Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
One little book offers a unique window on Anchorage before the military and trans-Alaska pipeline, before the population booms that wrought innumerable changes to this city’s people, landscape and future. Without the advertisements, the body of the book consists of 24 small pages, each covered with a single column of names. The 1939 Anchorage phone book is a true relic of a different era.
Between the 1923 completion of the Alaska Railroad and World War II, Anchorage was a relatively unimportant town, a whistle-stop between Seward and Fairbanks. The Alaska portion of the 1940 United States census took place in 1939, an allowance for the unique logistical issues with counting every Alaskan. There were only 3,495 residents within Anchorage city limits and 4,229 people in the greater Anchorage district. The town was so small that then-police chief Robert “Bob” Huttle carried a notebook wherever he went with residents’ names, addresses, and phone numbers to alert in the event of especially brilliant northern lights.
That same year, 1939, marked the point in time when everything began to change for Anchorage. There were minor signs of progress. On May 31, 1939, the first concrete was poured to pave Fourth Avenue, starting at the C Street intersection. Twenty-four years after Anchorage was founded, the town had its first paved road. Providence Hospital also opened in 1939, providing a much-needed improvement over the insufficient old railroad hospital on Third Avenue.
But the most significant change was the arrival of the Army. In 1939, Anchorage was selected to house a new military base, Fort Richardson. Construction began in June 1940. The more than 3,000 soldiers who manned the base were joined by thousands more civilian workers and their families. Seemingly overnight, the city had doubled in population. By the 1950 census, there were around 32,000 people in the greater Anchorage area.
The 1939 Anchorage Telephone Directory was released on Dec. 1. Phones were not as necessary for residents then, most of whom lived within a handful of blocks from a hospital, grocery store or any other desired service. Still, many of the most important people in town were openly listed with their phone numbers and addresses. If you wanted to call Chief Huttle or Mayor Herbert Brown, you could.
Businesses had more incentive to invest in a phone line. Even in a small town where everyone already knew about every restaurant, there was an advantage in such placements. Thus, the far majority of businesses are listed.
The phone book includes two national chains. The Sears Roebuck catalog store was a recent addition, but the Piggly Wiggly grocery store had opened in 1929. The Anchorage location was Piggly Wiggly’s fifth in Alaska at the time, following locations in Cordova, Juneau, Ketchikan and Petersburg, which nicely illustrates how low Anchorage ranked in Alaska.
Twelve restaurants are listed in the phone book, places like the Blue Ribbon Café, Chop Suey House, Frisco Café, Merchant’s Café, and Richmond’s. None of them have survived through today. The closest is likely Richmond’s, which soon added a cocktail lounge and endured through 1970 when it became the Gaslight Lounge.
The Japanese-born Yusuke “Harry” Kimura (1880-1957) founded the Chop Suey House. He and his family also founded Snow White Laundry, which is not listed in the phone book but is one of the few businesses that has survived. In 1966, Kimura’s son, George, opened the Nikko Garden restaurant. Though long since closed, it lives on in the memories of those fortunate enough to have dined there.
After years of growing tensions, Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, thus initiating World War II. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States forcibly relocated and interned more than 100,000 residents of Japanese descent. Japanese individuals who had spent decades in Alaska, including the Kimuras of Anchorage and Ohashis of Ketchikan, were suddenly feared and hated by many of their neighbors. Seiki (Shoki) Kayamori had lived and worked in Yakutat for nearly 30 years. After Pearl Harbor, several soldiers attacked him. Worried about what might happen next, Kayamori took his own life.
On April 22, 1942, the Kimura family placed an advertisement in the Anchorage Daily Times. They thanked the people of Anchorage “for their long and faithful patronage — and for their kindness and sympathy in these trying times.” Then, they were arrested and forced to leave their homes and property behind. The Kimuras spent most of the war at an internment camp in Idaho. A prevalent narrative is that locals saved the Kimura businesses during the war, particularly Snow White Laundry. The truth is more complicated. The Kimuras leased out their businesses before being interned, and it was in the best interests of the lessees to keep the businesses operational to some extent. Still, the interim operators were less motivated regarding maintenance, nor did they pay all the taxes. So, when the Kimuras returned to Anchorage after the war, they had to pay substantial back taxes.
The Pioneer Laundry at 739 W. Fourth Ave. is among the several laundry services actually listed within the book. Today, the same site is home to the Pioneer Bar that was granted a liquor license in December 1951 and first announced its opening in February 1952. The sign outside today says “Since 1916,” which is misleading at best. The building went up in 1916, but there was no bar then. Anchorage was established as a dry town. In 1916, Alaskans voted in favor of banning alcohol sales in the territory, and the Alaska Bone Dry Act went into effect on Jan. 1, 1918, two years before national Prohibition. While there were countless illegal sales over the years, the first legal sale of alcohol in Anchorage came in 1933.
The 1939 Anchorage phone book lists only eight combined bars and cocktail lounges: the Ambassador Club, Bright Spot, Cheechako Tavern, Hunter Beer Parlor, Idle Hour, Panhandle, Union Club and The Club. The local bar scene surged as thousands of soldiers and laborers arrived the following year. In 1942, actor and comedian Joe E. Brown visited Anchorage and declared Fourth Avenue the “longest bar in the world,” not exactly meant as a compliment. Bob Hope would more famously adopt this line in his several subsequent visits. In 1951, Minneapolis Star reporter Keyes Beech visited Anchorage and declared, “I counted 25 saloons and liquor stores in two blocks and found that I had missed three nestled in basements or upstairs.” Beech was not exaggerating; there indeed were basement and upstairs-only bars during this boom.
In his Guide to the Notorious Bars of Alaska, Doug Vandegraft notes the city council initially denied the Pioneer’s liquor license as “there are enough bars on that block already.” By 1951, city leaders began to crack down on bars, including enforcing rules banning proprietors with criminal backgrounds. Many residents linked the rowdy bar scene with increased crime and incidence of venereal disease. Other reforms during the decade limited hours of operation and banned B-girls, typically attractive women employed by bars to entice patrons into spending more.
The downtown Cheechako Tavern was located at 441 W. Fourth Ave. It is not related to the Cheechako Bar that opened on Fireweed Lane in 1970 and later became Reilly’s. Some of the more obvious business names are inescapable, repeating over and over, in city after city.
The Hunter Beer Parlor, a combination bar and package store at Fourth Avenue and C Street, may have been one of the more dignified establishments. They offered an entrance just for women, thus avoiding confrontations with inebriated men. In 1936, Earl Johnson was in front of the Hunter Beer Parlor with his wife and daughter when Harry Jones “made uncomplimentary remarks to him and threatened him with his fist.” Johnson called the police, who arrested Jones and held him in jail for a week. A jury acquitted Jones, but the more important lesson here is that hurt feelings were an arrestable offense in 1930s Anchorage, at least if you had sufficient influence.
The Bright Spot lost its liquor license in late 1939. New owners reopened it as the Canteen Bar in mid-1940. The Canteen Bar became the State Bar in 1955. And in July 1957, the State Bar’s liquor license was transferred to the Club Paris on Fifth Avenue, which opened that October.
Of the other liquor establishments, the Ambassador Club opened on New Year’s Eve 1937. Located at Sixth Avenue and C Street, it was Anchorage’s first proper nightclub, featuring a 26-by-60-foot dance floor and an orchestra pit. It closed around 1951.
Some of these locations have been bars for decades despite changing names. Previously a cigar store, the Panhandle began legally selling drinks in 1933. Still open at 312 W. Fourth Ave., it is easily the oldest continually operated bar in Anchorage. The Union Club lasted through 1984 when it became the Avenue Bar. The Club was next door to the Pioneer Bar.
The complete address offered for the Idle Hour was “Lake Spenard.” It opened in 1938 as the Lakeshore Club but was renamed before the year was out. During its heyday from the 1940s to early 1950s, it was the preferred social setting for many of the Anchorage political and monied heavyweights. Unfortunately, the club burned down twice during the 1950s and was replaced by a series of short-lived successors, including the Fancy Moose, Red Baron, Flying Machine Mexican Restaurant, Co-Pilot Club, Oar House and the Lake Shore Club, which was a different operation from the original Lakeshore. In the early 1980s, it was the first home of Mr. Whitekeys’ Fly By Night Club. As his advertisements humorously bragged, “Going out of business regularly in the same location for over thirty years.”
There were also a handful of liquor stores, and some grocery stores also sold alcohol. Two of the more rabid competitors were the Anchorage Liquor Store and Lucky’s Self Service. In 1937, the Anchorage Liquor Store advertised a chance to win a trip to Peoria, Illinois. This may not sound like a glamorous prize now, and it was not the most glamorous prize over 80 years ago, either. But Peoria then had a rather bawdy reputation for gangsters, drugs and prostitutes, and it was at least a different environment for those attractions than Alaska. A free trip is a free trip after all. The always ornery William “Lucky” Baldwin (1864-1942) responded with a simple advertisement: “Lucky says: He can’t give you a trip to Peoria but you can save enough on your winter outfit if you buy now to go any place you damn well please.”
Lucky’s retort did not directly mention his grocery store or the Anchorage Liquor Store. In a town as small as Anchorage, there was no need. Like every phone book since, the 1939 edition is littered with advertisements. The major difference is that most of the old ads did not include the business’s address. And why would they; everyone in town already knew where everything was.
1939 Anchorage, Alaska Telephone Directory. Anchorage: City of Anchorage, Public Utilities Department, December 1, 1939.
Atwood, Robert B. “Between Us.” Anchorage Times, April 13, 1975, A-5.
Beech, Keyes. “Alaska Strikes It Rich Again in Military Boom.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 23, 1951, 7.
“Council Briefs — Lot Owners Spared Sewer Assessments.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 25, 1957, 5.
“Council OK’s 2 Bar Permits.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 29, 1951, 1.
“First Concrete to be Poured Wednesday.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 29, 1939, 1.
“Jones Cleared on Charge of Shaking Fist.” Anchorage Daily Times, July 29, 1936, 5.
Parham, Bruce. “Kimura, Yusuke ‘Harry.’” Cook Inlet Historical Society, Legends & Legacies, Anchorage, 1910-1940.
Thomas, Margaret. Picture Man: The Legacy of Southeast Alaska Photographer Shoki Kayamori. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2015.
Vandegraft, Doug. A Guide to the Notorious Bars of Alaska, Revised 2nd Edition. Kenmore, WA: Epicenter Press, 2014.