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Barnette Founded Fairbanks, but Gold Brought the People

Captain Barnette
Captain E.T. Barnette's goal in 1901 was to set up a trading post in Tanacross, where the Tanana River crossed the Valdez-Eagle trail. But on the way, he wrecked his own boat and was stranded at the village of St. Michael on the west coast of Alaska. He persuaded the captain of the steamer Lavelle Young to take him further up the Tanana River. Shallow water forced the boat up the Chena River. 

LaVelle Young Sternwheeler[This photo of  the LaVelle Young, from the Erskine Collection, is courtesy of the
UAF Archives.]

When (about seven miles from its mouth at the Tanana) the water became too shallow, Barnette was deposited onto a high spot on the riverbank. It was August, 1901, and the trading post became Fairbanks.

Felix Pedro and Tom Gilmore, miners in the hills north of town, saw the smoke from the LaVelle Young and walked in. It was meeting the miners and learning that there were other prospectors in the area that persuaded Captain Barnette to set up a trading post where he was until he could move his goods to Tanacross, his original destination. 

He never did move to Tanacross. Earlier that year Barnette had promised Federal Judge James Wickersham that he would call the new settlement Fairbanks, in honor of Charles Fairbanks, a Republican senator from Indiana whom the judge greatly admired. In return, Wickersham, who was the most powerful government official in 300,000 square miles, promised to help Barnette succeed.

Captain and Mrs. E.T. Barnette's trading post and home were the first non-Native buildings in Fairbanks. The Trading Post formed the nucleus of early Fairbanks, extending from First to Third avenues, and from Cushman to Cowles.

Gold is Discovered
In 1902, a year later, word of the gold in creeks around Fairbanks started a stampede. Felix Pedro is credited with that discovery. It was only the first explosion in a long history of booms and busts in Fairbanks. Gold-seekers poured in and threw up homes and businesses.

Wickersham kept his promise to Captain Barnette in April of 1903, when he decided to build his government offices in Fairbanks. By November 1903, Fairbanks was an incorporated city and Barnette was its first mayor.

The discovery of gold came 35 years after Alaska was purchased by the United States from Russia for $7.2 million, but it was another 57 years before Alaska became a state.

Since the 1902 gold rush, Fairbanks has grown and been altered by many things - chief among these war, effects of military spending and construction (including the Alaska Highway and the Alaska Railroad), Statehood, a devastating flood, the discovery of oil and the building of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Fairbanks survived food shortages in the winters of 1902 and 1903, a flood in 1905, and a fire that wiped out downtown in 1906. Each time, the pioneer spirit and determination of Fairbanks' settlers rebuilt the city, improving it each time.

By 1905, gold production had risen to $6,000,000 a year. Fairbanks had electricity and sewer service, a powerplant, a three-story skyscraper, saloons, stores, police and fire protection, and a thriving "Red Light" district.

One important historic building is  St. Matthew's Episcopal Church which was built in 1905 along with a hospital--the first in Fairbanks--which admitted its first patients in 1904. When the church burned in 1947, it was replaced with the current simple, log building patterned after the original. Today, St. Matthew's also is owner of the historic Kellum house just east of the church.

Fairbanks' early development peaked around 1906-1909, and the population was about 5,000. By then, the town had four churches, a school, three banks, and two hospitals. Five buildings in the 1100 block of First Avenue date from this time.

The Masonic Temple was built by The Tanana Commercial Co. in 1906 and sold to the local Masons in 1908 for a meeting hall. (Fraternal organizations were popular in early Fairbanks).   It was remodeled extensively in 1916. The current false front looks very much as it did in 1916.  

The R.C. Wood house at 927 First Avenue is one of the oldest homes remaining in Fairbanks. Banker R.C. Wood built it in 1908, and, although more recent owners added onto the house, it has been well maintained. It is an example of an early frame, rather than log, home.

The George C. Thomas Memorial Library is another important feature on First Avenue, and dates to 1909. This was Fairbanks' only public library for 68 years, until 1977 when the collection was moved to the newly built modern Noel Wien Library.

As early Fairbanks grew along First Avenue, it was also growing down Cushman Street. Near the corner of Cushman and Fourth Avenue stood The Palace Hotel, which has since been moved to Alaskaland.

Dates on this building are murky. Historical societies in Fairbanks date the hotel from "as early as 1910 at its Cushman location, next door to Harry Cribb's hardware and building materials store." But state that the hotel survived "in nearly its original condition" the fire of 1906, that destroyed most of the downtown buildings.

The Palace Hotel is an example of commercial buildings in early downtown Fairbanks. It is a simple, symmetrical structure of peeled logs chinked with cement and has different window types throughout. It is thought that the windows were installed hurriedly at the end of the building season, using left over windows from Harry Cribb's shop.

It was renamed the Chena Hotel in 1957, and in 1967 was moved to Alaskaland. Today, many of the old Fairbanks buildings rest at the park and all are owned by the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

Early Mining in Fairbanks
Fairbanks survived as a mining town when others disappeared, in part because of how hard it was to remove gold from the ground.

Early miners cut trees to build fires to thaw the ground, but in just a few years, the trees were gone and miners ran into bedrock. In 1908 there were 18,500 people in the Fairbanks mining district. By 1920 the town's population had shrunk to 1,100.

Mining revived when the F.E. Co. began dredge mining, something that required more capital than individual miners could afford. Until World War II, mining remained an important industry .

War meant jobs and activity for Fairbanks. The military constructed airfields, roads and communication systems. That meant construction and other jobs for local residents, and sales for merchants. Ladd Air Force Base, begun as a cold weather testing station (and later turned into an army post and renamed Fort Wainwright) took on new roles.

The Cold War era brought renewed defense spending in Alaska as radar systems and missile sites were installed and bases and posts expanded.

Alaska became a state in 1959, but began as a poor state. In Interior Alaska, two-thirds of the labor force was employed by government in one form or another.

Flood Inundates Fairbanks
The waters of the Chena River overflowed in 1967, flooding Fairbanks. The disaster, in some ways, was an economic boon. Federal aid helped businesses rebuild and residents received low-interest financing to restore their homes or build new ones. Many homeowners found themselves with better furnishings than they had before the flood!

The 1968 Prudhoe Bay oil lease sale brought theTrans Alaska Pipeline young state its first riches. Pipeline construction and other oil-related activities swelled the population with workers seeking wages of up to $1500 a week, and the population swelled to 74,000 people in the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

By 1978, it was bust time again. A recession triggered by the oil crash followed. One quarter in 1979 showed Fairbanks unemployment at 20 percent.

Another boom followed. As oil revenues poured into state coffers, Alaska legislators made billion-dollar decisions. Between 1980 and 1986, this state with only a half million people had about $26 billion in revenue.

Today oil revenues are starting to decline and the question of the day is how Alaska will prosper in the future. If it is true that history repeats itself, Fairbanks can count on a cycle of boom and bust.

Building in Fairbanks
Fairbanks has an unique architectural history. Building styles developed far away from those of the rest of the United States, but elements of popular styles from the Lower 49 are evident in many buildings.

The earliest buildings in Fairbanks were made of logs. In 1906, fire ruined much of the original townsite, and only a few buildings survived. Replacements were frame homes and stores using lumber produced at two local sawmills. For the first time, two-story buildings appeared.

Commercial buildings were very simple frame affairs behind more elaborate "false fronts,'' such as those commonly identified with western frontier towns in the Lower 49. Few of these commercial and industrial buildings remain. Most of the buildings left, built before 1940, are houses or cabins.

Building practices were influenced by the materials available and the harsh climate of the Interior.  Many of the early homes were built with green lumber, which was cheap and abundant, but often twisted and gave over time, resulting in cold, drafty cabins. Winterization techniques, too, were often inefficient in Fairbanks, such as double-hung windows without storm panes, which is common in warmer states.

Before 1950, commercial buildings often were insulated with sawdust, against current building codes. Many had additions added with inadequate foundations, or were built in areas subject to flooding. The result is that many of the historic   buildings in Fairbanks have foundations that have settled. Log buildings suffer the most from the sagging foundations.

Downtown Character
The Tanana-Yukon Historical Society works to preserve the old buildings, and they believe that "the First Avenue 'Streetscape' is important historically because Fairbanks started and grew in this area. Today, it is one of the few entire districts that still retains much of its early character."

July 23, 1923, was an important day in Fairbanks. At 10 a.m.  President Warren G. Harding, the first chief executive to visit the territory, addressed a crowd at Weeks Field, in celebration of the completion of the Alaska Railroad. It was to be decades later before another sitting president visited Alaska.

Harding also spoke at the Masonic Temple on First Avenue, and allegedly ate dinner at the R.C. Wood home down the street. Weeks Field is gone now, replaced by the Arctic Bowl building and the Fairview Manor Apartments, but the temple and the Wood house remain, as well as assorted other historic buildings.

There was a Fairbanks tradition to lay out the town in long, narrow lots running from street to street. Rather than houses on one side of the street facing houses on the other, most of the early homes in Fairbanks had garages or outbuildings at the rear of the lot, facing the homes on the other side of the back street.

North of the Chena River
The area north of the Chena River was once an island in the middle of the river, bounded on the north by a slough which has since dried up. Called Garden Island, is was home to market gardens and the railroad depot. As Fairbanks grew, it became home to The Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, the offices and warehouses for the Fairbanks Exploration (F.E.) Company, and the subdivision of Slaterville, an early "bedroom'' community for F.E. employees.

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