Remembering the Alaska Hotel

It is hard to imagine that after years of being Dawson Creek's most iconic structure, the Alaska Hotel could be destroyed in a matter of hours.

While what remains of the building is a heap of charred rubble and ash, it is the stories and memories of its dwellers and denizens that now keep the 80-year-old building alive.

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A vigil was held at the Dawson Creek Art Gallery on Saturday, where friends of the Alaska paid tribute to the historic guesthouse with a musical performance and slide presentation depicting the hotel's cherished moments. Meanwhile, tears in the eyes of those present articulated their recollections of time spent at the Alaska.

"Over 40 years there is an awful lot of them [memories], you can't really pin it down to one thing," said Charles Kux-Kardos, owner of the Alaska Hotel, who remains optimistic despite recent events.

"Nowadays they don't talk so much about funerals they talk about celebrations of life, and so I think it is more about celebrating the life of the Alaska."

Before last week's blaze that burned down the hotel, café, and neighbouring Brass Scissors hair salon along 10th Street, Charles and his wife Heidy had devoted most of their lives to the inn and diner.

"There's nothing that I can do to bring it back and I have to believe and be satisfied that I had the pleasure putting in forty years 55 paces south of the Mile Zero Post," said Kux-Kardos.

"There was a lot of good friends being made, and a lot of really, really good memories."

The Alaska was Dawson Creek's oldest standing hotel, originally opening its doors to guests in 1931 as the "Dew Drop Inn" - the namesake for the hotel's pub. It had six guest rooms when it first opened but eventually grew to 35 when demand for accommodation rose during the building of the Alaska Highway in 1942.

For a time it housed the only beer parlour in town, and American soldiers and highway construction workers lined the streets for hours to enter. Patrons were served a round of beers then let out the back door to allow the next thirsty group in.

According to Dick Sequens, former news director for CJDC whose print shop helped produce menus for the cafe, several engineers who helped construct the highway shared their recollections of the hotel with him during an Alaska Highway reunion.

The soldiers remembered the Alaska as the popular spot to be.

"I've always liked atmosphere, and the Alaska Hotel, of all the places I've been it doesn't matter whether you in Vancouver, Edmonton, or Hawaii there was unique atmosphere about the hotel, and the feeling of nostalgia overwhelms you in there and that was the fun part of it," added Sequens who will never forget taking his wife there to two-step.

Lawrence and Shirley Schlase took sole ownership of the establishment in 1976 before eventually selling the hotel outright to the Kux-Kardos in 1989.

The couple contributed their bohemian style to the hotel, renovating the outside to give the building its distinct early-20th Century façade to match the Alaska Café, and decorating the inside with their vast art collection while maintaining its rustic decor.

Sequens recalls the Alaska being a mecca for the local arts scene.

"Just about everyone in Dawson Creek that was involved in the arts was involved in the Alaska Hotel."

Likely his fondest memory is having a beer with famed actor Leslie Nielsen, who served as the grand marshall for Alaska Highway's 50th Anniversary.

"He was a neat guy and joined right in with the crowd there," said Sequens about the Canadian comedian.

While its exterior was as recognizable as the Mile Zero Post, and likely more photographed, it was the characters inside the walls that added to its charm.

Becky Shirley, the night time manager, described the hotel as a place where everyone felt they belonged.

"My motto was that if we could get you through the door we could keep you, once you got in people had a sense of family, they were part of something."

Anyone who stepped foot in the door of the Alaska could have left a piece of themselves behind them, and most likely it was in monetary notes fastened to the wall.

"You could always come see your bill on the wall," laughed Shirley referring the custom of patrons to staple a bill to the wall or even the ceiling with their signature on it.

The tradition began with the hotel's previous owners soon became custom for anyone looking to commemorate their birthday, first drink, visit, or legendary night at the Dew Drop.

Kux-Kardos recalls when discussion about redecorating the interior turned towards tearing down the money he declined.

"I said 'All my life I wanted to be surrounded by money and now that I'm surrounded by money I'm not going to let it go' and since then it has become quite a tradition for people to visit Dawson Creek and put a bill up on the wall," explained Kux-Kardos.

For Fort St. John resident Brent Hodson, who for the first time went to the Alaska to see a favourite area band of his, Twin Peaks, play, the pub left a lasting impression.

"It was an interesting place, it had its own character, you walked in and there was hundreds of things to look at whether it be all the different types of money that they had or whether it was the décor," he said.

"It was a fun little place and I kind of wish I went there more often. Now that it's gone I wish it wasn't," he added.

"Part of losing the Alaska is partly a memorial to all those who have preceded us, and they were great, and they will be missed," said Shelley Mowat, a local artist who moved to Dawson Creek in 1981, and resided part-time at the hotel while working at the café.

Mowat helped design the building's famously flamboyant facade.

She'll remember all of the various bands and entertainment that rocked the corridors of the hotel late into the evening, and the people she met and served from everywhere around the world.

For staff, it wasn't just another place to work.

Bartender Tyrone Laboucan has worked at the Alaska for the last five-and-a-half years. He is known for, between slinging drinks, joining the live entertainment on stage in an impromptu performance.

"I love the place. It's where I met the love of my life, and it's really sad to see it go."

For Christabelle, the Kux-Kardos' oldest daughter, the hotel and café were a second home.

"I grew up on my mom's hip flipping burgers and making french fries, helping clean up, and became the adopted kid of all of the staff," she said.

It never seems to amaze her when she sees someone on the street wearing an Alaska Hotel T-shirt, or meets someone across the world that has stayed at her parent's place.

"My dad is a dreamer and always has been and that's why the Alaska was amazing as it was because both my parents had the vision and lots of energy and made it the place that it is that created so many memories for so many other people."

In spite of looking back at the good times, Kux-Kardos is looking ahead at making more fond memories.

"[We are looking at] developing that blank canvas in a very spectacular way that may have an Alaska Hotel as part of it, but it won't be exactly the same."

Nothing likely will.

© Copyright Alaska Highway News

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