Daily Archives: 24 May 2021

Great Fairbanks Fire of 1906

The fire starts: Note the sternwheeler at dock on the Chena River in front of the Northern Commercial Co warehouse.

The fire started in a dentist’s office at 3pm on May 22, 1906. The source of the blaze has always been disputed: one theory was a candle started the fire, and another has a breeze blowing through an open window, sending a curtain over the flame of a bunsen burner.

Fairbanks was only a couple of years old in 1906, but due to the discovery of gold nearby, it had become a thriving community. The buildings were all constructed out of local lumber, so by the time the horse drawn fire department wagons were on the scene, the blaze was well underway.

Looking upstream at Fairbanks from the river bank

The Northern Commercial Company had installed some fire hydrants in Fairbanks, powered by steam from their plant. Many of those hydrants were positioned to protect NCC property, although they charged the city $600 per month for the hydrants. Firehoses were located in small structures next to the hydrants. In 1906, Fairbanks had six full time firefighters, who were paid $100 per month.

Citizens from the town turned out in droves to help the small fire fighting force. Many manned fire hoses, others tried to save merchandise from businesses and possessions from homes in the fire’s path. Residents hung wet, wool blankets over doors, walls and even the sternwheelers, in an attempt to keep the fire at bay. That effort probably saved the Fairbanks Banking Company.

With the size of the fire, and the sheer number of fire hoses, the NC Co plant struggled to keep water pressure up. The steam driven fire pump was kept at pressure by wood fired boilers. NCC store manager, Volney Richmond, came up with the unique idea to add slabs of bacon to the boilers. The idea worked, and water pressure was increased. By the time the fire was under control, over 2000 pounds of slab bacon was burned in the boilers.

A picture postcard, Say What?!, of the Fairbanks fire from the north bank of the river

By 7pm, the fire was mostly under control, which meant that much of the city was now a field of burning embers. Over 70 buildings were destroyed in the fire.

“With the exception of the Fairbanks Banking Company’s building and the warehouse in the rear nothing is left standing in the four great blocks which comprised the commercial heart of Fairbanks.” – Fairbanks Times

In 1906, merchandise was brought into Fairbanks mostly by boat. Ships traveled up the Inside Passage from Seattle and San Francisco, their loads then came up the Yukon, Tanana and Chena Rivers to Fairbanks by sternwheeler. The process of ordering supplies started right away, including over 1500 feet of firehose lost in the fire. The rebuilding of Fairbanks began immediately. Local lore has the owner of the Senate Saloon contracting a crew by 6:30pm that night, with work beginning on clearing the site of his lost business the next morning.

Photos from the University of Alaska Archives; Sources: University of Alaska – Fairbanks, Retired Fairbanks Fire Captain Jack Hillman