the little cousin of the big one that was housed at the mail plant, in near-new condition.

This boiler "picked up the heat at night when the main power plant boiler was banked down," said Stuart.

It was installed after the basement went in, said Kincaid, "and then the building was built around it."

"Like Mike Mulligan's steam shovel!" said Hamming, referring to a popular 1939 children's book, still in print, about an animated steam shovel named Mary Anne that, its digging days done, becomes the furnace of a city hall whose foundation it has excavated. Deconstructing the famous story, one can conclude that within four years of the construction of the Palmer project, steam was already becoming obsolete.

But, like Mary Anne, the Colony Inn boiler isn't going anywhere. Though the building -- abandoned for 11 years when Kincaid acquired it in 1994 -- went through extensive restoration, upgrading and modernization, the Kewanee Type C boiler remained right where workmen set it in place nearly 80 years ago.

"This will always be here," Kincaid said. "There's no way to move it."

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.


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