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Teacher's Guide

Regional History
Interior Alaska

In this section you will learn about:

  • The discovery of gold in the Yukon
  • The establishment of Fairbanks
  • Agriculture in the Tanana Valley
  • How people lived in early-day Fairbanks

Natives and miners compete for jobs

More and more gold seekers came to Interior Alaska. Only a few left the gold fields with the profits they expected. To earn the money needed to continue prospecting or to return home, they turned to other kinds of work. They freighted supplies or cut wood for riverboats. Trapping was another source of income for many hard-luck miners. Although the Secretary of the Treasury had issued regulations that only allowed Natives to trap fur-bearers, if the miners were married to Native women they could sell furs legally.

When fur prices were high, the people trapping increased. When prices fell, Natives and non-Natives competed for whatever other work was available. Some Native families gave up their semi-nomadic life. They settled near mining camps and missions along the Yukon River where they were more apt to find jobs, schools, and medical care.

Missionaries influence Athapaskan lives

Episcopalians and Roman Catholics tried to outdo one another enrolling Native students in their mission schools. Roman Catholics traveled throughout the central Yukon area by boat to recruit Native youths for their school at Holy Cross. The Episcopalians sought students for their boarding school at Anvik. The U.S. Bureau of Education partly supported both schools. The government contracted there and throughout Alaska with church groups to provide education for Native children.

One of the most remarkable Roman Catholics missionaries was Jesuit priest Julius Jette. Jette arrived in Interior Alaska in the late 1800s. In 29 years of mission work along the middle and lower Yukon River and the Tanana River he devoted much time to recording the language and culture of the Athapaskans, particularly the Koyukon. Many missionaries in Alaska thought that in order to convert Natives to Christianity they first needed to have them adopt European culture. Jette respected Native culture. He considered himself very much like a Native on the point of sensitiveness." This attitude enabled Jette to understand the Athapaskans.

In the new mining communities, Indians usually lived a life apart from the non-Native merchants and prospectors. Their homes were on the edge of town. Natives and non-Natives had separate schools, separate church services, and separate hospitals. The missionaries felt such separation might shield the Natives from the temptations of frontier life. The missionaries seldom succeeded in protecting the Natives. They helped Native people, however, cope with the values brought by miners and traders.

Tagish Charlie puts the Klondike on the map

In 1896 Tagish Charlie and George Carmack headed for what was then called the Tron-duick. They had heard that a Canadian prospector had taken more than $700 in gold from one of its tributaries. Their first pan near the river which they mispronounced as "Klondike" was unusually rich.

The Canadian prospector had been grubstaked by a man named Joe Ladue who with Al Harper had established a post named Ogilvie at the confluence of the Yukon and Sixtymile rivers near the mouth of the Fortymile River. When Ladue learned of the second strike, he quickly rafted supplies and a sawmill to where the Yukon and Klondike rivers meet. The town-site he staked was named Dawson in honor of George Dawson, leader of the Canadian Geological and Natural History Survey. The town was in the Canadian Yukon, but its population was not Canadian.

Many Americans were among the thousands of gold seekers who reached Dawson in 1897. They quickly discovered that the Klondike gold fields had been staked by prospectors who had arrived the previous year. Because of this, and dissatisfaction with Canadian laws that required a royalty be paid on production, many headed into Interior Alaska. Food and supplies were scarce and expensive. For a time there was great concern inside and outside Alaska about the threat of starvation.

The army builds forts on the Yukon River

When the U.S. Government learned that lawlessness and the threat of starvation were bringing critical problems to Interior Alaska two army officers, Captain Patrick H. Ray and Lieutenant Wilds P. Richardson, were sent to investigate. Landing at St. Michael in 1897 on their way to the Interior, they found more than 400 people waiting for steamboat passage to the gold fields. At Fort Yukon and Circle were more miners waiting for transportation and supplies. The large numbers of people coming to and from the Klondike created great concern over adequate food being available in the coming winter. Since no civil government existed Captain Ray believed military control would be necessary to prevent violence and bloodshed. Ray recommended that an army post be established at St. Michael, and a government steamer be dispatched to patrol the Yukon River. Soldiers arrived at St. Michael that fall. When the troops at St. Michael proved too far from the mining activity, Ray recommended that posts be openedat Eagle and Tanana (formerly Nuklukayet).

In the summer of 1899 construction of the post at Eagle began. The town was located where the Yukon River makes a sweeping curve to the north, 12 miles down-river from the U.S.-Canada border. Barracks, officers' quarters, and storehouses were built near the town-site. The post was called Fort Egbert. Headquarters for the army in Alaska moved to Fort Egbert from Fort St. Michael. Soldiers cut firewood, hunted, and conducted occasional military drills while they waited for action. But the expected violence did not take place.

As the gold rush ebbed along the Fortymile River, many prospectors left the country, but the fort gave Eagle a stability that other mining towns lacked. Several hundred persons remained in town. The town was a supply point for area miners. It was also a customs station. In 1900 the new third judicial district court established headquarters at Eagle. The fort was a primary station for the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System, WAMCATS, that connected Alaska's military posts with each other and the outside world.

Delivering the Mail

When Captain P.H. Ray reached Fort Yukon in 1897 to investigate the condition of prospectors in the Interior, he was dismayed at the "deplorable" state of mail delivery in Alaska. There were no provisions at all for forwarding mail west of Circle City in winter. In fact, Ray reported, the postmaster at Circle City was "somewhere in the states" and his assistant had been "put out of office for drunkenness."

Regular winter mail service from Dawson via Eagle, Circle, Fort Yukon, and Fort Gibbon to Nulato, Anvik, and Nome was begun three years later. Mail cabins were built 25 or 30 miles apart to provide places where carriers and their dog teams could spend the night and supplies could be cached. The Yukon River trail was marked with stakes or branches as soon as freeze-up occurred. Mail teams had the right of way on the trail. When they found trail cabins already occupied, drivers were given "the best seat at the table, the first service of hotcakes for breakfast, and the best bunk at night."

The mail teams were sent out at one-week intervals in the winter months. The service was surprisingly regular. Only during the weeks of spring break-up or fall freeze-up was there much delay in getting the mail through. In summer, sternwheelers carried the post more quickly from St. Michael to the gold fields. Mail service was established to Interior gold towns almost as soon as new strikes occurred. Delivery ebbed when boom towns went bust.

One of the best-known of the early mail carriers was "Klondike Mike" Mahoney. Before he contracted to carry mail from Dawson to Skagway in 1898, Mahoney had risen to fame as the "walking newspaper" of the gold fields. He carried supplies and word-of-mouth news to miners along the creeks of the Interior. Mahoney charged one dollar a letter for mail delivery. The trip from Dawson to Skagway took him one month. In addition to the 250 pounds of mail he carried, he had to take along 500 pounds of food and supplies for his dogs and himself.

The amount of mail stacked up on the Skagway dock that Christmas of 1898 was too much for one man to carry, however. The North-West Mounted Police took over the job of delivering the backlog of mail to the Klondikers. They formed relay teams of men and dogs to carry the mail in 30-mile stretches. Traveling day and night, the Mountie teams could complete the one-way 600-mile trip in an average of seven days. The use of dog teams on the Dawson-Skagway route ended in 1901 when the White Pass and Yukon Railway was completed. But dog teams were responsible for mail delivery in most parts of the Alaska Interior for another 30 years.

In 1924, the Post Office began a program of test flights between Fairbanks and McGrath to see if it was practical to carry mail by air. Carl Ben Eielson was the pilot. Although the service was discontinued when Eielson's plane was damaged, the experiment was a success. By 1930 the post office was offering contracts for star route delivery by either dogsled or air. By 1937, airplanes had replaced dog teams in most parts of Interior Alaska.

Communications system connects Alaskan communities to each other and the world

By 1901 the telegraph line connected Fort St. Michael with Fort Gibbon. About the time gold was discovered at Pedro Creek, the Army Signal Corps was building a link from Fort Egbert to Fort Liscum at Valdez. A branch line had already been planned between Fort Gibbon and Tanana Crossing, so Fairbanks had telegraph service from its early days. The 420-mile Fort Egbert to Fort Liscum line was in place in little over a year. When finally completed in 1903 the overland WAMCATS line totaled 3, 728 miles. In 1904, an underwater cable linked Valdez with Skagway, Sitka, and Seattle. For the first time it was possible to communicate with other communities in Alaska, and eventually with Washington, D.C., without lengthy delay.

Prospectors follow the golden trail

Those who still had gold fever moved on to other areas. They hurried to Nome after reports of discoveries there in 1898. Some then prospected up the Yukon River. The "golden trail" took others into the Brooks Range, where there were gold-bearing streams. Foremost of these was the Chandalar River.

The Chandalar River strike proved short-lived. Costs were ruinous. The grounds played out quickly. A few miners remained to make what living they could.

Explorers investigate the Tanana River

The Athapaskan word Tanana means "river of the mountains." Nuklukayet, where the Tanana and Yukon rivers join, was the great gathering place in summer for Athapaskans who met there to trade. Later the Alaska Commercial Company established a fur trading post there and renamed it Tanana. In 1899, the army selected Nuklukayet as the site for Fort Gibbon. By the next summer the post had quarters, warehouses, stables, a laundry, sawmill, blacksmith shop, wharf, machine shop, and hospital. The streets were graded and white picket fences were around the buildings. Soldiers looked on their assignment there as "an exile to be borne as best it may and to be terminated with joy."

Except for the Tanana Athapaskans, only a few travelers had crossed the southern limits of the Tanana River valley in the 15 years following Allen's expedition. A geological reconnaissance party retraced and mapped Allen's route down the Tanana River in 1898.

Although some prospectors crossed the valley before 1902, most bypassed it. They did not want to haul supplies across the rugged terrain. They were afraid of the Tanana Athapaskans.

Prospectors and miners establish Fairbanks

In 1902 a miner named Felice Pedroni located good gold prospects in the Tanana River valley. Felix Pedro, as he was known lacked the supplies for wide-scale exploration. Then, in 1901, a grandiose scheme to build a railroad led to a grubstake for the miner. The result was another gold rush.

John J. Healy, who had founded the North American Trading and Transportation Company, proposed a railroad from Southcentral Alaska to the Tanana River valley. He envisioned a "Chicago of Alaska" on the Tanana River.

News of Pedro's gold discovery spread. By September, 1902, dozens of prospectors had arrived in the area. A settlement grew around a trading post opened by Elbridge Truman "E.T." Barnette. At the urging of Judge Wickersham, Barnette suggested to the new residents that they name the new community Fairbanks. The name honored Indiana Senator Charles Fairbanks who was chairman of the Joint High Commission charged with settling the Alaska-Canada boundary dispute. Within a year, Fairbanks had attracted 1,200 people.

Near the new community was a better location for sternwheelers to dock. A second town, Chena, grew at this site. Fairbanks promoters, however, sucessfully waged war with the competing town. The deciding factor was Judge Wickersham's transfer of the seat of the third judicial district from Eagle to Fairbanks.

Tanana Mines Railroad serves the Fairbanks area

The first project was the Tanana Mines Railroad. Narrow-gauge rails were laid from Chena to Gilmore 21 miles to the northeast. From there, spur tracks provided freight and passenger service to camps as far north as Chatanika, some 10 miles away. The Fairbanks merchants built on this service. They pooled their resources and built wagon roads to the outlying districts.

Fairbanks differs from most mining camps

Fairbanks was a boom town, but passage of a 1900 law providing for further civil government gave Fairbanks advantages that earlier boom towns had lacked. The new law provided for incorporation of towns with a population of 300 or more. It also authorized city councils and school boards and allowed local governments to keep 50 per cent of the territorial license feescollected within the city limits. The money could be used to help pay the cost of running the new towns.

Each mining camp had its camp followers. Saloon keepers, gamblers, cooks and bakers, bankers, lawyers, newspaper publishers, and doctors arrived in the new town of Fairbanks. Most lived in small log cabins heated by wood stoves. Floors were covered with layers of newspaper topped with canvas or carpet. Unbleached muslin was stretched from wall to wall to lower the ceilings. These "balloon ceilings" were often covered with wallpaper.

Keeping warm was one problem. Red, rusty, and hard water was another for Fairbanks residents. Most people bought better water taken from out-of-town wells. Wagons equipped with stoves to keep the water from freezing delivered water.

Agricultural experiments begin

Dr. Charles Georgeson, an agricultural expert who came to Alaska in 1898, saw the farming potential of the Tanana livervalley. After beginning his experiments in Southeast Alaska, he expanded his studies next to Southcentral, and, in 1900, to Interior Alaska. Georgeson set up an agricultural experiment station at Rampart on the Yukon River. Six years later he located a station near Fairbanks. He hoped to encourage farming in the Tanana River valley.

Georgeson estimated that 100,000 acres in Tanana country were well-suited for grain producing, dairy farming, and potato growing. Both the climate and soil of the valley were favorable for agriculture as they were in some other areas of Interior Alaska. Many miners had already planted small gardens at their diggings. At Holy Cross Roman Catholic missionaries had greenhouses and large gardens. By 1900 they were raising more than 300 bushels of potatoes a year.

Fields of natural grasses grew along Interior Alaska's rivers. Natives cut the grass and traded it to miners and soldiers who used it as horse fodder. Many roadhouse operators maintained hay fields. They also raised vegetables for the meals they served to travelers.

As a practical matter, farming was a hard business. The virgin soil of Interior Alaska required constant work for several years before a money-making crop could be produced. Seed, labor, and machinery were terribly expensive. It cost so much to raise crops that products imported from Washington or California could be sold more cheaply.

Rika's Landing

Captain E.T. Barnette's plan for building a "Chicago of the North" at the head of the Tanana River came to an abrupt halt when his sternwheeler got stuck on a sandbar some 60 miles short of his destination. The site he was trying to reach did not become the city Barnette envisioned, but a nearby roadhouse did play an important role in Interior Alaska's history. Now known as Rika's Landing, the three-story log building stands today near Delta Junction.

Rika's Landing began life as a trading post operated by Dan McCarty. Later, the building sheltered personnel constructing the WAMCATS telegraph line between Valdez and Eagle. As the Big Delta Roadhouse, it was one of 37 stations where stages stopped with mail and passengers along the Richardson Trail to Fairbanks and the nearby gold fields.

To early travelers, the windowed gables and thick log walls of the Big Delta Roadhouse were a welcome sight. Inside, clean, comfortable beds promised a good night's rest. The table was laid with fresh milk and eggs, berries, fish, game, and produce picked from the garden and nearby orchard.

The kitchen was the province of Erika "Rika" Wallen. The hard-working Rika had brought from her native Sweden the talents needed to live in the remote Interior. She raised sheep and wove the wool into cloth on a large floor loom. She made cheese from the milk produced by her goats. By 1925 Rika not only operated the roadhouse-she owned it. That same year she applied for U.S. citizenship, filed a claim for a 160-acre homestead surrounding the roadhouse, and was appointed first postmistress of the Big Delta Post Office (then known as Washburn), which occupied the roadhouse's east wing.

Rika continued to operate the roadhouse until the 1950s, when she moved to a new frame house on her homestead. By that time, a steel bridge spanned the Tanana River, replacing an earlier wooden bridge, and a ferry crossing before that. In 1976 the roadhouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The site has also been selected for a state historical park. The restored roadhouse and out-buildings will remind visitors what life was like in the days when the journey from Valdez to Fairbanks took eight days or longer, and roadhouses were warm pockets of hospitality in a still-wild land.

Iditarod serves Innoko mining district

In the Innoko River basin to the southwest of Fairbanks, gold discoveries in 1906 led to the founding of the new town of Iditarod. Iditarod served as the supply point and commercial center for the district. In summer, goods were unloaded from steamboats that came up the Innoko and Iditarod rivers. In winter, freight-haulers followed the Iditarod Trail from the port of Seward to the gold fields.

Although in 1911 Iditarod had a telephone system, a tramway, two newspapers, four hotels, three lumber companies, nine saloons, and many other businesses it quickly faded. The Yukon Gold Dredging Company began large-scale operations in 1912. The company bought up or leased claims and drove away smaller operators. When World War I began other miners left the district to work in defense industries, or later, to serve in the armed forces. By 1920 the annual governor's reports had stopped recording incoming merchandise and gold production figures for the Iditarod district.

Summary questions

  1. Why did some Natives begin to move near to mining camps and missions as they were established?
  2. Why did some prospectors leave the Canadian Klondike to look for gold in Interior Alaska?
  3. What circumstances gave Fairbanks an opportunity to become more stable than earlier boom towns?
  4. Why could supplies imported from California and Washington be sold less expensively than farm products raised in Interior Alaska?

Inquiry questions

  1. Agricultural experiments began in Interior Alaska in 1900. Find out if there is any commercial farming there today.
  2. The town of Iditarod was founded at the spot on the Innoko River that was as far as steamboats carrying supplies to district miners could go. At Iditarod the supplies had to be transferred from the boats to wagons to reach the mining camps. Can you identify other towns that were founded because it was necessary to transfer foods from one mode of transportation to another? What are they and what kinds of transportation were involved?

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