Touring an Iconic Anchorage Bar

Mike Gordon, behind the bar at Chilkoot Charlie's.
Mike Gordon, behind the bar at Chilkoot Charlie’s.

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Chilkoots final

Today we’re looking back at the 40 plus years of the iconic Anchorage bar Chilkoot Charlie’s. Mike Gordon has owned Koots since its humble beginning in 1970, and he says the experience has been a rollercoaster.

“I tell people ‘it’s not always fun, but it’s never boring,’” Gordon says.

One of the reasons is Alaska’s shaky economic history, like the lows of the housing market crash in the 80s, and the highs of the pipeline construction in the 70s. “Although the money was coming in agreeably during the pipeline I wouldn’t want to go through that again, because it was completely out of control. The whole state was completely out of control.”

And Gordon is including himself there. Today he spends his time behind the scenes, but in the early days Gordon used to bartend in a World War I uniform, equipped with a scarf and aviator goggles. “I was Rocky the Flying M-Fer. I can’t say it on the air I don’t think. Use your imagination,” Gordon says, with a laugh.

But the later years also offered its own brand of craziness, including one event Chilkoot Charlies hosted in the early 90’s.

“The biggest day we ever had was the day that Pauly Shore was here doing his street party. The mayor gave him the key to the city.” Yes, at one point “the weasel” had the key to our city.

“I took him to dinner over at Romanos. And I was just about to climb Antarctica’s highest mountain at the time, so I just happened to mention that to him. And he turned to me and said ‘where’s Antarctica?’ He wasn’t kidding. My head almost spun around.”

The front door to the "World Famous" establishment.
The front door to the “World Famous” establishment.

Since then Gordon has seen many celebrities, all with varying educations, find their way to his bar. He even helped launch a few local celebrities into stardom. Locals like Mr. White Keys, who still has a small shrine in one corner of the bar. “There is his job application, done on a medical claims form. He runs off a bunch of nonsense. And he writes on there ‘charge for this illness free.’”

And the bar itself touts the title “World Famous Chilkoot Charlies.” Gordon says he’s not sure exactly when the bar reached international fame, but his favorite indictor was when Playboy named Koots the #1 bar in America.

“I’ve been all over the world myself and I’ve run into Chilkoot Charlie t-shirts in the strangest places. And during the time I was climbing mountains I took Chilkoot Charlie stickers with me. So the more remote the location you get to, the more likely you’ll see one.”

Gordon attributes the majority of his success to one thing: Koots was the first Alaska-themed bar in Anchorage. One of the ways he was able to give Koots that authenticity was by creating an exact replica of the well-known Bird House bar, a bar originally located in Bird Creek that burnt down in 1996. Gordon made sure his construction crew got everything detail right, including the underwear-covered ceilings and the crooked floors. To the chagrin of his crew, the floor took two attempts.

“If we raise it any more on the outside you won’t be able to see through, and if we lower it any more on the back side we’ll have to tear the floor out. And I said ‘start tearing.’ Because the last thing I want is for someone to walk in here and say ‘that’s not the bird house.’”

Gordon’s birdhouse even homes the lone item that survived the original fire; the stove. Nothing else was salvaged, not even a piece of underwear.

“All the underwear went up in flames, but as you can see we got a new batch. “

In his more recent years Gordon has been writing a book, which he says are mostly memoirs. The stories will focus on Gordon’s love of mountain climbing, but he says there will be plenty of Chilkoot Charlie tales in there. Including one of his favorites involving a janitor who had the nickname “Big Foot.” While opening the bar one morning, Gordon found a 22 rifle in one of the back rooms. Concerned, he asked Big Foot about it.

“He admitted to me what they were doing in here at night after closing. They’d go on what he called safaris, hunting for mice.”

Apparently, the free peanuts Gordon had been offering his clientele over the years had created a mouse infestation, which Big Foot decided he would take care of with his trusty rifle. But Gordon says he found an easier solution. One that didn’t involve shooting up his bar; he switched to popcorn.

“Popcorn doesn’t have the nutrition that peanuts do. So at a certain point after they ran out of peanuts, the mice all migrated back across the street to the bakery.”