Category Archives: history
Located on the West Ridge of the University of Alaska campus in Fairbanks, is the Museum of the North. The museum takes on the daunting task of introducing visitors to the vastness and diversity, that is Alaska.
“Otto” has been greeting visitors to the museum since its inception. He stands, all 8’9″ of him, at the opening of the Gallery of Alaska. The gallery is divided into the five main geographic regions of the state: Southeast, Southcentral, Interior, Western Arctic Coast and Southwest. Originally from Herendeen Bay on the Alaska Peninsula, Otto weighed 1250 pounds at the time of his death.
Locked in the permafrost, mammoth skulls have often been found by miners, as they worked the frozen ground for gold. Thirty-one, known, species of Pleistocene mammals roamed Alaska’s ancient grasslands with the mammoth.
Blue Babe is probably my favorite exhibit at the museum. An extinct, mummified, steppe bison, that was discovered in the permafrost by placer miners in 1979. The bison died around 36,000 years ago, killed by an American Lion. The claw and tooth marks can still be seen on the carcass. Shortly after the kill, just before winter, the bison was covered by silt. It was then entombed in cold earth and frozen until excavated.
There are only two other discoveries from the permafrost, that have been reconstructed and put on display like Blue Babe. One a juvenile mammoth and the other an adult mammoth, both are at the Zoological Museum in Leningrad.
The American Lion, now extinct, was around 25% larger than the modern lion. They roamed North America in the Pleistocene epoch, 340,000 – 11,000 years ago.
The museum is open every day in the summer, and slightly shorter hours M-Sat in the winter. Admission is $14 for adults.
I was surprised to hear that the TVRR Museum was open in the winter, so I thought I’d head over there and check it out before the tourist season. I’m glad that I did, because I ended up with what amounted to an incredibly well informed, guided tour. Kudos to the museum volunteers.
The museum owns and operates the only steam locomotive in Alaska. There is another locomotive in Wasilla, but it is not in operating condition. Engine No.1 was built in 1899 by the H.K. Porter Locomotive Works of Pittsburgh, PA. It was the first locomotive in the Yukon Territory, and when it arrived in Chena, Alaska on July 4, 1905, it became the first locomotive in Interior Alaska, as well.
Chena was located ten miles downstream of the rival town of Fairbanks, at the confluence of the Tanana and Chena Rivers. The larger riverboats had difficulty navigating the Chena River, which made the community of Chena a good option for the unloading of goods & supplies. The town had a lumber mill, hospital, school, city hall, dance hall and three newspapers. In fact, one paper, the Tanana Miner was bought by the Fairbanks Daily News to become the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, which is still the Fairbanks newspaper.
The Tanana Valley Railroad started out as the Tanana Mines Railway. Track was laid from Chena to Fairbanks, and through the Goldstream Valley to Fox. It was a narrow gauge railway. The TMR gave way to the TVRR and the track was extended out to the mining claims at Chatanika. At its peak, three trains made a roundtrip run from Chena to Chatanika every day.
By the end of 1917, the TVRR was in financial trouble. The gold in the Chena and Chatanika Rivers had played out quickly. The Alaska Engineering Commission, precursor to the Alaska Railroad, bought out the TVRR in December of 1917. Engine No.1 was retired in 1922, and by 1930, the Alaska Railroad had closed down the final TVRR line. Today, one would be hard pressed to find any evidence of the town of Chena. Anything left is buried under feet of river silt.
Engine No.1 sat outside the International Hotel and Samson Hardware for years. The locomotive was then moved to Alaskaland when the park opened. In 1991, volunteers took on the daunting task of restoring the old steam locomotive. On July 27, 1999 the old engine was up and running, and in 2000 it was once again hauling passengers.
When I stopped by, Engine No.1 had just received its annual inspection, and they were in the process of putting her back together again for another season at Pioneer Park.
Engine No.1 runs the tracks at Pioneer Park a half-dozen times a year. The rest of the time, the duty is performed by it’s replica, No.67. Tickets cost $2 for adults and $1 for children.
The museum is not a large building, but it is full of Alaska rail memorabilia and artifacts. Historic pictures line the walls, as do railroad lanterns and even an original TVRR time schedule.
The volunteer when I stopped by, a self described “train geek”, was incredibly generous with his time and info. Honestly, he was a wealth of information on the history of the Tanana Valley Railroad and the status of the railroad in Alaska today. Well worth the time to stop in while walking the paths of Pioneer Park. Admission is free, although I’m sure donations are needed & appreciated.
The Mears Memorial Bridge was completed on 27 February 1923. The 700 foot long truss bridge spans the Tanana River at Nenana, Alaska. The bridge was the final link in the Alaska Railroad.
The bridge is named after Colonel Frederick Mears, the chief engineer and chairman of the Alaska Engineering Commission, the builder of the railroad and its original operator. In 1923, the Mears Bridge was the longest truss span in the United States and its territories. It spans the longest distance of any bridge in Alaska, and is still the third longest simple truss bridge in the U.S..
It was the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 8 Mission on December 21. The 21st was also the Winter Solstice, and when you live in the Far North, that observance takes precedence over most anniversaries. We did gain just over 4 minutes of daylight today from yesterday, in case anyone was wondering.
Still, Apollo 8 was a big deal, no offense to Steph Curry. It was the first manned spacecraft to leave the Earth’s orbit, travel to the moon, orbit the moon, and then safely return. Without this mission, the moon landing could never have occurred.
It was the first crew launched on the Saturn V rocket, for a mission that would take just over 6 days. In fact, it took 68 hours just to travel the distance to the moon, before orbiting our celestial companion 10 times.
With everything that Apollo 8 accomplished, I think William Anders’ photo of the Earth rising above the surface of the moon, was the mission’s greatest gift to mankind. The photo was taken on Christmas Eve, 1968. For the first time, one of our own, had taken a picture looking back at our home. There, against the blackness of space, was our blue-marbled planet, looking beautiful and fragile. National Geographic photographer, Brian Skerry compared the image to “humanity seeing itself in the mirror for the first time”.
New Horizons does flyby of Kuiper Belt Snowman:
The New Horizons spacecraft recently observed the most distant object yet from Earth. Launched on 19 January 2006, New Horizons has explored a lot of our solar system, raising the stakes with a flyby of Pluto in July 2015. Now, just over three years later, the spacecraft, that is about the size of a minivan, did a flyby of Ultima Thule over New Years.
Ultima Thule, which is Latin for “beyond the borders of the known world”, is a trans-Neptunian object in The Kuiper Belt. It is a contact binary, which is two small bodies stuck together. The larger body of Ultima is three times the volume of Thule. It was discovered in 2014 by astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope. Ultima is 1.5 billion kms further out than Pluto, and takes just under 300 years to orbit the sun.
As of January 1, New Horizons was 6.5 billion kms from Earth and passed within 3500 kms of Ultima Thule during the flyby. It takes six hours for radio signals to reach Earth from the spacecraft, and it will take 20 months for all data from the flyby to make it back to Earth.