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History of Fairbanks, Alaska
The Founding of Fairbanks
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"Fairbanks was founded on the banks of the water, grew on the banks of the water...
"The late afternoon sun slanted through the spruce trees along the riverbank. As the crew tied the huge sternwheeler to the
stoutest of the trees, clouds of mosquitoes descended, hungry for victims. Ignoring the swarming pests, the crew - protected
by oil of citronella - began felling trees. The logs would be used to build a cabin and a warehouse the new clearing would
provide space to unload the cargo.
Fairbanks was - and is - a river town."
"Steamboats on the Chena" by Basil Hedrick and Susan Savage.
Merchant E.T. Barnette had on board the Lavalle Young $20,000 worth of goods with which he had hoped to establish a trading
post on the Tanana River. Barnette's crew of four men, along with the ship's crew of another half dozen or so, unloaded crates
and barrels containing everything Barnette envisioned he would need to get into business. The cargo, weighing 130 tons,
included general supplies, one horse, a team of dogs, windows and doors, a sled, a steam launch, tools, prospecting
equipment, hardware and basic food, including butter preserved in brine.
The date was August 26, 1901. It was to go down in history as the founding of Fairbanks, and the spot was just downstream from
the site of the Golden Heart Plaza, located in the heart of Fairbanks.
Barnette's plans had not gone smoothly. He was heading for Tanana Crossing (Tanacross), the point at which a trail and
proposed railroad from the coastal town of Valdez was to cross the Tanana River on its way to Fort Egbert at Eagle on the Yukon
River. Barnette planned to steam upriver in his own steamboat, the Arctic Boy. He would then head up the Yukon River from
Saint Michael, then up the Tanana River to the crossing. His trading post would be accessible in the summer by river and
year-round by the railroad. The Arctic Boy never made the journey. In the harbor at St. Michael, it hit submerged rocks that tore
out the bottom.
Barnette was not a man to be discouraged easily. He persuaded Captain C.W. Adams, co-owner of the Lavelle Young, to take
him, his wife, his crew and his supplies upriver. Adams would not guarantee he could reach Tanacross. He knew of no one who
had taken a steamboat up the Tanana, but he did know of rapids said to be impassable by steamboats.
Adams proved to be right. The Lavelle Young was unable to get past the Bates Rapids in the Tanana River. Adams and Barnette
decided to try bypassing the rapids, heading up the Chena Slough which they believed branched from the Tanana River above
the region. Their surmise was correct, but not helpful. The Lavelle Young made it 16 or 18 miles up the slough, but the water
was too low to go farther. Captain Adams reminded Barnette that their agreement was to unload at the farthest point they could
reach. This was it!
Barnette argued to be taken back to the confluence of the Tanana and the Chena. From there, he'd have a better chance for
going farther up the Tanana by shallow-draft barge. Adams preferred to unload before heading back downstream, otherwise the
Lavelle Young would be more apt to hit a sandbar and more difficult to float off. Going downstream with a full load was much more
hazardous than going upstream. Traveling downstream the boat could be pushed hard and fast on a sandbar and the current
could hold it in place like a brace. Since the boat had no steam winches it could take hours to work the Lavelle Young off a
sandbar. The two men compromised, and Adams took Barnette to a point eight or ten miles from the mouth of the slough. They
settled for a spot on the south bank, where the bank was high and the trees needed for fuel and building material were plentiful.
So began "Barnette's settlement", built in a day at the wrong place and at the wrong time of year. Captain Adams was anxious to
leave as soon as Barnette was established. The days were getting shorter, and snow would fall within a month. The way
Barnette saw it, he was in a far worse position. Stranded on the bank of a shallow stream off the main river, hundreds of miles
from where he wanted to be and with no hope of moving for at least a year. As the boat pulled away, Isabelle Barnette was
crying and nearly hysterical. Mrs. Barnette always suffered from poor health, and she was not looking forward to spending a
winter in the middle of Alaska!
The sun set that August 26, 1901, at 9:30 PM. Before the day was ended, Barnette had his first customers - miners
Felix Pedro and Thomas Gilmore. Before a year was up, Barnette abandoned his plans to move to Tanacross,
for in July of 1902, Pedro discovered gold and Fairbanks was on its way to becoming a gold rush town.
Three days after the Lavelle Young tied up on the Chena in 1901, Barnette's men and ship's crew had erected a cabin plus
six-foot high walls for a 26- by 54-foot warehouse, unloaded the freight and covered it with tents. The trading post was on a one
acre site on the riverbank between what today is Cushman Street and Barnette Street. In July 1902, Pedro discovered gold in
the hills just north of the trading post, and the word spread quickly. By 1903, Barnette had plotted a townsite and build a
stockade around the property he kept for himself.
Had Barnette known that Pedro would discover gold to the north of Fairbanks, he would have been prudent to have built his
trading post on the north bank of the river. But with the settlement to the south and the gold to the north, Fairbanks acquired a
problem that plagued it for the first 15 years of its existence - the need to bridge the Chena River.
The first bridge was build at Cushman Street in 1904 or 1905, then a second was built at Wendell Street to the east of Barnette's
cache. Ice and debris from spring breakup demolished both bridges and they were replaced by a new bridge at Turner street,
one block west of Cushman. The bridge had a span that could be pulled back manually to permit steamboat traffic to pass.
Each spring, the span could be pulled back during breakup so that only the pilings would be damaged by the flow of ice. In fact,
the span was cumbersome and seldom used except during breakup, the Turner Street Bridge became the head of navigation.
Steamboat traffic was heavy during those early years. On any given day, six or eight of the giant boats may
have been tied up along the waterfront.
In 1917, the Alaska Road Commission replaced the old wooden piling bridge with an all-steel bridge at
Cushman Street. That bridge was in use until 1959 when the present concrete bridge was built.
Barnette sold his trading post to the Northern Commercial Company in the spring of 1903, with a provision that
he could continue to use it until 1904. The N.C. Co immediately built a two-story, 30 by 60-foot addition along
with a 30 by 100- foot warehouse. That addition survived until 1989 and was eventually occupied by the
Nordstrom department store. It was demolished in 1991 to make way for the parking lot at the corner of First
Avenue and Barnette Street.
In 1908, two years after a disastrous fire destroyed most of Fairbanks, hotel magnate Tony Nordale of Dawson
built the Nordale Hotel in Fairbanks on a portion of the original townsite. Nordale's hotel was on the site of the
old Riverside Hotel, which had burned down in the 1906 fire. For the next fifteen years, the Nordale Hotel was
known as the best hotel in Fairbanks, but fire once more took its toll. The Nordale Hotel burned in 1923. Within
a year, Nordale bought another building on Second Avenue, a block from the river, and began renovations. The
new Nordale Hotel continued to have a fine reputation, but fire struck a third time: the building burned down in
1972 and four people died in the blaze. This time it was not rebuilt.
Just across First Avenue from the Nordale's riverbank site was the Model Cafe. There was quite a rivalry
between the restaurants in early Fairbanks, until fire again destroyed much of the town. On February 5, 1919
the worst fire since 1906 struck. Every building from Barnette Street to Lacey Street was destroyed. One of
those was the Arcade Cafe, known as the best restaurant in town, and another was the Model Cafe. The
Arcade's owner, Arthur Williams, died a few months after the fire and his business was not rebuilt."