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Fairbanks warehouse all that remains of Alaska steamboat operation

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Posted: Sunday, September 5, 2010 5:50 pm | Updated: 1:32 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS - The accompanying drawing shows two warehouses on the north bank of the Chena River that were once owned by the Northern Commercial Company. N.C. Company was a powerhouse of Alaska commerce during the late 1800s and early 1900s, owning stores throughout Alaska and the Yukon. Its sister business, Northern Navigation Company, operated scores of steamboats.

Company officials were always scouting for new mercantile opportunities, acquiring existing trading posts or opening new stores. When N.C. Company representatives arrived in Fairbanks on the first steamer of the 1903 season, E. T. Barnette (owner of Barnette’s Cache) saw either the writing on the wall... or a golden opportunity. He immediately offered to sell them his store.

N.C. accepted his offer and quickly expanded the operation. By 1905 the company’s Fairbanks facilities covered two city blocks on the south bank of the Chena River. Facilities included an enlarged store, offices, machine shop, power plant and six warehouses.

The Dominion Commercial Company built two warehouses across the river from the N. C. Company in 1905, and several years later N.C. acquired those warehouses for its burgeoning Fairbanks operation. Today, only one warehouse remains on the north bank (the center one in the drawing). It is the oldest industrial building in Fairbanks and last visible sign of the N.C. Company’s presence in town.

The Chena River’s channel was wider in the early 1900s, and the warehouses were originally mere yards from the river bank. Extensive landfill in front of the warehouses pushed the river’s edge several hundred feet away. The buildings had post and beam wood framing with 2x-wood flooring and corrugated metal sheathing covering walls and roof.

(Corrugated metal sheathing was the de rigueur standard for building facades in early Fairbanks.) New layers of metal sheathing were eventually lapped over the old.

The warehouses were constructed on pilings due to annual flooding. Over the years there has been differential settling of the pilings and the warehouse floor now rolls like an uneasy ocean. There is a difference of almost a foot in elevation between parts of the floor.

Construction of the new Barnette Street bridge has forced some unwanted changes. Samson Hardware’s two-story warehouse immediately east of the N.C. warehouses (in the drawing background) has been demolished, along with Samson Hardware’s Illinois Street store. John Jackovich, owner of the remaining N.C. Company warehouse, also owns the Big I Pub next door. The pub’s parking lot will be lost to the roadway leading to the new bridge, so Jackovich had to demolish the smaller warehouse (to the left in the drawing) and part of the larger one to put in a new parking lot.

However, he appears determined to preserve at least a part of the N.C. Company’s heritage — keeping the remaining warehouse and gradually fixing it up.

It seems a few more old Fairbanks buildings disappear every year. I hope this warehouse will be around for a while longer and that residents don’t forget the vital role the N.C. Company played in building Fairbanks.

Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist and writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. You can see more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.

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