Couple reopens a Haines tradition

Posted: Thursday, May 23, 2002

Former Juneau residents Jeff Butcher and his wife, Shannon, are renovating their new purchase, the Hotel Halsingland in Haines, just in time for the tourist season.

"It's a beautiful hotel," said Jeff Butcher. "It's one-of-a-kind and has overwhelming character."

The Butchers, who will reopen some rooms this weekend, moved to Juneau in 1996, where Jeff was general manager of the then-Westmark Juneau. After the purchase of the Halsingland, they moved to Haines and said they love it there.

There has been a lot of support for their venture from the community, which was glad to have a young, experienced couple - instead of a large company - buy the hotel.

"I'm still young enough to make this a go, I guess," said Butcher.

The Hotel Halsingland is on the site of historic Fort William H. Seward, built in 1903. Housed in former U.S. Army commanding officers' quarters, the hotel was where Elinor Dusenbury composed the music to "Alaska's Flag" in 1935 while her husband, the commanding officer, was posted at the fort.

When the war ended, the Army moved out of Haines, leaving the town without one of its main sources of income, and the 400 acres of land and 85 buildings that constituted the fort were bought by five veterans and their families.

"The property was the utopian dream for soldiers in World War II," said Lee Heinmiller, president of Port Chilkoot Co. and director of Alaska Indian Arts in Haines. "It was Alaska, the last frontier."

One of the couples was Hilma (White) and Clarence Mattson, who converted their buildings into the Halsingland Hotel, named after Hilma's home town in Sweden.

"Hilma made great breads and pastries, and she opened the Port Chilkoot Camper Park on the property," said Heinmiller. "Her nephew Arne Olsson ran the hotel for a number of years with his wife after that."

Olsson started a salmon bake in the Chilkat ceremonial house on the property. Tourism boomed and more people were hired to run the business, but the demand eventually became overwhelming for the family, and there was not enough local interest to keep the business afloat.

"The ships pulled out and the cash flow dried up," said Heinmiller.

Olsson's troubles led him to put the hotel, campground and salmon bake up for sale. The Butchers bought the property Feb. 26 at a foreclosure auction.

Nearly 100 years after it was built, the Butchers are breathing new life into a town legacy, and renovations on the bedrooms are almost complete.

"Everybody's just been waiting for the hotel to reopen," said Heinmiller. "It's nice to have a place in town to take your wife out for Mother's Day. I've enjoyed it so far."

The hotel restaurant, the Commander's Room, is already a hit.

"It's been open for two weeks and it's been wildly successful," said Butcher.

He and his wife met in 1994 in Flagstaff, Ariz., where she was a pastry chef for the Radisson Woodlands Hotel. She brings her expertise to the kitchen of the restaurant, and chef Ty Stuit has extensive cooking experience.

"We focus on fresh fish, cut our own top-quality steaks, and have unique creative interpretations of old faves," Butcher said. "We have fresh-baked desserts such as creme brulee and warm brownies with ice cream."

Most rooms at the Halsingland have private baths, direct-dial telephones, color TV and fire sprinkler systems. Several are decorated with original Belgium tile fireplaces or claw-footed bath tubs. The price of a room for a night ranges from $109 for a large room with a private bath to $59 for one of five rooms with shared facilities.

"The rooms are unique in their own right," said Butcher. "They need a lot of TLC, but structurally the building's in good shape."

The Haines Brewfest, a homemade beer and ale competition set for this weekend, is traditionally held at the hotel, but with the uncertainty regarding the hotel's future before it was purchased by the Butchers, coordinators arranged the event to be held elsewhere. Butcher still hopes visitors will take advantage of the facility.

"We have 25 rooms ready for the Brewfest," said Butcher, "and we intend to host the event next year."

Tourists on the Alaska Highway and Alaska Marine Highway fuel Haines' economy, but according to Heinmiller, tourism was down last year because ferry service was limited and the price of gas was high.

"Assuming the weather stays how it's been and road traffic increases, this year should be good for the hotel," said Heinmiller.

The hotel was made a national historic landmark in 1972, and Heinmiller hopes it will attract tourists. The usual traffic in Haines is from tour boats from Skagway, and tourists will be looking for something unique, he said.

"It will be a challenge to attract tourists with something they haven't already seen," Heinmiller said. "Haines is a quiet alternative, a small town."

For more information or to make reservations, call (907) 766-2000 or visit the Web site at www.hotelhalsingland.com.

Emily Wescott can be reached at ewescott@juneauempire.com.



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