Anchorage’s Kimball Building is one of few remaining early commercial buildings
In 1914, the U.S. government was finalizing plans for a railroad connecting the Pacific coast of Southcentral Alaska with Fairbanks in Interior Alaska.
President Woodrow Wilson had not yet determined whether the Alaska Northern Railway, running from Seward north across the Kenai Peninsula, or the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, running from Cordova north along the Copper River, would be chosen as the initial link in the Alaska Railroad.
Anticipating the president’s decision, however, the Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC) chose Ship Creek, across Turnagain Arm from the Kenai Peninsula, as field headquarters for the Alaska Railroad.
Only a handful of people lived in the area, but they were quickly joined by throngs of hopeful railroad workers and others seeking new opportunities. Those early arrivals threw up tents along the north bank of Ship Creek, in the shadow of what would later be called Government Hill.
Among those hopefuls were Irving and Della Kimball, who had run stores at Kodiak, Seward and Latouche Island before being lured to the nascent railroad town. National Park Service records indicate they arrived in the spring of 1915, pitching their tent among all the others.
The lowlands beside Ship Creek were not an ideal community location, so the AEC laid out a townsite on higher ground just to the south. An outcry auction was held on July 10, and the Kimballs secured a lot at the corner of Fifth Avenue and E Street. They paid $500 for it, considerably less that the prices demanded along what soon became Anchorage’s main street, Fourth Avenue.
They immediately moved their tent to the back of the lot and began constructing a 40-foot by 60-foot two-story wood-frame building. By the end of September, they had completed the structure, moving into living quarters at the rear of the building. In November their store opened in the front section, selling general merchandise, hardware and groceries.
The building, still in its original location, has two stories only on the E Street (east) side, with a roof sloping to one story on the west. The Kimballs used the second floor primarily for storage. An unadorned false front on the Fifth Avenue side of the building unified the roof line.
The building’s front facade faces Fifth Avenue. Initially, the store’s interior consisted of one large room, but the front facade was divided into two halves — both sides having a central door flanked by large double windows. Above the doors and windows were smaller transom windows, now covered with siding and signage.
Irving died in 1921, but Della continued to operate the store. In 1935, she stopped selling groceries. Her daughter, Decema, became Della’s partner in 1950. When Della died in 1958, Decema took over the store. According to the book, Patterns of the Past, an Inventory of Anchorage’s Historic Resources, it was then that the store’s single large mercantile space was divided in half. The east end continued as Kimball’s Dry Goods, and the west end was rented out.
In 1965, Gold Pan Gifts rented the west end retail space, eventually adding Kobuk Coffee to its name. It was this iteration of Kimball’s/Gold Pan that I knew when we lived in Anchorage during the 1970s and 1980s.
During the 1990s, most of the buildings on the block that Kimball’s is located on were razed for the Municipality of Anchorage’s new Town Square Park. Recognizing the historic significance of Kimball’s, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, it was allowed to remain.
Decema died in 2002, and the owners of the Gold Pan/Kobuk Coffee (the Bonito family) purchased the building from her heirs. They now operate their business, The Kobuk, out of the entire building, and are committed to preserving the historic qualities of the structure.
- Anchorage, From its Humble Origins as a Railroad Construction Camp. Elizabeth Tower. Epicenter Press. 1999
- Legends & Legacies: Anchorage 1910-1935. John P. Bagoy. No publisher. 2001
- “Kimball’s Store, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Rolfe Buzzell. National Park Service. 1986
- Patterns of the Past. An Inventory of Anchorage’s Historic Resources. Michael Carberry & Donna Lane. Municipality of Anchorage. 1986
- The Kobuk website, www.kobukcoffee.com