Many years ago, on assignment for the AARP, Country Gentleman and Outside magazines, I stayed at more than a dozen century-old hotels in the American West. Some like the Copper Queen in Bisbee, Arizona, were under renovation at the time, but their lobbies and dining rooms were magnificent and took me back to the days when mining executives stayed there.

In addition, for nonfiction articles on Basque sheepherders in the West that eventually became the fodder for my historical novel “Sons of the Dawn: A Basque Odyssey,” I stayed in old hotels that doubled as rooming houses for retired and infirm sheepherders. These were in such remote areas as Buffalo, Wyoming; Gardiner, Montana; and Elko, Nevada. Many, like the Star Hotel in Elko, also had family-style eating areas with lamb shoulder, pasta noodles, and salads on tables for passing around. These hotels back in the 1970s cost roughly $8 a night or $50 or so by the week, although I’m sure the old male residents (rarely did I see a female guest) received a discount.

These older hotels were bypassed by travelers who stayed only at chain motels. These structures from the heyday of my grandfathers all had high ceilings, overstuffed beds with brass or wooden backboards, and radiators that gasped and snorted on cold winter days. There’s a Writer’s Digest magazine photo of me in my white undershirt somewhere in WD’s archives as I batted out a story on the old Underwood I carried from one assignment to the next.

Flashbacks of these old hotels came to me as wife Gosia and I visited the three-room bed and breakfast area atop the Nenana Railroad Museum. These rooms were the living quarters of the station master and his family and were added on three years after the depot itself was constructed in 1923. To get upstairs, you take a set of steps painted brown in the exact hue of the stairs in Grandpa Nuwer’s western New York farmhouse when I was a kid.

“Brown was a really popular color back then,” proprietor Garry Farnham said to Gosia and me. He’s an affable proprietor in his 70s like me, and our four knees did more tricks than a circus flea as we ascended the stairs.

Gosia and I toured the Brakeman’s Suite ($209), and the Engineer’s Suite and Harding Room (both $239). Like the old hotels I once patronized that housed the retired herders from the Pyrenees of France and Spain, the Nenana Depot had comfortable overstuffed beds and minimal furniture of an earlier time. Unlike the hotels of my youth, no shabby, peeling, stained wallpaper covered the walls. Instead, Farnham’s walls were hand-painted in tasteful antique hues.

The antique pulldown window shades with characteristic chips in the pulling area were a delight to me as a reminder of the panes on my grandfather’s farmhouse, but perhaps might not suit a snooty modern guest.

Guests have their choice of a northern view of river and train tracks or a southern scenic view of Nenana’s main street and the mountain range beyond.

The dining area was like something you might find in an old office building and contained a fridge and microwave for basic grub like bagels.

Farnham has had the full share of the business about three years, he said, and he weathered the pandemic when his housekeeper had little to do.

We came late in the afternoon, and the last customer in the old depot waiting room-turned-gift shop departed for a Princess bus outside as we waited for Farnham to shake free. “Trains come by six times a day,” Farnham told us.

When gift shop patrons ask when the next train comes, Farnham gives them a pat line with a smile. “Well, it might be five minutes, but I don’t work for the railroad, so I can’t say for sure,” he jokes. Who knows what a tourist from the Lower 48 might buy if they stick around another five minutes, right?

Stop me if you’ve heard the standard railway station joke.Passenger to station master as a train engine whistles: “Sir, is that my train?”

“No, sir,” says the station master. “It belongs to the Alaska Railroad.”

Gosia and I finished our visit with a tour of the small museum which once was a place to store freight and baggage. I loved reading all the enlarged old Daily News-Miner articles lining the walls, and especially I loved the model of the steamship Nenana.

Before leaving, Farnham waxed nostalgic about his younger years growing up in Alaska. His great love was fast cars and he used to travel to the village of Tanacross to get his racing fix. He had a buddy with a fast foreign car, and they won more races than they lost.

As we departed for Fairbanks, Farnham tipped his engineer cap to us and gave us a hearty handshake in farewell. No doubt we’ll be back again, the next time to stay two nights as we visit Denali or the shooting range in Anderson.


I’ll close with what I hope is a regular column addition, namely a winners and sinners addendum.


Fifty years ago this week, Richard (Dickie) Possenti was born. A new kind of birth announcement appeared as a 30-foot sign on a dock along the river, reading “Capt. Jim —i t’s a boy — 9 pounds, 7 ounces.”

Incidentally, Wynola Possenti returned to Fairbanks from a dream vacation touring Spitzbergen on the Svalberg archipelago in northern Norway. I’m jealous and just added Spitzbergen to my long bucket list of places to see.


The Fred Meyer gas station on old Steese Highway has had its air pump wearing an out-of-order sign seemingly forever and a day. Are the parts that hard to find?


The Bakery restaurant last Sunday morning put out a sign at the entrance for patrons to seat themselves. That’s a good thing. The two prior weeks the bustling cafe had long waiting lines both to be seated and to pay, which caused a couple irate customers to give up leave. Still, the Bakery’s chorizo gets an A-plus from me.

PS: My heart goes out to the residents of Maui after the fire. My wife and I received an email from a tour boat operator there that their boat went up in flames.Happily, Fairbanks resident Greg Higdon left Maui in the nick of time.

“We had been to a weekly jazz night and as we were leaving we decided to drive down Front Street one last time as we were leaving the next day,” he wrote me. “Turns out, it was the last time for Lahaina as we knew it. Still hard to fathom the devastation and upheaval of so many lives.”

Amen, Greg

Proprietor Garry Farnham

Visitor Nancy Carlson