FAIRBANKS - It’s hard to believe that over 100 years ago two towns were fighting for Interior Alaska dominance within 10 miles of each other. Only Fairbanks would survive and ultimately thrive and become the city it is today. The other, Chena, would only exist for a handful of years.
It was thought that the Tanana River had long washed away the town of Chena. New research from Fairbanks North Star Borough surveyor Martin Gutoski shows that, while much of Chena might have been swept up by the river, a good part of the town remains, buried under a century’s worth of silt and dirt.
The story of the founding of Fairbanks is well known to most. E.T. Barnette’s sternwheeler, the Lavelle Young, ran aground on the Chena River in 1901, seven miles from its confluence with the Tanana. It was there, in what is now downtown Fairbanks, that Barnette set up his trading post.
But Barnette wasn’t the only riverboat captain to find trouble navigating the Chena River. With a gold rush happening throughout the Tanana Valley, the city of Chena was established on the banks of the Tanana River in 1903. The city served as an unloading point for larger boats, whose freight was then either shuttled on the river in smaller boats or later by the Tanana Valley Railroad in 1907.
By 1908 the city of Chena was incorporated. With about 2,400 residents at its heyday, the town had a hospital, school, city hall, dance hall and even three newspapers (one of which, The Tanana Miner, would later become the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner).
But like many gold rush towns, Chena wouldn’t last. World War I broke out in 1914, eventually sending many able-bodied miners out of the Tanana Valley. The Alaska Railroad bought the bankrupt Tanana Valley Railroad in 1917, effectively killing the town.
Gutoski said that even the U.S. censuses don’t accurately represent the population.
Gutoski, also vice president for the Friends of Tanana Valley Railroad, was always bugged that there was no good map of Chena.
“As a surveyor it always bothered me — I need to have a good map,” he said.
With such a short boom-and-bust phase, the town was never accurately surveyed, an issue that intrigued Gutoski. Without a proper map, it was difficult to determine how much of Chena, if any at all, remained.
“The problem was the people that ran the town were also the founders. They never left any good surveys behind,” Gutoski said. “We've got a couple that are sort of surveys, but (the owners) never set any property corners.”
By time the General Land Office (the predecessor to the Bureau of Land Management) got around to surveying the land in 1927, it was too late. The town was gone.
“It was a moot point,” Gutoski said. “So the lots and blocks they drew are not retraceable.”
Using photographs and maps, including a lawsuit map, a Sanborn fire insurance map, which detailed which buildings were most flammable and where they were located, Gutoski was able to piece together a reference to Chena’s location. Using the resources available to him, Gutoski was able to accurately map the area
This winter, Gutoski and a crew from Northern Land Use Research brought ground-penetrating radar equipment out to the Tanana Wayside and Boat Launch near the end of Chena Pump Road. Gutoski and the crew went back and forth with the radar and a magnetometer, looking for remnants of structures. They found plenty of small artifacts buried deep beneath the silt, including “feature U,” what looks to be like the lattice work of railroad tracks.
While it might not sound like much, for Gutoski and the crew it meant they had found the original ground surface of Chena.
“Ooh, town site dirt!” Gutoski joked to the crowd of 100 who showed up to the Tanana Valley Railroad museum Tuesday night to hear him speak on his findings. “But that means there are artifacts.”
Future of Chena
Based on the maps he’s found, Gutoski feels confident that he has pinpointed the location of the roads and buildings to within just a few feet of their original locations. Much of the original site has been overtaken by the Tanana River, but a good part has not.
Little remains of the town site on the surface, but that hasn’t stopped “pot hunters” from trying to dig up stuff. Gutoski hopes that with a more accurate map, archaeologists will take an interest in professionally excavating the site.
“We’re hoping for more help,” Gutoski said at his talk Tuesday night. “It’s a pretty sexy area for long-term use.”
Contact features editor Suzanna Caldwell at 459-7504.