Frank Reed has long embodied Alaska's frontier spirit

By MELISSA CAMPBELL

Alaska Journal of Commerce and the Anchorage Daily News

Published: November 12, 2006

Last Modified: November 12, 2006 at 01:46 AM

Frank Reed is a walking history book on Anchorage's past. Sitting in his home recently in downtown Anchorage, a small fire driving back a chill in the autumn air, Reed talked about growing up in Anchorage, witnessing the city's evolution from its humble beginnings as a tent city confined to Ship Creek to the sprawling metropolis that it has become.

At 93 years old and a nearly lifelong Alaskan, Reed was a heavy contributor to that evolution.

"We've been very fortunate in having a substantial cooperative attitude among citizens and government," he said. "It's not always been easy, but it was done basically by working together."

Throughout his working life, Reed was a staunch businessman and a banker. He was also a strong advocate for community service, serving on numerous boards and commissions that helped form the city. He helped write the city's constitution, was named Outstanding Alaskan of the Year and was elected into the Alaska Hall of Fame. He's developed an apartment complex that still exists and built a bank that failed in the 1980s economic downfall. 

TREK TO NOME

The Reed family has been in Alaska since 1900, when Frank Reed's father, Frank Ivan Reed, moved to Nome with his brother, Charles. The brother made the trek to Nome in the Territory of Alaska, arriving in the mining town in April 1900 on the SS Zelandia, Reed said. Along the way, Frank Ivan met young Pauline Hovey, and the two married four years later.

Frank Ivan Reed spent his first years in Nome working for the Solomon Dredging Co. In 1912, Pauline took her eldest son and moved to Seattle while Frank Ivan worked in the Talkeetna area to promote a gold-dredging operation near Cache Creek. Frank Reed, the son, was born in Seattle on Dec. 22, 1912.

In 1915, Frank Ivan sold his interest in the dredging operation, and the family moved to a one-room cabin in Anchorage.

It was the year that President Woodrow Wilson authorized funds to build the Alaska Railroad. Ship Creek Landing was selected as the site of the headquarters for the project, which would be coordinated by the Alaskan Engineering Commission.

A tent city sprang up almost overnight. The population swelled to more than 2,000. That summer, the Anchorage town site auction was held, and more than 600 lots were sold for about $150,000.

 

A COMMUNITY PILLAR

Frank Ivan Reed started a lumberyard in the quickly growing town. One customer was the developer of the Anchorage Hotel, at Third Avenue and E Street, where The Hilton Anchorage currently sits. After the hotel was completed, the developer couldn't pay the lumber bill. Frank Ivan worked with the bank to take over the hotel as payment.

The Reed family moved in, and Pauline and her two boys ran the hotel from 1917 to 1934. "My brother and I worked there, did what we could," Reed said. "We played bellhop, desk clerk, maid, laundryman, whatever. It was our living. There were months when income was substantially less than the outgo. It was not easy."

Frank Ivan, meanwhile, was active in the community. He served on the first city council, promoted construction of a road from Anchorage to Palmer and worked to help the fire department change from a horse-and-wagon operation to motorized fire trucks.

Beginning in 1922, Frank Ivan worked to raise money to develop Anchorage Light and Power, the first hydroelectric power for Anchorage. Reed and engineer John Longacre teamed up to develop a power plant in Eklutna.

"He used almost everything my mother could make to be able to raise enough money to build it," Reed said.

In 1928, Frank Ivan found some local stockholders and raised a $750,000 bond to build an Eklutna powerhouse for the power company. He hired an Outside engineering company to design the plant, and Frank Ivan managed the construction.

The company put up 27 miles of pole and line between Anchorage and Eklutna in 90 days.

"They drilled a tunnel through a mountain and built dams at Eklutna River and Eklutna Lake," Reed said. "In September 1929, they started the plant."

'THE BOTTOM CAME OUT'

In 1932, Reed attended the Alaska Agricultural College's School of Mines (now part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks). It cost him $575 a year, which included the cost of transportation there and back. He later attended the University of Washington. Cost there was $625 a year, including the boat trip.

Reed served as vice president of Anchorage Light and Power from 1937 until 1942, leaving his father's company to serve in the Navy during World War II. He was stationed at what is now Elmendorf Air Force Base, then Fort Richardson, doing support work for seamen passing through the state.

He held various executive positions after the war, including working as the president of the Alaska Electric and Equipment Co. and branch manager of the Alaska Small Business Administration.

Reed was a partner in the development and manager of the Turnagain Arms Apartments, which still stand in downtown Anchorage. A banker for 28 years, Reed also founded the Matanuska Valley Bank, which eventually merged into the former First Interstate Bank.

That bank failed in 1987, during the economic downturn. "They closed the bank around my ears," he said. "It was rough. It didn't need to be that rough, but we got a bit greedy. We gave out high-interest loans, which turned out to be high-risk loans. Then the bottom came out."

State revenue from the new North Slope oil fields supercharged the economy through the late 1970s and into the 1980s, causing the construction industry to build too many houses, office buildings and strip malls. By 1985, a recession had started and a plunge in oil prices the next year deepened the hole.

Dozens of banks and other businesses collapsed. Reed retired after the bank failed. He was 75 years old.

COMMITMENT TO HELPING

He remained active in community work, however. Active in the Lion's Club since 1945, Reed has worked as diligently at civil service work as he did in business.

He served on Anchorage's city council, planning commission and school board, among others. Reed also helped organize what is now United Way in 1957.

He has a host of service awards, has been elected into the Alaska Hall of Fame (1969), was named Outstanding Alaskans of the Year by the state Chamber of Commerce (1976) and received a Community Service Award from the YMCA four years running (1975-78).

But Reed's proudest achievement in life was his role as chair of the Anchorage Charter Commission, the group that wrote the constitution when the city and borough of Anchorage merged governments.

"I couldn't have done these things had it not been for the cooperation of my employers," he said. "Many of the things I've done have taken time out of my work day. My employers had always been the type people who said, 'Go ahead and do it, Frank.' "