Story Time with Aunt Phil: Founding Fairbanks
During the gold-rush heyday, communities like Girdwood, Hope and Circle City teemed with thousands of hopeful fortune seekers. But as stampeders’ desires for golden riches turned into the reality of lost dreams, most gold-rush boomtowns dwindled into little more than faded memories.
A discovery in July 1902 birthed a gold rush town that has stood the test of time, however. Fairbanks can trace its roots to one merchant, Elbridge Truman Barnette, a man who wanted to position himself as a supplier of goods to those who sought their fortunes.
But, the Golden Heart City, located on the Chena River, didn’t begin as a well-thought-out plan from a previous gold discovery. It began as a wilderness trading post set up in the wrong place at the wrong time of year.
Barnette heard of plans to build an “all-American route” railroad to reach the Klondike gold fields from Valdez to Fort Egbert at Eagle on the Yukon River. He knew that the railroad builders would have to construct a bridge to get across the river at Tanana Crossing – Tanacross – where the Interior’s main trail met the Tanana River.
He also knew that the way to riches was to sell supplies to workers and miners. Barnette decided to set up a trading post and asked Charles W. Adams, captain of the 150-foot steamer Lavelle Young, to get him as close to Tanacross as possible.
Adams told Barnette he didn’t know of any steamboat that had gone up the Tanana because of its impassable rapids. But the captain negotiated a contract that included a clause stating Barnette, his wife, Isabelle, his workers and all their freight would be put off at the farthest point the boat could reach – wherever that point might be.
Due to low water, they made it about 200 miles shy of Tanacross. Barnette then convinced the captain to go up the Chena. But it wasn’t long before shallow water stopped progress again.
In late August 1901, the captain unloaded the group and all their supplies along the south bank. Prospectors – who’d seen the steamer chug up the Chena – paid the camp a visit. Felix Pedro and Tom Gilmore told Barnette they had found “prospects” on several nearby creeks.
So Barnette went ahead and built his trading post on a one-acre site on the riverbank between modern-day Barnette and Cushman streets. By the next July, Pedro had discovered a large quantity of gold on a small creek 12 miles north of Barnette’s trading post. The rest is history, as we say. Fairbanks grew out of that gold discovery and a trader who wanted to go to Tanacross.