Katherine “Kitty” Hensley was a most inhospitable woman. So it is very ironic that today, her home is a warm and inviting living museum that welcomes visitors from around the world to our “Golden Heart City.”
Kitty was a pioneering woman who owned the riverboat, Florence S. Her friend, Captain Edward James "Cap" Smythe, piloted the vessel, hauling freight and passengers on the Tanana River and its larger tributaries. Kitty and her young daughter, Hazel, were constant passengers until a particularly bitter quarrel between the two friends in the summer of 1910, sparked a near revolt by the deckhands. They threatened to quit if "the women" remained aboard. Since deckhands were scarce, Kitty and her daughter were banished to shore life.
Kitty was a charter member of the Pioneers of Alaska Fairbanks, Women's Auxiliary No. 8. She arrived in Skagway, Alaska in 1898, during the height of the Klondike Gold Rush. She moved to Fairbanks in 1904.
In 1914, the Florence S. was badly damaged during the spring break-up by heavy ice and high water. Unable to afford the repairs, Kitty decided to salvage lumber from the boat to sell. Part of it was retained and Cap used it to remodel Kitty’s house which consisted of the main room and a lean-to shed that was used as a summer kitchen. A particular point of pride after the remodel was the faux fireplace made out of the ornate captain’s bench from the Florence S. pilot house.
As years passed, Kitty became a collector and hoarder, stuffing the house to capacity. When she slipped on ice, breaking her hip about four years following the renovation, she ended up in the hospital. Fellow Pioneer of Alaska women sought to help her out in her time of need and decided to clean out the house. Upon hearing of their generosity and thoughtfulness, Kitty was furious and left the hospital against objections and orders in the middle of the night, unaided, and headed for home. As a result, her hip did not heal properly. Until her death in 1931, she blamed the Pioneer Women for making her crippled and for the erroneous perceived loss of money and valuables from her home.
Cap moved into the house following her death. Convinced Kitty had stashed money or jewelry, he went through the house looking for her treasures. He never found anything. A subsequent owner removed the faux fireplace, discovering a 5 cent piece and a package of gold dust, then valued at about $350. No other riches have been found by the many pioneers who lived in the house in later years.
In 1967, Pioneer Park was established and Kitty's run-down house was moved to its current location in the park as Cabin No. 11. The Pioneers of Alaska Fairbanks helped to restore the cabin to its original glory and furnished it with period pieces to complete the historical renovation.
Today, Pioneers of Alaska Fairbanks run the cabin as a welcome center and small shop in the "Gold Rush Town" section of Pioneer Park. If you're in the area, stop by for a visit. It's open 11 am - 8 pm from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
In its original location on 8th St. in Fairbanks, this is the house as it would have appeared shortly after Kitty's death. Photo taken in the late 1930s or early 40s.
Showing modifications made over the years, this photo was taken during the winter of 1967. The house was moved to Pioneer Park from this location a few months later.
The house became Cabin No 11 once moved to Pioneer Park in 1967. Furnished with period pieces, Women's Igloo No. 8 welcomes visitors from around the world.
Kitty Hensley House Museum
PO Box 70656
Fairbanks, AK 99707-0656
Pioneer Memorial Park, 2300 Airport Way, Fairbanks, Alaska 99701, United States
If you appreciate the tiny Kitty Hensley House Museum, you can help to support it for FREE. How?
By signing up for the Fred Meyer Community Rewards Program or the Amazon Smile Rewards Program or make a small donation using the PayPal donate button below. If you make a direct donation through the Donate Now button below, be sure to specify that your donation is for Kitty.
Your support and contributions will enable us to meet our goals and improve conditions. Your generous donation will fund our mission.