Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney
gave a talk at the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce
last week on the need for more housing for the influx
of troops that are expected to come to Alaska in
the near future.
The general's concerns are valid,
but not new. It has often been difficult to find
proper lodging in Anchorage.
I first came to Alaska in late June,
1967, the year of the Alaska Purchase Centennial.
After driving into Anchorage from Kluane Lake that
day, my classmate Jerry Shimek and I were quite
exhausted. We wanted nothing more than a shower
and a good night's sleep.
The shortage of housing in Anchorage,
in those days, quickly became apparent. After several
hours of looking for a room, we finally arrived
at the old Palace Hotel on Fourth Avenue. It had
one room left, for nine dollars a night or fifty-six
dollars a week. Since the Palace hotel did not seem
to live up to its name, we chose to rent for only
The clerk gave us a key to a converted
clothes closet on the second floor! There were two
cots in the room, and a small dresser. The only
problem with the dresser was that to put anything
in it, or to get anything out, we had to move both
cots into the hallway! It was warm and dry, however,
and since it would just be for one night, we took
The next day we started looking for
a place to live in earnest. The only vacancy that
we could find was at the Voyager. The rent there
was $165 a week! Since we had about a $150 between
us the Voyager was out of the question.
That night found us back at the Palace
hotel. We decided to rent the closet for a week
and told the desk clerk that we wanted the fifty-six
dollar a week rate. He sneered at us. "That was
the weekly rate yesterday," he said. "Now the weekly
rate is seventy- two dollars!" (It was obvious that
he knew we were desperate). But we weren't that
desperate. We left in disgust and spent the night
camping at the then edge of town, Russian Jack Springs
We stayed at Russian Jack for several
nights. Our days were spent looking for work and
for a more permanent place to stay.
I finally found a job as a law clerk
for a local attorney. Not knowing anything about
Anchorage's cost of living, I was quite excited
by the amount of my weekly salary. My classmates
in Milwaukee were earning $80 to $90 a week as law
clerks. I was earning the princely sum of $125 per
week! I had never earned so much money!
But money isn't worth much without
a place to live and we still couldn't find a place
We moved our camp from Russian Jack
Springs to the Eagle River campground. Each morning
when we woke, we'd wash up in the river, get dressed,
and cook our breakfast over a campfire before going
to work. When the attorney I was working for mentioned
that the office was starting to smell like wood
smoke, I knew something had to break for us soon.
One Sunday morning, coming back from
Church, we saw a "Room For Rent" sign on a house
at 325 L Street. The landlord, Chet Paulk was a
likable, colorful character and we immediately became
friends. He had a room to rent in his basement.
He wanted $20 a week and agreed to furnish it with
a second bed. We finally had a place to stay at
$10 apiece per week!
I won the coin toss for the big double
bed, and Jerry got the cot. The room had a big picture
window. Why this window had been installed I don't
know since the only view through it was of the concrete
block wall across the basement. At night, I heard
things scurrying through the rafters above our heads.
The first morning, I went to take
a shower. The shower was a nozzle hanging over a
rafter with the water pipe coming from the sanitary
tubs in the basement. The shower stall was a shower
curtain draped in a circle around another piece
of pipe hanging from the rafters. As I walked back
from the shower towards our room I heard a radio
playing behind a curtain. Peeking behind the curtain,
I saw that there was someone else living in the
basement. Continuing on, I heard coughing coming
from the fruit cellar. Someone else was living there.
By the time I got back to our room I had learned
that here were seven of us living in Chet's basement!
We stayed at the Paulks the rest of
the summer. When my Dad visited us in August he
stayed in a hotel, calling our room "the Black Hole
of Calcutta". It was dark all right, but we thought
it was great. It was quiet, clean, and inexpensive.
And every once in a while, either Chet, or his gracious
wife Virginia, would invite the two of upstairs
for a home-cooked meal.
Chet Paulk, and 325 L Street are both
gone now. Someone filled in "the Black Hole of Calcutta"
and put a parking lot on the site. But I remember
that first exciting summer in Alaska. And I, for
one, can understand and relate to just what it is
that the good general is saying.