FAIRBANKS — For countless years before Westerners entered Interior Alaska, only Athabascan Indians used the hot springs located on the northeastern edge of the Tanana-Yukon Uplands, near where Birch Creek meandered out into the Yukon River lowlands. Then, in the 1890s, gold was discovered in the region and prospectors scattered into the hills in search of the motherlode.
Circle City (now just called Circle) was established on the south bank of the Yukon River in 1893 to supply the mining camps in the Birch Creek area about 50 miles to the southwest. (Miners erroneously thought the town was on the Arctic Circle, which is actually about 40 miles to the north.)
A roadhouse was built along the trail at Central, about 35 miles from Circle. Then, in the fall of 1893 a prospector named William Greats stumbled on the hot springs while chasing a moose about eight miles southeast of Central.
Other prospectors quickly learned of the Arctic Circle hot springs and began spending their winters there, at first in tents, then building cabins. In 1905 Cassius Monohan homesteaded 106 acres around the springs, and Franklin and Emma Leach bought the homestead from Monohan in 1909.
According to the Alaska Community Database, the Alaska Road Commission began building a wagon road from Circle to the mining camps in 1906, and by 1908 the road had reached Central. The ARC completed the road to Fairbanks in 1907, and in 1930 the Leaches decided to build a hotel at the hot springs.
They hired local sourdough Billy Bowers to oversee construction, and work on the hotel begun in March 1930. Some accounts say most construction materials came by river to Circle and then by wagon to the springs. However, in a 1970’s taped interview, Emma Leach said the logs used for lumber were felled at Medicine Lake several miles northeast of the springs, and that additional lumber was trucked from Fairbanks. The hotel was completed by that fall.
The hotel itself has changed little over the years and for the most part kept its rustic charm. The bay windows on the first floor can be seen in photos from the 1930s and 1940s, and appear to be original features. The only significant changes are the addition of a restaurant at the rear, and a front entry vestibule.
Until the 1950s the hot springs pool remained in a relatively natural state. A 1947 photograph shows the grass-fringed pool with a few Adironack-style chairs along the edge, and a diving board at the pool’s far end. Other early photographs show expansive gardens and several greenhouses to the right of the hotel (where the pool and other buildings are now).
Frank Leach died in 1955, and Emma managed the hotel until her death in 1974. They are both buried in a small cemetery (which contains about three dozen graves) on the hill above the hotel. In 1980 Bobby and Laverna Miller purchased the hotel and hot springs, which remained open until 2002.
In its heyday Circle Hot Springs attracted visitors from all over Alaska and beyond, and was well-known for its aurora viewing. The hotel supposedly even has its own ghost. Some employees are reported to have seen or felt the specter of Emma Leach roaming the halls or haunting the kitchen.
The hotel and hot springs are now closed and the property is for sale. Most of the land around the hot springs is private. You can drive by and see the hotel, but get permission before wandering around the property.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist and writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.