Old Chena

This old building, constructed at the long-gone Chena townsite south of Fairbanks between 1904 and 1907, found a new home at the Chena Pump Wayside this past winter. The drawing shows the building last summer in Fairbanks, as it was being prepped for transport. 

In early 1901, months before E.T. Barnette’s party landed on the bank of the Chena River, George Belt and Nathan Hendricks opened a trading post on the south bank of the Tanana River, across from the Chena River’s mouth.

During the next year, prospecting in the hills north of the Tanana increased, and the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System began rerouting a portion of its telegraph line along the north bank of the Tanana River. Consequently, Belt and Hendricks moved their trading post to the Tanana’s north bank in spring 1902.

Buoyed by an influx of stampeders from Rampart, a town sprang into existence south of the Chena’s mouth. At first it was called Tanana City, then Chenoa (later shortened to Chena).

Belt and Hendricks reserved a lot in the center of town, and others staked lots around them. Chena’s early days were a helter-skelter free-for-all. Lot jumping was common, and the only way to enforce a claimant’s rights was with force. According to Terrence Cole in his book, “Crooked Past,” two residents who had staked a lot and built a cabin at Chena returned from a trip upriver to find that all their possessions, including their cabin, had been stolen.

It was not until Martin Harrais arrived at Chena in fall 1903 that some semblance of order began to appear. Harrais was a business associate of Falcon Joslin, who was the driving force behind construction of the Tanana Mines Railway (TMR), later renamed the Tanana Valley Railroad.

Harrais came to Chena to map a preliminary route for the railway and went on to become the first mayor of Chena. His party wagered that Chena had a better location than Fairbanks, and that Fairbanks could not survive. The railway route chosen by Harrais’ party ran from Chena to the foot of Pedro Dome northeast of Fairbanks, and bypassed Fairbanks entirely. Within a year, however, it was decided to extend the line to Fairbanks.

With Chena becoming the TVR’s southern terminus, the town quickly grew, for a time rivaling Fairbanks. During its boom years of 1904-05, it boasted numerous stores and saloons, a telegraph office, at least one church, a hospital, several newspapers, police and fire departments, bustling waterfront and large railroad yard.

Prosperity was not to last though. While Fairbanks grew, Chena shrank. By 1910 about 4,000 people lived in the Fairbanks/Garden Island/Graehl area, while less than 200 called Chena home.

In 1915, Nenana was chosen as the northern headquarters for construction of the Alaska Railroad, and the next year many of Chena’s deserted buildings were disassembled and floated to Nenana. Others were moved to Fairbanks. By 1920, when the railroad tracks to Chena were torn up, Chena had only 18 residents.

The building shown in the drawing is one of the structures moved from Chena to Fairbanks. It is a wood-frame structure, about 8 foot by 20 foot, with a shed roof and false front. The structure was probably built between 1904 and 1907, and the false front suggests that it was once a commercial building.

It was moved to Weeks Field (where Noel Wien Library is now), which was Fairbanks’ first airport. During World War II the building was used by the Civil Aeronautics Authority as housing. When Fairbanks International Airport opened in 1951, Weeks Field closed, and the old building was relocated to the property of Alaska Stewart Linck on Tenth Avenue.

Linck’s son, James Moody, inherited the structure upon her death. After Moody died last year, his estate donated the building to the Alaska State Parks. The building was returned to Chena in the winter of 2018-19. Now located at Chena Pump Wayside, it is awaiting restoration.

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

Sources:

• Correspondence with Martin Gutoski, Fairbanks historian

• “Crooked Past—The History of a Frontier Mining Camp: Fairbanks, Alaska.” Terrence Cole. University of Alaska Press. 1991

• “City of Fairbanks impounds trailer carrying historic building.” Sam Friedman. In “Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.” 11-16-2018

• Signage at Chena Pump Wayside

• “Tanana Valley Railroad: The Gold Dust Line.” Nicholas Deely. Denali Designs. 1996

• U.S. Census, 1910, 1920