Parks and Recreation Image

Juneau-Douglas City Museum

Cole, James V. & Esther R.

by Clifford Cole

There were two Cole families in business on the Juneau waterfront in the late 1940’s. One family had a transfer business and a downtown dock and warehouse, and the other family had a construction company. Confusion arose in many minds when the construction company bought the dock and warehouse formerly owned by Cash Cole, and the owner of the construction company was Jim Cole, which also happened to be the name of Cash Cole’s son. The following is the story of the Cole family in the construction company.

James V. Cole (Jim) and Esther R. Cole and son Clifford came to Juneau in the spring of 1937. Jim and Esther retired from their construction business in 1969, and moved to the Seattle area. Esther died in 1994. Jim celebrated his 90th birthday on September 20, 2000. As of 2001, Clifford and his wife Elizabeth are still living
in Juneau.

Jim’s father, Amos P. Cole, had participated in the later stages of the Yukon gold rush, then spent several years surveying railroad routes in the Pacific Northwest before moving his family to Alaska to the Kake area, in 1924, to try his luck in the fox farming business. Jim was born in Washington State in 1910, and he and his older brother Kenneth, grew up in the Kake area in the late 1920’s.

Jim had spent some time in Juneau prior to 1937, working for a year on the “rock dump” at the AJ Mine (1931) and working as a piledriverman, along with his brother, Ken, during the construction of the Juneau- Douglas bridge (1935). Ken had married Margaret Ruth Snowden in 1934, and had a daughter, Margaret Jean, born in Juneau in 1935.

In 1935, Jim joined with eight other men to form a company (Custard Medowes and Oja) to bid on a job clearing and grubbing a seven mile right-of-way for a road from Shoemaker Bay to Eagle Creek, south of Wrangell. The bid was successful and the company moved to Wrangell for two years to do the job. Ken also spent some time in Wrangell and his second daughter, Frances Ann, was born there in 1936. While on this job, Jim met a young widow, Esther (Ridout) Michaelson, who was the camp cook for the road clearing crew. Esther was born in Washington State in 1910, had come to Petersburg via Ketchikan with her husband, Clifford Michaelson, a logger and miner, who drowned in an industrial accident at Blind Slough out of Petersburg in 1935. Esther had a young son, Clifford, who was born in Petersburg in 1931. On Christmas Day, 1936, Jim and Esther were married.

After moving back to Juneau in 1937, Jim and Ken started a piledriving and construction enterprise by the name of The Cole Brothers. Their first job was the installation of 90-foot communication poles for the Alaska Communication System at miles seven and eleven on Glacier Highway. They bought a floating piledriver from Pacific American Fisheries at Excursion Inlet, towed it to Juneau, and went to work on the Juneau waterfront. Among their early works in the Juneau harbor were the first floats/dock/grid built in what is now Harris Harbor (1939). Regular customers for repair work were the Alaska Steamship Company and Alaska Air Transport / Alaska Coastal Airlines downtown “seadrome.” Kenneth Cole became ill with Bright’s Disease in 1940, and moved to California to try to get cured. He died there in 1941, and his family remained in California. The name of the enterprise was eventually changed to J.V. Cole & Co.

In 1942, as World War II got underway in earnest, the floating piledriver was “confiscated” by the military and taken to Excursion Inlet for use in the construction of the Army docks there. Amos Cole, Jim’s father, also worked on the Excursion Inlet project as a draftsman/ engineer. During WW II, Jim used a skid mounted piledriver to re-pile the interior of the docks on Juneau’s waterfront. These jobs were typically done in the fall and early spring. Jim made the bulk of his income during this period by using the historic cannery tender Forester, which he had bought at an auction in 1941, in the fish-buying business during the summer.

Shortly after the end of WWII, Jim and Everett Kirchhofer, a long-time company employee who had served on Army harborcraft during the war, bought a 105-foot Army surplus power scow. They named it the Midas. With the Midas, Jim and Everett soon salvaged the 85-foot tug Afognak that had wrecked just north of Pt. Gardner on Admiralty Island. In the late 1940’s, Jim bought the Cash Cole dock and for a time it served as the moorage for the Midas and the Afognak. It was during this period, that Jim and Floyd Fagerson of Juneau experimented with a wholesale commodity warehouse business, but Jim soon dropped his interest in this endeavor in favor of expanding the construction business.

In 1952, Jim and Thomas Paddock of Juneau formed the firm of Cole & Paddock, which went on to become a corporation and a major public works contracting company during the 1960’s. Cole & Paddock specialized in marine construction and highway bridge construction, and was the company that constructed the lifting towers and transfer bridges for the seven original ferry terminals for the Alaska Marine Highway System in 1962. By 1959, it had constructed the Herbert River and Eagle River Bridges and the Montana Creek Bridge in the Juneau area. In the 1960’s, it constructed the Brotherhood Bridge across the Mendenhall River. Cole & Paddock operated statewide in the 1960’s and did many jobs far removed from the Juneau area: the installation of highway decking on the “Million Dollar Bridge” over the Copper River out of Cordova; the construction of the Snow River Bridges out of Seward, which were shaken down by the good Friday Earthquake during construction and had to be rebuilt; the Kenai-Kasilof Bridges; and the concrete and steel Seldovia City Dock.

Esther held the job of bookkeeper for all of the Cole enterprises during the 1940’s and 1950’s, but also ventured into an enterprise for herself in 1958, when she started the Juneau Airport gift shop, The Totem Twins, with her twin sister, Edith (Ridout) Willis. Edith was the proprietor of the Studio of Commercial Art, which was later taken over by Edith’s son, Rudy Ripley. Esther continued actively in this business for five years before selling her share to move with Jim to the Kenai Peninsula for a major construction project being undertaken by Cole & Paddock (Snow River Bridges). Esther was always a poet at heart, and in 1964, she won First Place in Poetry from the League of Alaska Writers for her coming-into-Alaska poem, “Transplanted,” and in 1965, she won First Place in Fiction from the same organization.

Clifford Cole graduated from Juneau High School in 1949, went to college and the armed services, and returned to Juneau in 1956. He worked as an engineer for the 17th Coast Guard District for three years before joining Cole & Paddock in 1959. In 1963, he married Elizabeth Castle, a niece of Harriet and Percy Reynolds, long time owners of Percy’s Café in downtown Juneau. When Jim retired from Cole & Paddock in 1969, Clifford ran his own marine construction business for 11 years under the name of Climco Constructors, Inc. In 1981, he discontinued contracting and took employment with the State of Alaska, soon becoming the Shore Facilities Maintenance Manager for the Alaska Marine Highway System, retiring in 1997. Elizabeth did accounting work for Cole & Paddock in the 1960’s and for Climco until it closed. She worked for the Alaska State Department of Revenue until she retired in 1996. She is a founding member of the Capital City Quilters Juneau.

Clifford and Elizabeth have a daughter and two sons. Their daughter, Susetta, her husband K. Mark Beattie and their daughter Kathleen currently live in Juneau. Son, Curtis Cole, lives in the Seattle area and son, Conrad Cole and his wife Lauren, live in Poulsbo, Washington. Clifford and Elizabeth have four grandchildren and four great grandchildren.