Anyone who is traveling to northern or central Alaska will almost certainly visit Fairbanks as part of their journey. With a population of over 31,000, Fairbanks is the largest city in the Alaskan interior and the second-largest city in the entirety of Alaska. Originally founded as a gold mining camp, Fairbanks has grown to become one of the most important cities in Alaska, serving as a hub for the military as well as the resource extraction and tourism industries.
While not the oldest city in Alaska, Fairbanks has developed into a major center for commerce, though the focus of that commerce has changed over the decades. Read on to learn about the history of Fairbanks, Alaska.
The History of Fairbanks, Alaska
While Fairbanks was not a site of Native Alaskan settlement, archeological evidence suggests that Athabascan peoples had used the area for various purposes for thousands of years prior to the city’s formal founding. Native Alaskan use of the area around Fairbanks was limited primarily to seasonal hunting and gathering, as its remoteness and extreme climate limited its usefulness as a permanent settlement location.
While some historians believe that the Chena and Tanana Rivers were charted by Russian and Hudson’s Bay Company explorers in the middle of the 1800’s, there is little evidence to suggest this. While Alaska was initially colonized and controlled by Russia, Russian settlement was limited to the coasts due to the expense and danger of traveling inland as well as the perceived lack of economic benefit in doing so.
The first recorded expedition into the area where Fairbanks is now located was in 1885. Led by U.S. Army Captain Henry Tureman Allen, the expedition ventured down the Tanana River and also mapped the mouth of the Chena River. Interest in the area remained scant until the Klondike gold rush of 1896 in nearby Dawson City, Yukon, which brought thousands of settlers from across the U.S. and Canada looking to strike it rich.
Fairbanks was founded in 1901 when Captain E.T. Barnette was forced ashore off the banks of the Chena River while traveling to the town of Tanacross. Setting up a trading post at the strategically valuable location, Barnette’s settlement quickly became popular among gold miners as a resupply point. Originally named Chenoa City, upon its incorporation in 1903, the city was renamed Fairbanks in honor of Charles W. Fairbanks, a Republican senator from Indiana who would later serve as vice president under Theodore Roosevelt.
Following the wane of the Klondike gold rush, Fairbanks assumed new importance as the center of a second gold rush in the Tanana Valley, with gold extraction increasing to $6 million by 1905. Fairbanks was also an important agricultural center due to its arable land and the expense of importing food from outside Alaska. E.T. Barnette served as Fairbanks’ first mayor, though he would later fall from grace after a trial in which he was accused of embezzling from a bank he owned that failed in 1911.
Fairbanks grew rapidly during the 1900’s, reaching a population of 3,500 in 1911, making it the largest city in Alaska. However, depletion of gold in the Tanana Valley caused a sudden reversal in fortunes, causing businesses to go bust and people to leave. World War I was a further blow to the city, as many draft-age men were enlisted to fight in Europe. The 1918 flu pandemic also hit Fairbanks hard, killing as many as 3,000 people in Alaska. By 1923, Fairbanks’ population had fallen to less than 1,000.
Fairbanks’ economic slump was slowed slightly in the 1920’s by the Alaska Railroad and the University of Alaska. In 1923, the Alaska Railroad was completed, connecting Fairbanks to Anchorage and Seward, allowing for faster transportation and the movement of materials into the city, which helped bolster the gold mining industry. In 1922, the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines (now known as the University of Alaska Fairbanks) opened its doors, and it has since become the premier institution of higher learning in Alaska.
Additionally, Fairbanks was largely unaffected by the Great Depression due to improvements in gold mining in the area as well as the value of gold at the time. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt passed a law that fixed the price of gold at $35 per ounce, which gave a boost to gold mining in Alaska. When Roosevelt declared a bank holiday later that year, Fairbanks banks declined, stating they didn’t need one. The 1930’s also saw a new schoolhouse built in Fairbanks after the previous one burned down, and in 1938, Fairbanks began paving its roads with federal government assistance.
Improvements in aviation technology also benefited Fairbanks during this time. Commercial air flight had increased in popularity during the 1920’s and 1930’s, and with much of Alaska sparsely populated and lacking road connections, government officials argued that air travel was the most cost-effective way to transport goods and people around the territory. As the largest city in interior Alaska, Fairbanks was a natural hub for air transport. Flights between New York City and Tokyo used Fairbanks as a refueling base; both Wiley Post’s circumnavigation in 1933 and Howard Hughes’ solo flight in 1938 stopped in Fairbanks. The military also saw Fairbanks as a valuable hub for aircraft operations.
During the 1940’s, increased military activity in Alaska saw Fairbanks transformed. Due to its strategic location near Japan, Alaska became a major center of U.S. military action. Ladd Army Airfield, founded in 1939, was the center of military air activity in the region. The U.S. and Canada also constructed the Alaska Highway between Fairbanks and Dawson Creek, British Columbia, linking the former to the North American road network for the first time.
Following the end of World War II, Fairbanks retained its importance as a military hub due to the Cold War and its proximity to the Soviet Union. Ladd Army Airfield and other nearby military installations became significant bases for remote monitoring and counter-espionage. Fairbanks’ population grew exponentially during this time.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Fairbanks assumed another role as a hub for the oil industry. The discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay, located along Alaska’s North Slope, spurred the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, connecting Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, located on Alaska’s southern coast. As the largest city in the region, Fairbanks became an important stop for truckers and other vehicles traveling to and from Prudhoe Bay. The completion of the Dalton Highway in the 1970’s created a road link to Alaska’s northern coast for the first time.
In 1967, Fairbanks was hit by the Great Flood, in which the Chena River, swollen with rainwater, submerged nearly the entire city. To prevent future flooding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed the Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project, which regulates the flow of water in the area and discharges excess runoff from the Chena into the nearby Tanana River.
Today, Fairbanks remains one of Alaska’s most important cities. Its location along the Dalton Highway and proximity to the Alaska Highway makes it a major stop for those traveling to and from the oil fields in Prudhoe Bay, and it also remains a major military center despite the end of the Cold War. Fairbanks is also a major hub for tourism, as many visitors transit through it in their travels across the region. The city also serves as a service center for interior Alaska and the Yukon territory of Canada.
While hardly the largest city in Alaska and the U.S., Fairbanks has an outsized role in both the state’s and country’s history. Beginning as a gold boomtown, Fairbanks has blossomed into a premier role in the Alaskan economy and a major center of tourism in the Arctic. Visitors to Alaska should take the time to appreciate everything that Fairbanks has to offer.