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Interior

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Interior Alaska includes the eastern part of the state drained by the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. Located between the Alaska Range on the south and the Brooks Range on the north, the lowlands and rolling hills of the Interior are divided by streams and rivers. Because of the discontinuous permafrost that appears throughout the region, there are thin forests of spindly spruce known as taiga. Tundra, wet ground with low vegetation, is found in the northern and western parts of the Interior.

The Interior has a semiarid climate with annual precipitation of only 12 inches, but because of the permafrost much of this precipitation stays near the ground's surface, creating a boggy land and excellent breeding ground for mosquitoes. The Interior has the greatest temperature extremes in the state, ranging from –50 and –60 degrees in winter to 80 or even 90 degrees in the summer.

Most of the Interior was inhabited by Athapaskan Indians, who led a nomadic life centered on hunting. Isolated trading posts established by the British Hudson's Bay Company and the Russian-American Company created a market for furs and introduced material goods into Native culture. The gold rush, however, changed the lives of the Natives radically; they were introduced to a market economy and to the ready availability of manufactured goods, processed foods, and liquor.

White Americans prospected for gold in the Interior before the Klondike strike. Most successful was the strike at Birch Creek, which resulted in a stampede to Circle City on the Yukon River in 1896. But the thirty thousand gold seekers who poured into Canada's Klondike region after 1897 dramatically increased the population of Interior Alaska. Many of the gold seekers, disappointed in the Klondike, floated down the Yukon to try their luck in Alaska. At the same time, the Klondike attracted increased traffic going up the Yukon on river steamboats from Saint Michael, where passengers transferred from ocean-going vessels. Subsequent gold strikes sent this hopeful population rushing back and forth across the Interior: to the Koyukuk in 1898, to Nome in 1900, to Fairbanks in 1902, to Ruby in 1911, to Chisana in 1913. Log cabin towns were born and died overnight.

Permanent institutions of government and religion rushed to keep up with this new and peripatetic population. The Third Judicial Court was established in Eagle in 1900 but moved to Fairbanks in 1903. The U.S. Army set up a post at Fort Egbert, near Eagle, in 1899, but it was practically deserted by 1910. The Episcopal church, which was active in the Interior before the strike in the Klondike, invested $1,800 in a church in 1896 in Circle, which was a ghost town two years later. The Episcopalians established several missions along the Yukon, with ministering to the Natives as their priority over the needs of the miners. They were joined by the Roman Catholics, who established a mission at Holy Cross and a church in Fairbanks, among other places.

Although few buildings are known to exist from before the Klondike strike, a fair number remain from the turn of the twentieth century. On the creeks, log cabins were built with the sole purpose of immediate shelter, for one winter or as long as the gold held out. Usually constructed with sill logs laid directly on the ground, and with a disregard for permafrost, these buildings were only semi-permanent. As towns were built, construction reflected conflicting aims: the appearance of stability versus practicality in what would probably be temporary boomtowns. Inexpensive log cabins sat beside wood-framed houses, and mill-sawn false fronts were attached to log buildings.

Overland transportation improved in response to the needs of the population of the Interior. The Valdez-Eagle and Valdez-Fairbanks trails were established, then upgraded. Along those and other frequented routes, roadhouses were constructed every 20 miles or so, providing shelter and food to travelers. Larger than their residential neighbors, roadhouses and stores are usually the only two-story log buildings to be found. The Alaska Railroad, completed in 1923, provided a linkage to Anchorage and the South-Central Region.

Although easily obtained placer gold was not mined in small-scale operations with much success after about 1910, well-capitalized outfits brought a second generation of mining—dredging and extensive hydraulic operations—to the goldfields in the 1920s and 1930s. Military buildup during World War II and after also helped the local economy, as well as sparking construction of the Alaska Highway: at last, Alaska was joined to the rest of the continent by road. Construction of the oil pipeline in the 1970s resulted in another boom, comparable to the gold rush in the population it attracted and the modernization it provoked.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Alison K. Hoagland

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