Stoked on saunas

Douglas sauna tradition is heading into its last season

Posted: Sunday, November 20, 2005

Some can still remember a time when all the world's problems could be solved in a sweltering room on a Saturday night, when visiting the Douglas sauna was a highlight of their week.

"It was like going to a café in the morning and talking about everything happening in Juneau," recalled Bob Thibodeau. "Only we don't take our clothes off at the café."

With the cold rain pounding on the wood building Saturday at the back of his 1316 Second St. property, John Walsh stoked the stove, continuing a Douglas tradition that began in 1906. "It's a special place," he said.

And this season will be its last.

What began as a popular business catering to miners and evolved into a place where men gathered at Saturday night has been less crowded in recent years as the property's current owners, Dawn and John Walsh, have only asked contributions for the use and continued upkeep of the sauna behind their house.

"People generally leave a buck or two," John Walsh said.

But the floor is sinking, he said, noting the slope leading from the "cold room," where he stokes the stove, into the room where two rows of benches overlook the rocks heated by the stove, where temperatures often exceed 200 degrees.

"It really was not well-constructed. To reconstruct it would be a lot of work. We had to replace the roof one year," Walsh said. Since the current sauna house was built in 1960, another home has been built immediately adjacent to it.

Working as a lobbyist downtown, he said he expects to take the sauna down after the next legislative session, probably in May.

Saturday, with the light on in the doorway and smoke pouring from the chimney, John Walsh said he expected some people to stop by. Traditionally, women have had afternoon hours, 4 to 7 p.m., leaving 7 to 10 p.m. for the men. After 10 p.m., the sauna is co-ed, he said.

The sauna's dress code actually has some flexibility, with the towel optional, he said. "I can't speak for the women. "Guys generally leave the towel behind."

"Some people wear a towel," said Montgomery Mahaffey, who added that she was most familiar with the co-ed hours when she visited a few times a couple of years ago. "It's pretty relaxed."

At less than half the age of some of the people who remember the sauna in its most popular times, Mahaffey went with a friend once in swimsuits, she said. But she found the heat makes it more practical to wear nothing.

The heat transforms the little room, John Walsh said as the smell of burning wood filled the building.

The top bench is close enough to the ceiling that it leaves little headroom for a man of average height.

John Mulligan, who Dawn Walsh recognizes as the official sauna historian, said you could get 10 men sitting close together on each bench with others waiting in the cold room.

There have always been private saunas around the community, and there were other public places where people went to sweat, Mulligan said. There were two other saunas between downtown Douglas and the bridge.

The community has helped keep this sauna going. Volunteers put up the current building in 1960, to replace one that went up in the late 1930s, up the hill on the property, in a converted garage "big enough to hold a Model T," Mulligan said.

Up the street, Tic and John Niemi's mother built the original sauna in the Finnish tradition in 1906, he explained. "Mrs. Niemi had great numbers of miners coming there," he said. "It was in great demand."

The Saturday sauna later became a popular community meeting place at the home of Tic Niemi, who lived there with his wife, and his brother, John, who boarded there, Mulligan said. He first visited the sauna in the 1949-50 season.

John Niemi made sure everyone paid their $2, he said. "When I first saw it, it was jammed." He would go when he was in Juneau on a Saturday night - though, since he worked for the Bureau of Mines, he often was in the field.

"There wasn't any TV," he added.

He said he has seen 30 or 40 men jammed in on some Saturday nights. More recently when he's gone to use it, he has had to "fire it up" himself.

As the building has grown older, Douglas has changed, John Walsh said. "What is the same after 40 years? Forty-year-olds are 80-year-olds now."

Dawn Walsh said the hours were more regular when she bought the home in 1985, becoming the property's third owner since the original sauna was built. The previous owners - and the people of Douglas - asked her to keep the sauna going, she added.

Debbie Zenger said she and her husband, Don Zenger, lived there for 10 years. She said she misses living with a sauna. "I told my husband I need one at the house we have now, but he's not going for it."

The Saturday night crowds are gone, but sometimes when Dawn Walsh is doing dishes she will see someone coming by with wood to burn to heat the rocks.

Thibodeau said he didn't know it was still open. But he recalled having some good times there more than 20 years ago.

"I haven't been there since the late '70s," Former Juneau Mayor Dennis Egan said. "We used to go every Saturday night. It was fun. It was a gathering place."

He recalled how men would run from the heat and jump into the snow outside to cool themselves off. "In the winter it was great because it snowed like crazy."

One guy who jumped into the snow returned with a two-by-four stuck by a nail to his back, Egan said. He didn't notice the pain because the snow was so cold. "He was fine."

"At times we would roll in the snow," Thibodeau said. "There was always a big barrel of cold water," he added. "We would douse ourselves with the bucket."

Pouring water over the rocks would make the steam rise and fall after hitting the ceiling, he said. "It would roll off your back and give you a sense of the heat."

Once, when a 5-year-old kid tipped over the water barrel, the heat from the steam became unbearable and people ran out, Mulligan said. "The steam condensed on you. If you stayed in there for any length of time, you would be scalded."

"A good temperature is right around 190 to 200 degrees," Mulligan said, but "250 was a little too hot."

When the current sauna house was built, Tic Niemi cooked an egg in a frying pan on the top bench to show how well the room held the heat, Mulligan said.

Mulligan contributed the old wood door that separates the sauna from the cold room. It was lying around after the city took down the brothels on Franklin Street, he said.

"I was looking for a door, and there it was."

A sign inside the sauna, darkened with soot, directs users not to spit on the rocks. Even the signs on the wall in the cold room collect soot. One warns that bottle caps cut feet and should be thrown in the garbage.

"Everyone came in with a six-pack or case of beer," Mulligan said. "Despite the fact that there was a pretty rowdy group in here, John (Niemi) kept the discipline." Mulligan said.

Mostly Egan remembered the stories that were told. A Saturday night at the Douglas sauna "was really to hear those old-timers."

"No topic was sacred and topics were discussed at length," Thibodeau said. Everyone shared their opinions, and everyone was equal in the hot little room, he said.

Thibodeau said he now visits the sauna at the public pool, daily, early in the morning during the week. "You can only stay in 10 minutes or so at a time," he said. "Then I take cold showers, as cold as I can get it. It's never cold enough."

Nearly 84, he said it's a key to a long life.

The public pool's sauna is better than a private sauna, where you don't get "that give and take" with other people, Thibodeau said. "Some enter into the conversation and some don't."

It's not the same as the old Douglas sauna, though. For one thing, in the pool's electric sauna, there's no pouring water on rocks.

"It's awesome," Mahaffey said (of the Douglas sauna). The pool's sauna "doesn't even come close." The old Douglas sauna "is rustic. It's just a different atmosphere."

"The place probably should be on the registry of historic buildings," Mulligan said.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at

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