The Ester Republic

the national rag of the people's republic of independent ester

history, Volume 1, number 1, January 1999

Ester Myth "Berried"
© 1999 by Matthew Reckard

Myths are wonderful. Even if George Washington never chopped down the cherry tree, the story helps shape the American identity. I hope we continue to keep and cherish myths. But I also like to know what is myth, and what bears at least some resemblance to the real past.

Lael Morgan’s popular book, Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush, contains a colorful account of how Ester got its name. Morgan’s story is that brothers Frank and Clarence Berry followed the stampede to Fairbanks from Circle and started a mining camp called Berry. Esther Duffy, a prostitute and madam, followed the brothers to the new town where she established the California Hotel. She was sufficiently well known and liked that “eventually the town was renamed in her honor.”

A nice enough tale, suitable for regaling tourists, but it ain’t so. Morgan isn’t the only one confused about the origin of the town’s name. Her reference, the 1981 book, Fairbanks: A Pictorial History, has a similar story (but no reference to its origin). Even the cover of Fairbanks’ 1997 phone book promotes this myth. Its (modern) map of the “original settlements along the creeks” shows a town of Berry where Ester is, but no Ester at all.

The earliest references to the name Ester I’ve seen are hand-written mining claim notices at the Fairbanks Recorder’s Office. These indicate that the first 15 claims on Ester Creek were staked in late February 1903.1 So the creek was named Ester before a town named Ester (or Berry or anything else) existed in the area. “Ester City” wasn’t named for a whore; it was named for Ester Creek, whose placer gold was the town’s raison d’Ítre.

A camp called Berry also existed, but it wasn’t the same place as Ester. Gold Rush era maps show both settlements.2 Ester then, as now, was just downstream from the Discovery claim. Berry was a couple of miles down Ester Creek, on “8 Below” (the eighth claim below, i.e. downstream from, the Discovery claim). That is a bit upstream of where the Parks Highway Truck Stop is today.

I figure the mix-up about the names stems from confusing towns with post offices. The post office was still called Berry long after it moved from that ghost town to Ester. It was the post office—not the town—which later changed its name. I may write about the post office in a future article.

The Directory of the Tanana Valley 1907 3 describes both towns and lists their residents and businesses at the height of the Gold Rush. About 200 people lived in and around “Ester City,” accord-ing to the Directory. The Berry vicinity was home to about 75, including Frank, Clarence and Ethel Berry. But the Directory doesn’t list an Ester (or Esther) Duffy anywhere in the Fairbanks District.

It doesn’t list a California Hotel in Ester either, but one opened shortly after the Directory was published. Thomas Markuson bought the Nugget Saloon (which is listed) in the summer of 1907. He moved, enlarged and improved the property, renaming it the Hotel California. A 1909 magazine article about this includes a photo of Markuson in front of the hotel.4 But, again, there’s no mention of Esther Duffy.

It’s not like the woman is imaginary. Morgan’s book has a photo of her (which I assume is authentic). I’ve seen references to a hairdresser named Esther Duffy living in Eagle in 1901 and 1902.5 But if she ever came to Ester, or even to Fairbanks, I’ve seen no evidence of it. If anyone can show me some, I’d be much obliged. I’d like her to be part of Ester history.

And there’s hope for her yet! If Ester City was named for Ester Creek, what was the creek named for? Its a mystery to me. I’ve heard two legends: one, that Ester and nearby Eva creeks were named for some miner’s daughters; the other, that they’re named for a miner’s favorite hookers. Take your pick: I haven’t the slightest evidence either is true. Who knows? Maybe Ester Creek was named for Esther Duffy! Now about the chokecherry tree she chopped down...

• • •

1. The first seven claims staked appear in Claims Book Vol. 1, p. 124 et seq. The next few were recorded in Circle and appear in Book T-1 (“T” for “transcribed” from the Circle records). Note that the spelling is “Ester.” While some later references spell the name “Esther,” the current spelling seems to be the original one. Note also that these records cast doubt on another legend: that gold was first discovered on Ester Creek in November 1903 by John Mihalcek, who kept his discovery secret until July 1904.

2. One is the 1908 “Special Fairbanks Map” of the mining district (USGS Alaska map #40). A copy hangs at the end of the bar in Ester’s Golden Eagle Saloon.

3. Published by the Tanana Directory Co., Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1907.

4. Alaska-Yukon Magazine, January 1909, pp. 326–327. The article calls the California “one of the leading hotels in the Tanana Valley,” which probably wasn’t saying much...

5. See pages 459 and 603 in An Index to Dawson City, Y.T. and Alaska Directory & Gazetteer…1901–1912, in the Rare Book Room, Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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Matthew Reckard