FAIRBANKS - Olnes is pretty much just a spot on the map these days.
It is about 20 miles north of Fairbanks along the Elliott Highway. A sign there (dating back to at least 1990) says “Entering Olnes City, Pop. 1.” Now, there are only a handful of people living in the area, but it used to be a thriving little community.
The town, named after Nels Olnes, a Norwegian prospector, was a regular stop on the Tanana Valley Railroad between 1907 and 1930. The railroad had a depot there, as well as warehouse and machine shop. Olnes, with a population of 300 people, also boasted a general store, hotel, several saloons, boarding house, post office and livery stable, as well as numerous cabins and houses.
Olnes is located on the north side of the hills that separate Fairbanks from the Chatanika River valley. Locomotives needed a full head of steam to make it over the hills and Olnes was the only source of water between the stations at Chatanika (the end of the line at mile 39.2) and Gilmore (on the Fairbanks side of the hills at mile 20). There was a small creek several hundred yards east of Olnes proper and the railroad built a water tank there where locomotives could take on water before heading up the grade.
The small hamlet was also a trans-shipment point for the mining areas near Livengood and Tolovana about 50 miles to the north. Trains ferried passengers and freight from Fairbanks to Olnes, and horse-drawn wagons provided transport from Olnes out to the isolated mining camps. In return, those same wagons brought gold dust back to Olnes for shipment on the trains to Fairbanks.
As with many smaller mining communities around Fairbanks, Olnes dwindled away after the easy gold had been recovered. And when the railroad shut down in 1930 Olnes fate was sealed.
It did not suffer the ignominious demise of places such as Chatanika and Eldorado City, however, where entire towns quickly disappeared as buildings were destroyed or moved to make way for gold dredges.
At Olnes, the town just faded away. Its buildings slowly collapsed, or were moved or torn apart to recycle the construction materials. Almost all of the town’s original buildings are gone. There used to be a small false-front building adjacent to the Elliott Highway that operated as a store up until the 1970s, but it burned down in the early 1990s.
The only structure left that might date to Olnes’ heyday is a small outhouse located along the old railroad right-of-way. The picturesque outhouse has a wood-shake roof with decorative ridge-line, iron filigree decoration at the gables, and a diamond shaped window. The interior was decorated with red brocade wall paper — the same type of wall paper found in an old cabin near Old Chatanika, six miles away.
It would seem, from the care lavished on the building, that someone spent a lot of time in this outhouse.
Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist and writer, and long-time Fairbanks resident. You can see more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.