Category Archives: history

The American Lion

Skull of an American Lion, discovered in Alaska

The American Lion went extinct approximately 11,000 years ago. A sister lineage to the European Cave Lion, the American Lion was 25% larger than today’s African Lion. In fact, they may well have been the largest feline to prowl the Earth’s surface, standing 3.9 feet at the shoulder. The saber-toothed cat was more stout and muscular, and the American Lion more lean. The two predators hunted in a very different style, with evidence showing the lion being built for speed.

Home range of the American Lion

The American Lion ranged from Alaska through much of what is now the western and central United States, Mexico and into South America.

Artist depiction of the American Lion

I’ve written on here before about the steppe bison at the Museum of the North that is on exhibit. The bison was quickly frozen after its death, and preserved in the permafrost. On its flanks, one can see the claw and bite marks from an American Lion.

There is some debate as to whether the species was actually a lion, or from the tiger or jaguar lineage, but most classify the species as being a sister line to the European Cave Lion, which was isolated after many thousands of years.

A complete skeleton of an American Lion

The above skeleton of an American Lion came from the La Brea Tar Pits, but there were relatively few found in the pits compared to the saber-toothed tiger. One theory is that the American Lion had one of the largest brain cavities of any feline, so it’s possible most of them were smart enough to avoid the tar.

No matter how you look at it, the American Lion was one, big cat. It must have been an impressive sight.


Traveling the Chatanika Spur

October is American Archives Month:

1920’s travel along the narrow gauge rail of what was originally the Tanana Valley Railroad. By 1920, the TVRR had been bought out and this section renamed the Chatanika Branch. In 1923 it all became part of the Alaska Railroad.


The Gold Fields of 1897

Map source: University of Alaska Archives

An interesting map, showing the two routes into the “Klondyke” Gold Fields of “British America” and the “40 Mile” Region in Alaska. One could go overland via the Chilkoot Trail, or by water using the “Youkon” River.

The only established community marked on the map along the Yukon River within Interior Alaska was Fort Yukon, which started as a trading post under the Hudson Bay Company.

Circle City was a mining town that popped up with the discovery of gold in Birch Creek, which is a great float, by the way. Circle, was so named, because the miners thought they were on the Arctic Circle, but they were actually about 50 miles south. Circle City was a major jumping off point for both miners and supplies that had come up the Yukon and were heading out to the gold camps.

Intriguing that Dyea makes the map, but Skagway is left off. Dyea was the start of the Chilkoot Trail, and at the time of the Klondike Gold Rush, was a thriving community with a large wharf. Today, only a few pilings are left of the wharf, and minimal signs of any structures, although it is home to the “Slide Cemetery”. Regardless, “Soapy” Smith would not be impressed with Skagway being MIA. Stampeders would hike the trail over the pass into Canada from Dyea to Lake Bennett. Most would then build boats to carry them to the famed Lake Lebarge and finally the Yukon River. All for the lure of gold.


22 August 1907

The south bank of the Chena River, Fairbanks, Alaska 1907


Steamer Yukon

The steamer Yukon

The steamboat Yukon was the first paddlewheeler to venture up the Yukon River. It was July 5, 1869, shortly after the Alaska Territory was bought by the United States from Russia. In part, the trip was a reconnaissance mission, but it was also a supply mission for the Alaska Commercial Company, which took over the trade route from the Hudson Bay Company.

By 1885, when gold was discovered on the Fortymile River, there were three steamers working the river. With the discovery of gold in the Klondike, as many as 100 steamers entered the Yukon River at St Michael to make the trip to Dawson City in the Yukon Territory.



Play ball!

Film Friday:

Winter Baseball League in Fairbanks; Photo credit: University of Alaska Archives

Mail Run

Film Friday:

Photo courtesy of University of Alaska Archives

The Yukon River mail run, leaving Eagle, Alaska around 1906. Currently, only media mail still travels this way within the state.


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


The Good Friday Earthquake

Aerial view of Anchorage’s Park Strip the day after the 9.2 quake; Photo from the University of Alaska Archives

Saturday, March 27 was the 57th Anniversary of the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake that hit south-central Alaska. The 9.2 magnitude earthquake struck at 5:36 pm AST, and the earth shook for the next 4 minutes and 28 seconds. Witnesses say that the earth roared like a freight train for that entire time.

The epicenter was 78 miles from Anchorage in Prince William Sound. It was a relatively shallow quake, with a depth of roughly 15 miles. 131 people were killed due to the earthquake, with 122 of the deaths due to the resulting tsunamis.

Downtown Anchorage after the 1964 earthquake; Photo from the University of Alaska Archives

Seward, Kodiak, Valdez, Chenega, were all hit by tsunamis. Shoup Bay was hit by the largest tsunami with a wave height of 220 feet.

In the first 24 hours after the main shaker, there were 11 aftershocks over 6.0, with another nine over the following three weeks. Thousands of aftershocks hit the area over the next year.