A History of Fairbanks Alaska

By Tim Lambert

Early Fairbanks

The story of Fairbanks, Alaska began in 1901 with a trader from Ohio called E T (Elbridge Truman) Barnette (1863-1933). In 1901 Barnette sailed to St Michael, Alaska. He planned to open a trading post at Tanacross. He planned to travel there in a river steamer called the Lavelle Young. However, the steamer could not pass shallow rapids called the Bates Rapids.

Barnette persuaded the captain to take him up the River Chena, a tributary of the Tanana. He hoped the Chena was a slough that would lead back onto the Tanana. Instead, the Lavelle Young reached shallow water and could not proceed further. Barnette had signed a contract stating that passengers and their goods would be put ashore when the boat reached the furthest point it could. So Barnette went ashore and established a temporary trading post he called Chenoa City.

Barnette stayed there that winter but in March 1902 he set off to Seattle to obtain more goods. He also purchased a boat called the Isabelle, which was transported in pieces to St Michael. He still hoped to move his trading post to Tanacross. While in St Michael waiting for his boat to be assembled he met a man named Judge James Wickersham. He persuaded Barnette he should call his trading post Fairbanks after Senator Charles W. Fairbanks from Indiana. Barnette returned to his post in September 1902.

When he arrived he heard some good news. On 22 July 1902 man named Felice Pedroni aka Felix Pedro struck gold near Barnette’s trading post. Barnette abandoned his plan to move to Tanacross. Instead, he renamed the post on the Chena, Fairbanks and in December 1902 he sent a Japanese employee called Jujiro Wada to Dawson City to spread the word about the gold strike.

The next year, 1903 a gold rush began and a settlement soon sprang up at Fairbanks. On 10 November 1903, the people of Fairbanks voted to incorporate. Barnette became the first mayor.

A hospital was built in Fairbanks in 1904. Also in 1904 the first courthouse and jail were built. George C. Thomas Memorial Library was built in 1909. By 1910 Fairbanks had a population of over 3,500. It was the largest town in Alaska. The University of Alaska Fairbanks opened in 1922 as Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines. It became the University of Alaska in 1935.

However, 1910 proved to be the peak year. Gold production fell dramatically. As a result, the population shrank. By 1920 it had fallen to less than 1,200. It then began to grow again but it was still less than 3,500 in 1940.

Modern Fairbanks

However, the population of Fairbanks greatly increased during the 1940s and 1950s. By 1960 it was over 13,000. By 1990 it had surpassed 30,000.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks was founded in 1917. It includes The Museum of the North.

Fairbanks International Airport opened in 1951. In 1967 Fairbanks was severely damaged by a flood.

However, the next year, in 1968 oil was struck near Prudhoe Bay. A pipeline was built between 1974 and 1977 and as a result, the economy of Fairbanks boomed. The boom ended when the pipeline was completed but prosperity returned in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, Bentley Mall opened in 1977. Golden Heart Plaza was created in 1987. Today tourism is an important industry in Fairbanks. Pioneer Park was built in 1967. Pioneer Air Museum opened in 1992. Fairbanks Children’s Museum opened in its present building in 2015. Fairbanks is also known for its Ice Museum and Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum.

Today Fairbanks is a thriving town. It’s called The Golden Heart City. In 2022 the population of Fairbanks was 32,000.

Last revised 2024