The following article published in the Seattle Daily Times on Nov. 22, 1908, gives a glimpse into the life of E.T. Barnette and the early days of Fairbanks. Because of its length, it will run in two parts, with part II printing Oct. 4.

When a gold discovery saved Capt. Barnette’s neck

Part I

By W. M. R.

The storm center of the gold-shot Tanana has moved south and for the winter will hover over Seattle. Capt. E. T. Barnette, banker, miner, pioneer, and politician is a guest at the Hotel Washington.

That Capt. Barnette has come down out of the great white silence to spend with his wife and their little one, a few months in god’s country is not whit remarkable. He is as likely to be found hiking across a Mexican mountain with a mestizo for a guide, or hobnobbing in Turkey with a villain Turk, as he is to be found staking some broken prospector, whose whole fortune is frozen tight to a slab of Yukon bed rock.

It’s the captain himself that is remarkable.

Barnette has a way of doing remarkable things in a remarkable way. His orbit is along the greater and not the lesser dimension. When his hand reaches out, it is to grasp a mountain and no mole hill, and he has accumulated some few mountains. His route to what he wants is straight across the tundra, and he travels, no matter what the obstacle, human or inert. And he leaves on the trail behind him an array of enemies as well as friends. Wherefore, in the Tanana and its adjacent fields has the captain come to be known as the human fulminate, and to those who play the part of obstacles in his big Northern drama, he is just about as comfortable to have around as a freshly tamped hole full of giant. (Article has missing word.)

Barnette is possessed of three characteristics which stand out preeminently. His first is a way of making friends; the kind that stay for the big show and are on hand when the last goat is got. His second is the gentle art of making enemies; the kind that talk of their hatred in their sleep and do pistol practice in their back yards. His third is the science of making money– and giving it away.

Barnette has more enemies in Alaska, or better had more, than any man who ever fared into the North. Balance against this that he is as well supplied with friends, and you have in hand evidence of the two first characteristics. As for his third, he is the richest man in the Tanana, in point of wealth in hand, with potentialities for millions, can he keep his ever-ready right hand from dissipating what his acquisitive left hand gathers for him.

In his six years in the Tanana, Barnette has probably made $2,000,000. Of this sum he has invested $300,000. He has given or grubstaked away $500,000 more. Another $500,000 has gone, but not Barnette could tell you where; a few thousand here to a man who did him a service; another few thousand to a friend who faced an enemy; another few thousand to some poor devil whose only draft was drawn direct on Barnette’s ready sympathy. Here and there it has gone, and it has left him today worth probably $500,000 in cash. Add to this mining property, developed and underdeveloped, which he has either staked himself or has bought from stakers, worth anywhere from a million and a half to three millions of dollars, and you have an accounting of the largest fortune in the North. He is president and principal owner of the Fairbanks Banking Company, and he has in Fairbanks numerous real estate holdings, among which is a handsome home. He has mines in Mexico and timber in Washington.

For every dollar that he has made, Barnette has had to fight, and every fight he has had to make his has won, for it is in the nature of the man to win whatever thing he sets his hand to. His methods are most always rude. He rides rough shod to the point he aims at, with the inevitable result that there are many hurt who thereafter hold his name anathema. And it is with those he has hurt he has had to fight, so strongly and vindictively have they fought him that not once, but twice has the Senate of the United States been called upon to prove that between Capt. Barnette and one of the best-known judges who ever graced the federal bench there was no improper relation of business or politics. Even the word of Theodore Roosevelt has been invoked to confound the machinations of those who, beaten fairly albeit with rough riding and rougher fighting , have resorted to subterfuge and dark lantern politics to wrest from the man of their hate and things he had won from them.

Barnette’s path to Northern riches has been no primrose way, but he has won, and there are few who now stand arrayed against him. His enemies he has either destroyed or conciliated.

Six years ago, a lot of outraged miners raged up and down the Fairbanks waterfront. They were armed with a nicely noosed rope and were looking for “Cap.” Barnette. The other afternoon it took Capt. Barnette forty minutes, by accurate time keeping, to get through the crowd of sourdoughs in the lobby of the Hotel Butler. It was a shake of the hand, or a few words on this or that in the Tanana, and every time he was stopped in his way it was by a friend.

Barnette did not mean to discover the site of Fairbanks when he did it. That he did was due entirely to the fact that the skipper of the steamboat Lavelle Young could find only three feet of water under his craft’s bows, and he didn’t fancy hanging up on a Chena River sand bar until the ice came in.

Barnette had charted the Lavelle Young at St. Michael in the early summer of 1901. He loaded her to the waterline with gewgaws and set out for a trading trip with the numerous tribes of the Tanana Indians. From the Tanana the Young turned into the Chenoa, as the Indians called it, and nine miles up that interesting stream she stuck her nose in the sand and the captain ordered Barnette and his cargo ashore. All hands turned out and cut timber for a dock, and when the Young steamed back down the river, Barnette found himself a thousand miles from civilization in the heart of an unexplored wilderness with thousands of dollars’ worth of goods lying on the bank.

Next day, however, his customers began to arrive. They came by twos and threes and in families, and within twenty-four hours every member of the Nenana tribe had disembarked from their birch canoes and the captain was swapping foodstuffs for furs.

A log trading post was put up and it was not long before Barnette had company of his own color and adventurous spirit, for over from Circle City came such famous men of the North as Harry Attwood, and his partner, Billie Smallwood, Felix Pedro, Charlie Calumb and the two Costa boys and others of the first pioneers of the Tanana. They had been attracted by a floating tale of gold to be had on the Salchacket River, a tributary of the Tanana sixty miles above the Chena. They had prospected there, but found nothing, and then they made for Barnette’s camp.

Through all this time and all of the untellable hardships, Capt. Barnette was accompanied by his intrepid wife. Every inch the pioneer that he was himself, she played almost a man’s part in the earliest making of the now wonderful town of Fairbanks. In the winter of 1902 grub had gone so short that it was up to Barnette to somehow get outside and bring in more with the first open water, and she stayed with him when in March, he harnessed up his dogs and struck into the trackless waste of snow and glacier that lay between him and Valdez. The general direction only they knew. They knew nothing of the treacherous Delta River, the mountains that were to be climbed in the face of blizzards, and of the other joys of a winter in the Arctics, and they cared as little as they knew. With the captain and his wife were Dan McCarty, father and son, Charlie Smith, Jim Huntington and two others. It was a hardy party, but when Capt. and Mrs. Barnette and the two McCartys had finished their 400-mile mush to the coast, through almost constant blizzard, they were nearly at the end of their trail in more ways than one. Of the 400 miles Mrs. Barnette had done, 250 on the trail, and had taken her regular shift at the heart-breaking work of breaking trail on show shoes, out ahead of the dogs.

Once outside, Capt. Barnette had a small steamboat built and knocked down. He named it the Isabelle, after Mrs. Barnette, and shipped it to St. Michael, where he set it up and loaded it with more supplies. With these he arrived in Fairbanks in September 1902 to find that Felix Pedro had found pay on a claim he had staked on a creek which afterward was named for him, and which has since done its good share toward making the Tanana famous.

Shortly after the McCartys hit the streak in Goldstream and a little later still it was tapped on Cleary Creek, and in the years that followed Cleary became the bonanza creek of the district.

It had been Capt. Barnette’s intention to take the Isabelle farther up the stream, but when he learned that gold had been found he stayed at Fairbanks and located a trading post site.

Note: This article was written and published before the famous bank failure in which E. T. Barnette was charged with embezzlement. Those charges were eventually dropped as nothing could be proven in court that he had committed that crime. He died in Los Angeles in May 1933 after falling down a flight of stairs. The Fairbanks Pioneer Museum has a copy of his death certificate in their archives.

This reflective History Nugget has been proudly brought to you by the Fairbanks Igloos of the Pioneers of Alaska, who would like to remind you that more History Nuggets are posted on our website

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