The Samuel Blum house

The historic Samuel Blum house in Cordova is seen as it looked in 2019, when the owner, Becky Chapek, was just finishing the concrete work on the new foundation and the new rear wall of the ground floor. 

The building shown in the drawing, at 500 Third St. in Cordova, was originally the home of Samuel Blum and his family. Blum was a banker and merchant who was active in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska from the late 1890s until the mid-1910s.

Blum was born into a San Francisco mercantile family in1868. According to National Park Service records, he moved to Juneau in 1898 when he purchased a business there.

While in Juneau, in addition to managing his business, he invested in several mining claims, both in the Juneau area and in the Porcupine Mining District northwest of Haines. He also opened a general mercantile store in the Prince William Sound town of Valdez (evidently with a partner since the store’s name was Levi, Blum & Sons).

Closing his Juneau store, Blum moved to Valdez in 1903. At some point during his early years in Valdez he separated from his partners, with his store becoming S. Blum & Company, and established a bank. Blum’s bank eventually became the First Bank of Valdez. He also continued to invest in new mining ventures.

When the Copper River and Northwestern Railway made Cordova, about 50 miles east of Valdez, the southern terminus of its railway to the Wrangell Mountains, Blum decided to shift his base of operations. In 1910, while keeping his Valdez businesses, he moved to Cordova, opening the general mercantile store, Blum & O’Neil Company, as well as establishing the First National Bank of Cordova. After the railway was completed in 1911 he also opened stores in Chitina and McCarthy.

In 1910 he built a grand home on Cordova’s Third Street, overlooking the business district. He only lived there seven years, though. Blum died in 1917 while on a trip to Seattle, where he maintained an office.

However, his wife, Estelle, continued to operate his businesses, gradually liquidating his assets, and eventually selling the house in the 1920s. The building has gone through numerous owners, eventually being partitioned into apartments. The current owner is Becky Chapek.

When the townsite was first developed, many of its streets and building sites had to be blasted out of the mountainside. Chapek told me that when built, the house did not have a proper foundation, and that the concrete for the first floor was just poured on top of the shattered bedrock of the hillside. When she bought the house, the rear section of the ground floor was bare, fissured rock from which water continually seeped. The entire foundation had to be rebuilt, with the rock jack-hammered out so proper footings and a concrete floor could be poured.

The 2½ story house is approximately 24-feet wide and 36-feet long and is built in the Craftsman style. The ground floor is sheathed with cedar shakes, while the upper two floors have beveled cedar siding, all original.

The main entrance is on the second floor, left-of-center in the drawing. It is reached by a staircase hidden by the half-wall to the left of the porch structure. Like many Craftsman-style houses, the Blum house has a covered porch. The original porch was gable-roofed, replaced by a shed roof at some point. Chapek told me she wants to bring the building back to its original appearance, so restoring the gable-roofed porch was one of her projects.

With the foundation repaired, Chapek’s next projects will be repainting the exterior and gradually rehabbing the interior. She operates the building as Northern Nights Inn, and told me that some guests have mentioned being visited in the night by a well-mannered spectral gentleman. Perhaps it is the ghost Samuel Blum wandering the halls of his beloved home.

Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist, writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.

Sources:

• Conversation with Becky Chapek, 2021

• “The Copper Spike.” Lone. E. Janson. Alaska Northwest Publishing. 1975

• “From Fish and Copper, Cordova’s Heritage and Buildings.” Nicki J. Nielson. Cordova Historical Society. 1984

• “Icebound Empire, Industry and Politics on the Last Frontier, 1890-1938.” Elizabeth A. Tower. 1996

• Samuel Blum Collection in the Valdez Museum and Historical Archive

• “Selected Residents and Visitors to the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountain Region, 1796-1950.” Geoffrey Bleakley. National Park Service. 2006