Fairbanks might have been just another gold-rush boomtown had it not been for several actions by the federal government. James Wickersham's decision to locate the Third District Court here in 1903 was pivotal; it also caused Wickersham to make Fairbanks his home, and he was a particularly effective advocate for the city through the years. The U.S. government's purchase of the Tanana Valley Mines Railroad, to add to the Alaska Railroad, further advanced Fairbanks's viability. The location of the future University of Alaska at a nearby site brought students and faculty, and the establishment of Ladd Field brought a population of U.S. military personnel. But it was the gold that started it all.
Elbridge Truman Barnette established a trading post on this site in 1901, when his steamboat could travel no farther up the Chena River. The site proved to be fortuitous, for that winter gold was found on creeks north of the Chena, and the closest navigable point was Fairbanks (named by Barnette at Wickersham's urging in honor of a Republican politician who never visited Alaska). In its early years, Fairbanks vied for prominence with the town of Chena, located 7 miles downstream at a spot on the Chena River where navigable river levels were more reliable. But when Falcon Joslin built the 45-mile Tanana Valley Mines Railway in 1904 and connected the goldfields with both Chena and Fairbanks, the future of Fairbanks was ensured.
The population of the Fairbanks Mining District soared to about ten thousand; between 1902 and 1909, $50 million in gold was produced. By the 1910s gold production lagged, and population dropped as prospectors moved on to other gold strikes, or back to the U.S. during the First World War. Revitalization came in the 1920s with the Fairbanks Exploration Company, a well-capitalized outfit that brought five dredges into the area by 1930 and began mining on a large scale.
Located on the south side of the Chena River, Fairbanks was platted in an elastic grid plan, bending where the river bent. Barnette's trading post, which he sold to the Northern Commercial Company in 1904, dominated the waterfront. On the north side of the river were the railroad depot and roads to the goldfields. Although the initial buildings of the town were of log construction, a sawmill was in operation by 1904, and from then on most of the buildings were wood-framed, one-story bungalows or cottages, with a few two-story foursquares. A May 1906 fire devastated much of the commercial center of the city, but Wickersham, who had built a wood-framed house in 1904, felt that its effects were beneficial overall. When he returned to Fairbanks in July 1906, he noted in his journal:
The town looks fine—as usual a big fire hurts individuals, but helped the town very much. The old log cabins—unsightly spots—the different sorts and styles of buildings have gone—and whole blocks of well-built buildings occupy the places. The streets have been widened—in the fire-swept division—the banks, stores and business houses all rebuilt and the town looks better than ever.
Fairbanks today has a mix of architecture. The downtown area lacks cohesion, with parking lots and unsympathetically altered buildings interrupting the streetscape. Concrete buildings from the 1930s are the finest survivors in the commercial area downtown, while cottages and bungalows from Fairbanks's first decade are found in neighborhoods east and west of the commercial center. Postwar expansion is seen in two early high rises downtown, as well as in suburban growth. In the last few decades, good new architecture has been built at isolated spots around town, as well as at the university, which provides a catalog of architecture from the last three decades.
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