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 from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend. Most are free, but some charge admission as noted. Donations are gladly accepted. 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.
Hundreds of photographs and numerous items donated by the early pioneers and gold-seekers adorn the walls of the museum, which 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 area 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. Marks on the outside of the building show the water levels from the devastating flood of 1967.
The museum is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. There is no admission fee, but donations are appreciated.
Big Stampede Show
The Gold Rush Saga comes to life in the Big Stampede Show, which shows four times daily throughout the summer.
Take a trip over Chilkoot Pass, shoot the rapids, strike it rich in Dawson City, then move on to Fairbanks. The 50-minute show is narrated by poet laureate Ruben Gaines and includes 17 paintings by C. Rusty Heurlin valued at more than $1 million.
Shows are at 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m., 2:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. in the theater. Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for children age 6-16. Children under age 6 get in for free.
Kitty Hensley House
The Pioneers of Alaska also operates the Kitty Hensley House, which 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 pieces of furniture from the period.
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 left in the United States.
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 cargos 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 in 2019.
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 chief executive officer 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 law man, 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 furnishings are as they would have been in Wickersham’s time, with some original pieces.
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.
Admission is $4 for adults and $8 for a family of four. Children younger than age 12 are free and must be accompanied by an adult.
The museum is open from 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
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, and she is rolled out several times a summer to putt down the tracks circling Pioneer Park with at least two open cars full of visitors. On other days, the train pulled by a replica, Engine No. 67.
When at rest, Engine No. 1 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.
Folk School Fairbanks
The Folk School is a nonprofit organization 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 school has operated for about 15 years and was previously located in the Goldstream Valley. An expansion and move to Pioneer Park happened in 2018.
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.”