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Fairbanks, Alaska

Stern wheel river boat cruise on the Yukon River is a good way to see Fairbanks, Alaska.

Location / Coordinates: The “Golden Heart City,” Fairbanks is situated in Alaska’s Interior, north of Denali National Park and south of the Arctic Circle. Surrounded by the majestic Alaska Range to the south and the impressive Brooks Range to the north, Fairbanks is laid out in a broad lowland known as the Tanana Valley, crossed back and forth by the Chena and Tenana rivers. Alaska’s second largest city is the gateway to the Arctic, and the unofficial capital of the Interior. Fairbanks is 358 miles north of Anchorage via the Park’s Highway; 1488 miles northwest of Dawson Creek, BC, Canada via the beginning of the Alcan Highway; 98 miles from Delta Junction via the end of the Alcan Highway; and 188 miles south of the Arctic Circle. The elevation of Fairbanks is 436 feet above sea level.

Coordinates: Latitude 64.84 & Longitude 147.72.

Population / Elevation: Roughly 30,000 people call Fairbanks home with another 84,000 citizens in the surrounding North Star Borough (counties are called boroughs in Alaska). Eielson Air Force Base and Fort Wainwright and several National Guard and Reserve units are also located in and around Fairbanks

Description: “Extreme” coincides with Fairbanks quite often, mostly when talking about the weather. The Brooks Range keeps the harsh Arctic winds at bay, and the Alaska Range keeps the wet, coastal weather to the south. Summertime in Fairbanks can be a pleasant 70°F most of the time, with an occasional hot spell of up to 90°F. Wintertime is an extreme opposite, with temperatures reaching down to a bone-chilling 8°F and then dropping to dangerously cold -50°F—often for days at a time. Another extreme example is the daylight Fairbanks receives during the year. “Land of the Midnight Sun” takes on a special meaning here. June 21, the longest day of the year, Fairbanks has 23 hours of direct sunlight. However, December 21st, the shortest day of the year, Fairbanks has only three hours of direct sunlight, and it is from the extreme southern horizon.

Fairbanks is a bit spread out with all the usual amenities, many of them boast being the “most-northern (Denney’s or some other store) in the world.”  Scattered within the city limits are cabins and historic wooden buildings, many from the heady days of the gold rush. Fairbanks also is home to the University of Alaska and its Museum of the North.

Per capita, Fairbanks has more vehicles than Los Angeles and an impressive four-lane highway system to accommodate them.  Driving in the winter season is a challenge. Most vehicles have a block heater, a battery blanket, and an oil pan heater. There are electric outlets on poles in the parking lots to plug in these devices while customers shop.  Many people just leave their vehicles running while they shop, others have a remote starter (point, click, and the vehicle starts itself). While all of these methods keep vehicles warm, it creates a terrible pollution problem, known as ice fog.    

Having reliably cold winter temperatures, Fairbanks is a good choice for cold-weather testing and research.  The University of Alaska Fairbanks has excellent cold weather and technological resources available in its Geophysical Institute, College of Engineering and Mines, Arctic Region Supercomputing Center, and the International Arctic Research Center.  UAF is America’s northern-most Land, Sea and Space Grant institution.

A prime service and supply center, Fairbanks is the closest city to the oilfields via the Dalton Highway. It is also the mid-point of the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline that carries crude oil from the north (Prudhoe Bay) to the Valdez on the southern coast of Alaska. The oil industry’s North Slope operations have a huge impact of well over $250 million annually on the local economy.

Gold mining was the reason for Fairbanks’ beginnings over 100 years ago, and it remains an important factor in the local economy today, both as a viable industry and as a tourist industry. Many the tourist-would-be-gold-miner have panned for gold at the El Dorado Gold Mine or Gold Dredge No. 8 and gone home with a few nuggets…

What to do there: Bring your sense of adventure and your imagination.  Fairbanks has lots of history to re-live and gold still left to pan.

In spite of its extreme weather and light conditions, there is a lot to do in Fairbanks in both the summer and winter seasons. Most visitors arrive in the summer season to experience the Last Frontier and its gold rush history with the Binkley Family’s authentic sternwheeler riverboat ride down the Chena and Tanana Rivers with stops at a Athebascan Indian Village, and Susan Butcher’s house to see her Iditarod Champion sled dogs in action.

Take the narrow-guage railroad to the El Dorado Gold Mine and pan for a little gold (you get to take what you find with you). You’ll also find plenty of reasons to leave a little of your own “gold” in the souvenir shop there.  You may also pan for gold at the gold dredge No, 8. As you stroll through the gold dredge camp.

Pioneer Park (aka Alaska Land) is Fairbank’s largest attraction, 44 acres of theme park created to commemorate the 100th year of the U.S. possession of Alaska. Part theme park, part historic village, Pioneer Park sports gold rush town streets with original buildings that have been moved from downtown. Save room for dinner—their salmon bake is one not to miss!

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline is just north of Fairbanks. You can walk right up to it and see the famous transporter of “black gold.”  Look for the unique refrigerator magnets made from the pipeline. Don’t forget to ask about the pigs.

For those who want to experience nature in Fairbanks, the Large Animal Research Station will give you an up-close view of caribou and musk ox. The U of A Museum of the North has a new wing, features ancient ivory carvings, coiled grass baskets, and other Alaska Native arts along with historic and contemporary art.

Other places to visit is the Georgeson Botanical Gardens and the Great Alaskan Bowl Company. For those of you who golf, don’t miss Ivory Jacks Annual Invitational golf Tourney (outdoor winter golf, five holes, on the shortest day of the year!)

The winter months are the best time to view the northern lights and to watch mushing races, Nordic skiing, skiathlons, and dog sledding. The World Ice Art Championships are held in March as is the Nenana Ice Classic Tripod Classic (the official start-up of guessing when the ice will break on the Tanana river), the North Pole Winter Festival, and the Curling Bonspiel.

Spring brings the annual Harley Davidson Mortorcyle Spring Run while summer hosts the Annual Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival.

History: E.T. Barnette, a trading post merchant from Ohio, was heading up the Tanana River on the steamship, SS Lavelle Young, with supplies for the Tanacross gold fields. He hoped to establish a trading post alond the trail from Valdez to Eagle on the Tanana River. The sternwheeler ran aground and was forced to turn back at what is now the corner of 1st Avenue and Cushman Street. Barnette and his distraught young wife, Isabelle, were left on the bank. They set up a temporary trading post in 1901, Barnette made his temporary post permanent the following year when an Italian immigrant named Felix Pedro discovered gold nearby. Barnette exaggerated news of the strike and many hopeful miners arrived. Gold paid the bills for many in 1903.

Mining gold in this area was difficult. The ground is frozen solid most of the year, a condition known as permafrost. Sluice boxes and gold pans were almost useless. The ground had to be thawed, a time-consuming and difficult task. Trees are scarce in this area, and what few there were, were cut down and used for fires to melt the ground. Larger operations used steam. Once the ground was thawed enough to dig, the muck was hauled to the surface and piled up where it promptly froze again, to be panned and sluiced in the warmer summer months.

Lots of political favors have been returned with place-naming in Alaska. Fairbanks is named for the then Indiana senator, Charles Fairbanks, who later became Vice President under Theodore Roosevelt.  Fairbanks was a bustling city in the early 1900s, it was the largest city in Alaska, its residents had access to electric lights, a sewage system, police and fire departments, and a federal jail. The University of Alaska Fairbanks was founded in 1917 (called the Alaska Agricultural  College and school of Mines).  Barnette, the trading post merchant, made money selling supplies to the miners as well as embezzling over a million dollars from the Washington-Alaska Bank he founded—causing his hasty departure from the city. This wasn’t the first time Barnette had been in trouble, before coming to Alaska, he spent five years in prison in Washington state for stealing his partner’s gold.

In 1923 the Alaska Railroad reached Fairbanks brining mining company money, materials, and machines--three-story mechanized dredges. In order to reach the gold frozen in the ground, a new process had been invented. Needle-nose pipes were driven into the ground by hand, and water was forced through the pipes into the frozen ground. The water didn’t have to be hot, just warmer than the ground. Once the ground was thawed the dredge dug it up, extracted the gold and spit out the waste behind it. Long piles of tailings zigzag their way across the landscape looking like huge worms of rock and dirt. The most famous dredge in the area is Dredge No. 8. It operated from 1928 until 1959, recovering over 7.5 million ounces of gold. It is listed as a national historical site and is the most viewed dredge in Alaska.

As mining activity declined, so did Fairbanks’ growth. WWII and the construction of the Alcan (Alaska Canada Highway), brought military bases and the next boom in the city’s economy. The big boom in the economy through came with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Oil was discovered in 1968 in Prudhoe Bay north of the Arctic Circle on the North Slope of Alaska. Fairbanks was the principal point of contact for supplies and transportation for the construction of the new pipeline.  The bust arrived shortly after the completion of the pipeline. Unemployment was nearly 25% in Fairbanks in 1979. Declining prices of crude in 1986 and the economy hit rock bottom.

Fairbanks was on the rebound in the 1990s, thanks to tourism and once again, gold. The Fort Knox Gold Mine, just north of Fairbanks is the largest gold mine in Alaska. In 1998, it produced 365,000 ounces (worth over $170 million dollars, US.) In 1998, it employed 260 workers and contributed more than $4 million in taxes to Fairbanks.  The mine is still active today.

How to get there: Fairbanks is well-connected to the world by air, rail, road. Fairbanks International Airport is close to downtown with shuttles, rental cars, taxi transfers and occasional bus service available. Several airlines offer daily direct flights from Fairbanks to the Lower 48 as well as destinations all over Alaska.

The last full-service railroad I the United States, the Alaska Railroad, provides daily summer service and weekend winter service between Fairbanks and Anchorage.  Summer service includes stops in Denali National Park & Preserve.

Driving to Fairbanks is a pleasant way to see much of Alaska. The main roads are all paved—or are in the process of being so.

Facilities: Fairbanks has over 100 places to eat, a couple dozen hotels and motels, hostels and many bed & breakfasts. It’s always a good idea to make reservations ahead of time, especially during the summer season.

RV info: RV rentals are available in Fairbanks, make your reservations ahead of time and make sure to ask what all is included (towels, dishes etc.) There are several nice RV parks with “all the facilities” in and around Fairbanks. Some of them are on the shuttle route to downtown and major attractions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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