The Disappearing Lodge, Part 2

In late May 1959, officials from the Russian River Rendezvous, Alaska Sportsman’s Association, Inc., made a splashy official announcement in the Anchorage Daily Times

Photo courtesy of the Mona Painter Collection 
Teenager Nick Lean, of Cooper Landing (center) poses with friends near Luther W. Bishop’s lodge near the outlet of Lower Russian Lake.

Photo courtesy of the Mona Painter Collection Teenager Nick Lean, of Cooper Landing (center) poses with friends near Luther W. Bishop’s lodge near the outlet of Lower Russian Lake.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Part One described the tenure of Luther W. Bishop as the owner of a fox farm and a hunting and fishing lodge near the Russian River outlet of Lower Russian Lake between 1922 and 1938. A new owner, Harry L. Smith, took over the lodge business in 1938 and gave it a new name, the Russian River Rendezvous. Smith operated the business until the early 1950s.

A Grand Vision

In late May 1959, officials from the Russian River Rendezvous, Alaska Sportsman’s Association, Inc., made a splashy official announcement in the Anchorage Daily Times: They were planning to spend $100,000 (roughly the equivalent of a million dollars today) to build a huge new resort facility on the site of its two-story lodge standing on Chugach National Forest land near the Russian River outlet of Lower Russian Lake.

Included with information about the new resort was a large artist’s concept of what the place would look like when it was complete. The lake and swaths of spruce trees occupied the background. A hitching post with two tethered horses stood in the foreground. The log-and-stone main structure, lined with myriad windows to bring in the light and the view, acted as the centerpiece.

The old lodge, erected in 1930-31 by Luther W. Bishop and friends after his first two lodges burned to the ground, had been operated until the early 1950s by Harry L. Smith and then, until recently, by William “Big Bill” Roberts.

Capable of accommodating 10 guests in the main building, plus six others in adjacent cabins, the old lodge had an international reputation and a devoted clientele. But the Sportsman’s Association envisioned something grander.

According to association officials, the new resort would include 20 double sleeping rooms, two bars, two “huge” fireplaces, a private members-only lounge with bar and fireplace, an “incomparable” view of the lake and mountains, and 20 private, modern cabins.

Available on the 26-acre “campus” would be horseback riding with “hundreds of miles of beautiful Forest Service maintained trails,” a “complete archery roving range,” a trap-shooting range, “affiliated” ski facilities, boats and motors for fishing, and aircraft available for charter or transportation to and from Anchorage. The ambitious completion date proposed for the entire project was August 1960.

Luther Bishop had received the initial Forest Service permit in the early 1920s to run a fox farm on the property. Within a few years, he was equally well known as a lodge host. By 1959, the lodge, which had been dubbed the Russian River Rendezvous by second owner Harry Smith, could be reached by either floatplane or on foot or by horseback on the Russian Lakes Trail, which had been accessible from the Sterling Highway since 1947.

Heading the effort for the fancy new resort was bush pilot Don Murphy, president of the Russian River Rendezvous, Sportsman’s Association, Inc. He said that the corporation had promoted its project at sportsmen’s shows in Chicago and Los Angeles earlier in the year and had garnered considerable interest.

Already signed on as “Charter Life Members” of the organization were Price Daniels, governor of Texas; “Big John” Hamlin, of Texas Oil Industries; Chicago plastic surgeon Roy P. Garrett, M.D.; adventure film photographer Verne L. Websy; and Hollywood star Danny Thomas, among many others.

Corporation officers included future Broadway producer Bill Shirley and a trio of other bush pilots. Murphy told the newspaper that the corporation hoped someday to fly all of its guests into the lodge from Anchorage. He also expressed an interest in forming an all-Alaska guides association, clearly with an emphasis on supplying the new resort with a steady stream of clientele.

Looking Back

On New Year’s Day in 1958 — the year before Don Murphy announced his ambitious plan — pilot Mort Mason flew from Anchorage to Lower Russian Lake to “look over the Russian River Rendezvous lodge property,” which he recalled (in a 2014 blog post) had been “unattended during the deep winter months,” even though Luke and Mamie Elwell were occupying their own lodge on Upper Russian Lake year round.

Mason and a friend landed his single-engine Aeronca Chief on the frozen lake, taxied slowly to the north shore and then trudged the quarter-mile through less than a foot of snow to the lodge. Clearly, he said, the place had been raided since being shut down after the previous hunting and fishing season. He found almost no food or fuel. Most of the tools in the tool shed had been stolen.

He reminisced about the lodge’s storied past —although, ironically, he was incorrect about a number of things considering that his blog was named “Air Facts.” For instance, it was true that Harry Smith had been a teacher, but it was false that he had lived full time at the lodge and had walked each day to and from the school in Moose Pass.

He was also incorrect in stating that the original lodge property had once been the site of a Russian penal colony. That persistent myth had been around for decades, but it had been effectively debunked in a detailed 1987 Peninsula Clarion article by Cooper Landing historian Mona Painter.

The history of the lodge under the Russian River Rendezvous name began with Harry Lewis Smith.

Smith had been born in Mertens, Texas, in November 1892. He first entered military service during World War I and served as a corporal in New Mexico.

On April 29, 1922 — for reasons that are unclear — he secretly married Eunice Katherine Rogers in New Mexico and did not announce the marriage publicly until early June. Their first daughter, Jorene, was born a year later, with Fannie Lou being born two years after that. It was Fannie Lou who was killed by a falling boulder near Schooner Bend in 1935.

After purchasing the lodge from Luther Bishop in 1937, Smith announced the opening of the Russian River Rendezvous, and his business and life in general seemed to be going well until January 1944 when Eunice died at age 43. She, like the Smith daughter, was buried in the Seward cemetery. (It is worth noting that Luther Bishop also died and was buried in Seward during this month. He was about 71 years old.)

Business for Harry Smith, meanwhile, continued during the summers without a break throughout World War II and beyond. A 1945 tourist publication called the Russian River Rendezvous “a fishing resort extraordinary.”

By May 1951, the lodge was up for sale. A classified ad in the Anchorage Daily Times proclaimed: “Russian River Rendezvous—Famous for fishing and hunting. Buildings, boats, new sawmill, furnishings. Everything goes for only $8000 cash, 55 miles north of Seward.” By 1953, Smith had remarried and moved on.

Taking over the business was “Big Bill” Roberts, whom Mason described as “a retired U.S. Navy Chief and a former all-navy heavyweight boxing champion” who lived year round at the lodge with his German shepherd. According to Mason, Roberts “disappeared” from the Kenai Peninsula in 1959 or 1960.

Since no one was at the lodge when Mason made his appearance on New Year’s Day 1958, it appears likely that Roberts had vacated the premises by at least the fall of 1957. One young man who recounted a 1956 summer trip to Lower Russian Lake specifically mentioned Robert, who had allowed him and some friends to do work for him at the lodge in exchange for four days’ room and board.

By January and February of 1959, Don Murphy and other representatives of the Russian River Rendezvous, Alaska Sportsman’s Association, Inc., were discussing their massive new resort on the property.

What happened after the summer of 1959, however, remains a mystery. It is believed that the old lodge, like the previous two, burned to the ground, and it is clear that the big new resort was never completed. But the source and scope of the fire and the reason the new resort plans were abandoned is unknown at this time.

There may have been problems with the corporation’s plans or the permitting process. The corporation may have encountered financial problems in funding such a large project. The U.S. Forest Service may have destroyed the old lodge, deeming it an “attractive nuisance.” The possibilities are myriad.

Requests for further information from the Chugach National Forest about permits concerning the property at Lower Russian Lake have thus far produced no new details.

Photo courtesy of the Mona Painter Collection 
William “Big Bill” Roberts, who operated the Russian River Rendezvous in the mid-1950s, poses with his dog near the front door of the lodge.

Photo courtesy of the Mona Painter Collection William “Big Bill” Roberts, who operated the Russian River Rendezvous in the mid-1950s, poses with his dog near the front door of the lodge.

Big plans in 1959 called for a new $100,000 lodge facility to replace the original Russian River Rendezvous near the outlet of Lower Russian Lake. (Image published originally in the Anchorage Daily Times)

Big plans in 1959 called for a new $100,000 lodge facility to replace the original Russian River Rendezvous near the outlet of Lower Russian Lake. (Image published originally in the Anchorage Daily Times)

This Rip Rider photos shows a successful fisherman posing in front of the Russian River Rendezvous in the mid-1950s. (Photo courtesy of the Mona Painter Collection)

This Rip Rider photos shows a successful fisherman posing in front of the Russian River Rendezvous in the mid-1950s. (Photo courtesy of the Mona Painter Collection)

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