By John R. Moses
I’m not just writing about Sarah Birdsall’s new book “Ghosts of Talkeetna” because it’s Halloween, or because my old cabin and newspaper office in Talkeetna, Alaska is the first ghost story. The book, written by Birdsall with input from her gifted brother Jon Durr, is filled with history, personal stories and is simply a great slice of Talkeetna history and lore told by experts.
Several people have written about paranormal events in Alaska, and at least one account I’ve read of my old cabin’s past was wildly inaccurate. Birdsall, a longtime Talkeetna resident and former editor of the Talkeetna Times newspaper, is careful with her facts and thorough with her historical research.
The book takes readers to familiar Talkeetna locations, regular “haunts” for the living locals, such as the Talkeetna Roadhouse, where friendly spirits are said to dance the night away. There’s more sinister activity at a small bachelor’s cabin downtown. And no trip to Talkeetna is complete without a stop at the Historic Fairview Inn, which definitely hosts liquid spirits.
Several members of my family were quoted in the chapter about the cabin by the airstrip, or, as our family came to call it, Talkeetna Landings B&B.
After moving in I heard another name for it, “The Murder House.” It got that name because a couple who came into possession of the home were brutally murdered while gold mining nearby in the 1930s. As far as we know, no one was ever murdered in either of the two cabins that were combined to comprise Talkeetna Landings. I actually had to sign a piece of paper when we bought it from my mother-in-law, Jean Armstrong, stating that I acknowledge that paranormal activity might occur there. (I should have used that in our marketing campaign.)
Apart from the front door opening for no apparent reason from time to time as the dogs sat there staring at the doorway, and a clock banging off a wall and across the office area while I was on the phone to my sister saying I didn’t believe the place was haunted, I never encountered a single spirit. If they were there, I like to think they liked our family and our inn guests.
According to the book, they definitely played some tricks on family members who lived in the house before us, and previous tenants. The author herself lived for a time in that cabin. I think just about everyone in town did at some point. Here’s the story of the first one, as far as I can tell from my own research.
The oldest part of that cabin was likely owned and possibly built for one Antone Stander, once a dashing-looking Prussian immigrant and a successful Dawson gold miner. He lost his fortune due to bad judgment and poor investments. His mining partner, by contrast, founded an oil company and bought a sports team in San Francisco. Stander took his new fortune from the Yukon to Juneau, Alaska, where he met a dancehall girl who was another man’s mistress. He offered her her weight in gold if she’d marry him and move south. Pity they didn’t have match.com back then. In Seattle, with his new wife, he built the Stander Hotel. Then the city built a new road cut that devastated his neighborhood. The hotel fell into financial ruin, there was a messy divorce and the local sheriff fired a round off in his bar to stop him from fleeing from a warrant.
That is how, as an old and bitter man, Stander wound up in a tiny cabin in Talkeetna taking his meals at the Fairview Inn and prospecting for another huge find which he never found. A local was deputized to take him to an Anchorage sanitarium after a child sought help to put out a fire and he chased the youth from his property with an axe. As he boarded the train he announced that he was leaving Seattle and moving to Talkeetna.
If you read the book “Ghosts of Talkeetna, and you should, as you read the chapter about the cabin by the airstrip please remember old Antone Stander and his solitary life built atop a heap of crushed dreams. It’s no wonder that area has so many ghost stories. He’s not the only person who retreated to places like Talkeetna to build, or rebuild, a new life in the boreal forest. I did, however, wind up in Juneau, and without a fortune.
Here’s a link to an interview Sarah and my wife did years ago on KTNA, the local public radio station in Talkeetna: http://ktna.org/2010/10/29/nuggets-ghosts-and-ghost-stories/
And here’s a link to a blog post I wrote when I was Managing Editor of the Juneau Empire: