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.
It’s early August and people were starting to think “white stuff”. I had three jobs lined up, everyone desperate for me to start, yet not one of them was ready for me. What to do with the day off?
As luck would have it, Poker Flat Research Range had one of their summer walking tours that day, so I drove the 25 miles out to Chatanika.
“The Blockhouse” or bunker
PFRR is the world’s largest land-based rocket range. The facility is owned by the University of Alaska – Fairbanks. They launch sounding rockets from the range, in order to study the Earth’s atmosphere and the interaction between the atmosphere and the space environment.
Space junk returned to Earth
Study ranges from the Earth’s magnetic field to the aurora. NASA is prominent at the range, but researchers come from all over the world. All of the rockets launched from PFRR return to the Earth’s surface, and the range collects the spent payloads every summer. There is a reward paid out to anyone finding material from Poker Flat.
Poker Flat Launch Pad
The building above is open on the far end. The interior of the building, and the actual launch pad, was off limits to photography. It’s a NASA rule that doesn’t thrill UAF apparently, but we all honored the rule. The sounding rocket is brought in on what is basically an open trailer. The rocket is loaded onto the launcher, which looks like a giant erector set with a large pivot. The building itself is sitting on a pair of tracks. When ready to begin countdown, the building is pulled back away from the pad, and the rocket is spun vertical with the large erector set pivot.
The control center was surprisingly manual in operation. Scientists are extremely fussy about launch conditions, and they often pull the plug with one second to go. An automatic system does not give the flexibility that is needed, so there is still a “launch button”.
That doesn’t mean there is a shortage of cable, wires, or connectors.
The touring rocket
PFRR does a good job with the tour. It’s pretty relaxed, and a nice way to spend some time outdoors, for the most part, in an Interior Alaska summer. After the tour, don’t forget to stop by the Chatanika Lodge, which is just down the highway.
The Chatanika Lodge in the heart of downtown Chatanika, Alaska
When in Chatanika, one really should stop in and see Ron & Shirley at The Lodge. It is a collection of Alaskana; along with some spruce burls, Christmas lights, and a few dollar bills thrown in for good measure.
The bar at the Chatanika Lodge
The Lodge was originally part of the F.E. Company holdings. The current owners bought the building in 1974, the place had a fire in 1975, but was rebuilt and back in operation within three months. They have been adding things to the walls and ceilings ever since.
The Chatanika Lodge Ballroom, or dance floor…
The Lodge has 11 rooms for rent, as well as the full bar and restaurant. The Dredge Burger is quite popular. It’s also a popular place to go for live music on the weekends.
The T-Bird room
There is a 1956 Thunderbird in the back of the restaurant in the T-Bird Room. The car was brought up to Alaska in 1992.
One of the highlights of March in Interior Alaska is Chatanika Days, and the famed outhouse races. Contestants build an outhouse on skis, and a team pushes the outhouse around a “track”. One team member must be sitting on the throne, within the outhouse, as the team scampers about the track. Life is good, if a bit odd, in the Interior.
A friend of mine had a couple of relatives in town this past week. They had shown me around Buffalo, NY when I paid that city a visit recently, so I took a day off to return the favor. They wanted to see some places that were uniquely Interior Alaska, so we ventured out the Steese Highway to the little mining community of Chatanika.
Mining equipment around the Gold Camp
The Fairbanks Exploration Company, or the more commonly used, F.E. Company, was the big player in gold mining in the Fairbanks area in the first half of the 20th Century. Their largest gold camp was out in Chatanika, with workers mostly working the gold dredges. The F.E. Gold Camp was built in 1925, and it’s a beautiful 25 minute drive, or so, from Fairbanks to Chatanika over Cleary Summit.
Gold Camp restaurant and bar
In recent years, the Gold Camp has been run as a restaurant, bar and hotel. As of Sunday, it will be under new ownership. The current owners would not give me any information on the new owners or their plans for the historic camp.
The Gold Camp wood cookstove, which fed over 200 miners at a time.
Being the Fairbanks area, we were greeted upon arrival by the camp dog. After the obligatory ear scratching and tail wagging, we were able to get a nice tour of the camp from a woman whose father cooked for the miners on the giant wood cookstove back in the late 1940’s.
FE Gold Camp guest room
I’ve been out to the camp many times, but this was the first time I explored the upstairs. There are 8-10 guest rooms on the second floor of the main building, along with two restrooms. The complex also has an adjacent bunkhouse.
The Men’s room, two showers are in the back, on either side of the room.
Between 1926 and 1957, over $70 million worth of gold was removed by the F.E. Company. During that time span, the gold camp had a population larger than Fairbanks with over 10,000 residents.
The Gold Camp is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Tanana Valley Railroad Museum/Depot at Pioneer Park
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.
Engine No.1 at the Chena Depot, circa 1905
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, Alaska circa 1910
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.
Old Engine No.1
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.
Steam power: Engine No.1
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.
Locomotives of the Interior
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.