At the turn of the twentieth century, Nenana was an Athapaskan Indian village. James Duke set up a trading post here in 1906, and Nenana's history would have been unexceptional if it had not been for the Alaska Railroad. With a strategic location at the confluence of the Tanana and Nenana rivers, Nenana was originally intended as a construction camp where materials to build the railroad to the south could be unloaded from steamboats. The Alaska Engineering Commission built some substantial buildings: an office building, bachelors' quarters, mess hall, and hospital, all two-story, foursquare, hip-roofed buildings; none of them survives. On B Street, however, are a number of one-story, hip-roofed cottages that appear to date from the railroad's construction. Although some have been altered, each had a front porch covered by the main hip roof and a hip-roofed dormer.
The AEC platted a townsite here in 1916, and lots sold unexpectedly well. Originally, the railroad was to cross the Tanana at the west side of town, where the Parks Highway Bridge (built in 1967) now crosses. When the crossing east of town was decided, engineers made a distinct effort to route the tracks through town, ensuring Nenana's financial viability. Just east of town, the tracks make a large loop to the south before turning north across the bridge. By 1921, Nenana's function as a construction camp had ended, and the Alaska Engineering Commission withdrew most of its personnel. The construction of the bridge over the Tanana, completed in 1923, brought another spurt of activity. President Warren G. Harding came to Nenana to drive the golden spike marking completion of the railroad on 15 July 1923.
A fire in 1935 destroyed most of the buildings in the heart of the city, so few of the earlier commercial establishments survive. The depot at the foot of A Street and the railroad that still runs through the heart of town stand as vivid reminders of Nenana's past.
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