Pioneer Park offers visitors numerous opportunities to take in the deep and rich history of Fairbanks and Interior Alaska. Museums and facilities in the park showcase aviation and railroad history, as well as some of Fairbanks’ storied buildings.
The Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation Department oversees the park. Facilities are open from noon to 8 p.m. daily through Labor Day weekend. Most are free, but some charge admission or ask for a donation.
Here are some of the major attractions:
The Pioneers of Alaska play a huge role at Pioneer Park by operating the Pioneer Museum, the Big Stampede Show and the Kitty Hensley House.
This year, access to facilities will be limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Pioneer Museum features hundreds of photographs and numerous items donated by the early pioneers and gold-seekers. The museum was built in 1967 as part of the Alaska 67 Exposition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the United States’ purchase of Alaska from Russia.
Photos and dioramas depict the first Fairbanks gold rush as well as the second surge when a series of gold dredges extracted millions of ounces of gold from lakes and ponds.
The museum also has a research computer to check family genealogy or to view any of the more than 10,000 photographs from the early days of Fairbanks to the mid-1960s.
The museum schedule is pending. Call 907-456-8579 for more information.
Big Stampede Show
The gold rush comes to life in the Big Stampede Show, a 45-minute presentation illustrated by oil paintings by famous Alaska artist C.R. “Rusty” Heurlin, located at Pioneer Hall. The show tells the story of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 and the Fairbanks Gold Rush of 1901-02 and is described as a unique presentation of the hardships faced by stampeders.
The 15 paintings by Heurlin are valued at more than $1 million. The audience, seated on a turntable, moves to focus on each mural-style painting as the narrator describes the scene. The schedule for 2020 is pending. A small admission fee is charged. Call 907-456-8579 for more information.
Kitty Hensley House
The historic Kitty Hensley House was originally located at 921 Eighth Ave. In 1914, Kitty’s friend Cap Smythe, a retired riverboat captain with excellent carpentry skills, remodeled the cabin using lumber from the sternwheeler, which had been damaged during spring breakup.
The house was moved to Pioneer Park in 1967. The Pioneers of Alaska have furnished the house with authentic furniture from the period. The house is closed to tours for the 2020 summer season.
The SS Nenana
Located in the center of Pioneer Park, the SS Nenana is the largest steam-powered wooden sternwheeler ever built west of the Mississippi River and one of three of its kind remaining.
Built in 1933 for the Alaska Railroad for service on the Yukon, Nenana and Tanana rivers, she could carry up to 300 tons of freight and carried military cargo during World War II, including Lend-Lease aircraft en route to Russia.
The “Last Lady of the River” was retired in 1955 and brought to Fairbanks to be preserved. The SS Nenana was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1989.
The Nenana is closed to tours.
Near the Pioneer Park front entrance rests the Harding Car, the elegant railroad car President Warren G. Harding traveled in while touring the territory just two weeks before he died in California from a heart attack.
Harding was the first president to visit the territory and came to Fairbanks to celebrate the completion of the Alaska Railroad. The Harding Car was restored by the Fairbanks Historical Preservation Foundation.
Judge James Wickersham is known as the man who brought law and order to the early days of the gold rush town of Fairbanks, but there’s more to his story.
In addition to being a lawman, Wickersham was a carpenter, an advocate for the community and what would eventually become the 49th state, and a leader in a community that was growing in all directions.
As a carpenter, Wickersham built the first “modern home” in the thriving gold rush town in 1904. The first home constructed of milled lumber, the house on the corner of First Avenue and Noble Street also was the first home to be surrounded by a white picket fence. All homes in Fairbanks before that time were made with logs.
Operated by the Tanana-Yukon Historical Society, the Wickersham House was relocated to Pioneer Park in 1968 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
The house is closed to the public for the 2020 season.
Pioneer Air Museum
Operated by the Interior and Arctic Alaska Aeronautical Foundation, the 14,000-square-foot circular building with a gold dome is filled with artifacts and aircraft from Alaska’s early aviation history, most of which took place in Fairbanks and other parts of the Interior.
The museum houses 14 aircraft as well as one of the largest piston engine displays ever assembled.
A collection of more than 500 photographs chronicle early flight and the brave men and women who ventured into the unknown skies above Alaska.
Displays range from the first flight in Fairbanks in 1913 to the present.
A schedule for the museum, which charges a small fee, for the 2020 summer season is pending. Call 907-451-0037 for more information.
Tanana Valley Railroad Museum and Engine House
The railroad played a vital part when the gold rush ripped through Interior Alaska and a key component of that era now resides in Pioneer Park.
Steam engine No. 1, an 8.5-ton engine built in 1899 by H.K. Porter Locomotive Works of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was the first locomotive in the Yukon and Tanana river drainages. It arrived in Fairbanks in 1905. It is the oldest gold rush artifact in Interior Alaska.
Friends of the Tanana Valley Railroad restored Old Engine No. 1 in 1999.
She is rolled out several times a summer to putt down the tracks circling Pioneer Park and resides at the museum and engine house, operated by the all-volunteer Friends of the Tanana Valley Railroad.
An operating speeder, Model T and velocipede also are on display, as are dioramas showing the former townsite of Chena and the railroad station as it looked in the 1930s.
While the museum is expected to be open this summer, and admission is free, daily service on the Crooked Creek Whiskey Island Railroad that surrounds Pioneer Park is suspended.
Call 907-459-7420 for more information.
Folk School Fairbanks
The Folk School is a nonprofit offering classes year-round in traditional arts, crafts, gardening, building and more.
Floral design, how to butcher a chicken, snowshoe making, singing, tree felling and building a birch bark canoe are just a few of the classes that have been offered.
The vision of the Folk School is to “provide a dedicated, centrally located, safe, friendly and welcoming place offering a rich variety of hands-on experiences.”
The school is inspired by the folk school movement during the European Industrial Revolution whereby learning opportunities and enlightenment were provided to people regardless of their social status.
Classes are online this summer with limited outdoor courses being planned.
Call 907-457-1219 for more information.