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Fairbanks: Golden Heart City
A story of its founding

By June Allen


July 13, 2004

Ketchikan, Alaska - In the summer of 1901, bustling, one-year-old Ketchikan was building its first schoolhouse and had set a hefty tax rate of 7.5 mills to pay for it. Juneau was busily producing gold and had just been named the new capital city of Seward's Ice Box, snatching that honor away from beautiful little Sitka, once the Russian capital of Alaska. Brand new Nome was the most recent of Alaska's Gold Rush-created towns and was growing by leaps and bounds. There would be no Anchorage for another 13 years and the only Cook Inlet town was Knik, the supply center for the mines and prospects in the Susitna region. The little port of Valdez on Prince William Sound was a struggling mining town as well as the seat of Alaska's Third Judicial District. In all, the U.S. Census in 1900 counted some 63,500 people in all of Alaska.

photo Steamboat Wilbur Crimmin

Steamboat, Wilbur Crimmin, from rear, at dock in Fairbanks [between ca. 1900 and 1916]
Forms part of: Frank and Frances Carpenter collection (Library of Congress). Gift; Mrs. W. Chapin Huntington; 1951. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

And as yet there was no Fairbanks. Then in late August of 1901, the small steamer Lavelle Young edged her way around some minor but unexpected rapids in the unusually shallow Tanana River. Each season the Tanana changed her appearance, confusing even experienced skippers. The steamer nosed her way past a tiny clearing near the mouth of the Chena River where a pair of traders planned to open a trading post. The Lavelle Young then cautiously proceeded up what appeared to be a wider channel, the captain perhaps hoping it would loop back into the Tanana. The rivers meandering through the broad valleys of the Interior are shallow and broad, often braided with ever-changing and confusing channels.

But Capt. Charles Adams found himself on the Chena River, a shallow channel getting narrower as it snaked along its lazy, monotonous course. A black spruce or two along the river's cutbanks that had toppled into the water during the spring's ice breakup swept the hull of the overloaded steamer as she labored upstream. There was increasing danger of grounding. Swarms of mosquitoes buzzed around Capt. Adams, whose patience was wearing thin with this unforeseen detour.

photo Alaska Citizen Building

The Alaska Citizen building - Fairbanks, Alaska [between ca. 1900 and 1916]
Forms part of: Frank and Frances Carpenter collection (Library of Congress). Gift; Mrs. W. Chapin Huntington; 1951. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

In spite of a $6,000 contract with trader E. T. Barnette and the man's $20,000 cargo of general supplies and trading goods, Capt. Adams realized it would be impossible to continue this planned voyage up the Tanana to Tanacross, still hundreds of miles upstream. It was already late August. The glossy summer green of motionless birch leaves could turn autumn yellow overnight at this latitude 64 degrees 50 N ­ and plunging temperatures would not be far behind.

The captain had made up his mind. In spite of a reportedly hour-long argument with Barnette, and in spite of Mrs. Barnette's tears, the ship's log would record that at 4 p.m. August 26, 1901, the entire cargo of foodstuffs, tools and merchandise, Mr. Elbridge Truman Barnette, his weeping wife, his partner Charles Smith and three other men - one of whom may have been Frank Cleary, Barnette's brother-in-law - plus a horse and a dog team were offloaded on the spot. Deckhand Angus McDougall and Barnette's entourage reportedly cleared a few trees and made a clearing to cache the goods and peg-in tents for the rains sure to come. The captain sounded the ship's whistle as it headed downstream, the vessel riding higher and lighter.

photo Fairbanks' street scene

Street Scene - Fairbanks, Alaska [between ca. 1900 and 1916] Forms part of: Frank and Frances Carpenter collection (Library of Congress). Gift; Mrs. W. Chapin Huntington; 1951. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

The precise location of that historic landing is said to be the present location of today's First and Cushman Streets in Fairbanks. But at that time it was just a raw clearing in the uninhabited middle of nowhere, on the wooded southern bank of a sluggish narrow river.

Contemporary accounts present few other details of this legendary arrival of Fairbanks' founder, except for one other fact. In that summer of 1901, there were at least two other human beings in the nearby hills a few miles to the north and east of this new city-center-to-be. Their names were Felix Pedro and Tom Gilmore. Pedro sighted the Lavelle Young's smoke from their hilltop campsite. They had had been living on moose meat and berries as they prospected the creeks and rolling hills and were thrilled to discover that there were supplies available so near. The prospectors were Elbridge Truman Barnette's first customers, buying staples such as beans and bacon and flour.

The Barnettes and company, their fate settled for the winter, snugged in to endure the long months until the ice-breakup of the rivers sometime the following May. Undaunted by his aborted beginnings, Barnette - well supplied and optimistic ­ was confident of the future. The ambitious 37-year-old trader fully intended to find a way to get his goods east to Tanacross the next summer. Tanacross was the point at which the Interior's main trail met the Tanana River, with traffic enough to the warm the heart of any merchant.

photo washing gold

Washing gold - around Fairbanks, Alaska - 1916
Photo by Johnson. Forms part of: Frank and Frances Carpenter collection (Library of Congress). Gift; Mrs. W. Chapin Huntington; 1951. Courtesy Library of Congress
Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

The Gold Rush of '98 was still in full swing. Although the original strike at Dawson in Canada's Yukon was about played out, a good deal of that action had already stampeded to Eagle or off to Nome where even the laziest or most hapless gold seeker could at least pan enough dust from beach sands for a grubstake to the next bonanza. There were gold strikes to come! And the next one would blossom right under Barnette's nose!

The summer of 1902 finally arrived and Barnette was preparing to pack up and leave for Tanacross, but fate had a surprise in store for him. Those two prospectors, Felix Pedro and his partner Tom Gilmore, ran gasping and shouting into Barnette's encampment to announce that they had done it! They had struck it rich! They had staked out four claims in the hills twelve miles north of town!

E.T. Barnette was quick to decide to stay put. He suddenly found himself the founder of a new town! He began work on a log cabin store which he called "the trading post." He also launched a PR campaign to get the news out and thus bring a stampede of workers and prospectors to his new town.

photo Judge James Wickersham

Judge James Wickersham in council with Indian chiefs - Fairbanks, Alaska [between 1900 and 1907] Forms part of: Frank and Frances Carpenter collection (Library of Congress). Gift; Mrs. W. Chapin Huntington; 1951. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Word travels fast even in what appears to be a vast and isolated country, and it wasn't long before Barnette was in business. Gold seekers scoured the hills near and far, hoping and in some cases making new strikes. In town, newcomers of persuasions from lawyer to carpenter to card shark were straggling in from every direction. There was one newcomer en route who would have a great influence on the fledgling community. He was Illinois lawyer and former Washington state politician James Wickersham, who had been appointed United States district judge for the Territory of Alaska in 1900. In 1903 the judge arrived in Barnette's little clearing after deciding to move his judicial seat from Eagle on the Yukon to

jpg Sen. Charles Fairbanks

Sen. Charles Warren Fairbanks [1904] - Photoprint copyrighted by R.L. Dunn, Mt. Vernon, N.Y. - No known restrictions on publication. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
this new "town" on the Chena. No place needed law and order more, and the word of Judge James Wickersham was law!

Wickersham encouraged Barnette to name the town Fairbanks, to honor one of the judge's acquaintances and someone he considered his mentor, Indiana Sen. Charles Fairbanks. The Senator was a loyal Republican who never seemed to curry favor with the GOP's party power brokers. He would finally be forced into what he considered the powerless, "do-nothing" position of vice-president under Pres. Teddy Roosevelt. And so, in his honor, was Fairbanks named, in 1903.

The newly arrived judge immediately set himself up in business. As an entrepreneur, he wrote and published at least one limited edition of a newspaper, for which he charged $5 a copy ­ and got it! His unpaid political appointment, like others in those days, required him to raise his own salary through fees and licenses, and this the judge set about doing. Lots in Fairbanks could be had for taking but required a filing fee of $2.50, to be paid to Wickersham. The judge was also available for various legal matters and other matters.

Barnette's brother-in-law, Frank Cleary, drew a map and designed the sizes and locations of city blocks and lots. The judge's courthouse would be on Cushman Street between Second and Third Avenues. The exact center of the city was marked on the map, and at this point the gallows was built. (Today that spot is on the south side of what used to be the post office/ federal building, about a third of the way in from Cushman Street.) Fairbanks began to grow by leaps and bounds.

Newcomers were arriving almost daily. Transportation had improved! The Valdez Trail, begin in 1898 from tidewater to points north, now reached far into the Interior. In December 1904 it was announced that a transportation company would soon provide passenger service to Fairbanks via horse-drawn bobsleds! The nine-day trip would cost $150. The old sourdoughs and early stampeders smiled and shook their heads, remembering uncounted miles of trudging along uncertain trails and through bogs or drifts with heavy packs on their backs! Now they could travel by bobsled?

And then in 1906 Fairbanks the commercial district was devastated by a major fire, the town's first, but not its last, major disaster. According to one account, about 3 p.m. on May 22, 1906, a wisp of smoke curled out of a second story window of a building on the corner of First Avenue and Cushman Street. The story was told later that it had started in a dentist's office, where a wispy curtain at an open window had been blown across the flame of one of the dentist's tools ­ and exploded throughout the building. In four hours, a newspaper account states, "the heart of town was a black and level waste." Gone were four full blocks from First to Third and from Turner to Lacey Streets. Lost were two banks, two newspapers, eight saloons, four clothing stores, the federal jail, and several hotels and restaurants. Rebuilding began immediately.

Gold mining went on without pause throughout the city's travails. The actual mining activity was in a cluster of mines a dozen or more miles from Fairbanks. Satellite communities surrounded the diggings, so a railroad line from Fairbanks was built to provide transportation to and fro. These little towns boasted branches of Fairbanks' businesses as well as their own saloons and certain other establishments of ill repute. The mine town of

jpg schoolhouse Fairbanks, Alaska

Schoolhouse - Fairbanks, Alaska
Forms part of: Frank and Frances Carpenter collection (Library of Congress). Gift; Mrs. W. Chapin Huntington; 1951. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
Cleary City, for example, was a thriving community even though it was four miles from the railroad, which terminated in Chatanika. In addition to several mercantiles, Cleary had many smaller shops, a bank, two hotels, a drugstore and eight saloons!

Then in 1907 the bottom fell out of the national economy as the mining market collapsed. Many people remembered the devastation of the major 1893 Depression that had taken until the turn of the 20th century to show recovery. The new city of Fairbanks had its first chance to demonstrate the grit and determination that that it would need to wait out recovery from the blow. Most were willing to wait it out. The economy revived but the boom days were gone. After ten years, the Gold Rush of '98 had finally faded.

But a public school had been built in Fairbanks in 1907. Men had brought their wives and children north, and the city had become a family town. Except for the abundance of saloons, Fairbanks might have appeared to be Anywhere, U.S.A.. Regular church services were held. Trim log cabins and neat clapboard houses with tidy gardens gave Fairbanks a comfortable and settled appearance.

E.T. Barnette prospered over the decade he had been the lead character in the story of the founding of Fairbanks, Alaska. To his trading post, which he later sold to the Northern Commercial Co., Barnette added other business ventures and interests. His crowning enterprise was the Washington-Alaska Bank. Whether his bank failed of its own weight or whether Barnette absconded with the funds is still debated. In 1911 the town was startled by the news that the bank had failed, and $11 million had vanished. Barnette and Isabel had slipped out of town. It was many years later that word filtered back that the Barnettes were living on a ranch in Mexico. The mystery of that bank crash and Barnette's disappearance is part of the city's dark past.

The years of the 20th Century flew by. There was a world war, and then a railroad came to town, and a grand university was built! Aviation altered the old town once again. Everything changed and after a second world war, the small town became a big city. The one thing that remained constant was the spirit and zest of Fairbanks, its determination to survive and prosper ­ and maybe the memory of the saints and sinners who built it.



This June Allen Story Is Made Possible In-Part By These Sponsors:

Madison Lumber & Hardware - Ketchikan, AK

Alaska Glass & Service - Ketchikan, AK

Sourdough Bar - Ketchikan, AK 
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Copyright © 2004 June Allen
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Not to be reprinted in any form without the written permission of June Allen.


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