Pioneer Park's history

Pioneers of Alaska Igloos 4 and 8 created this new sign that shares the history of Pioneer Park. Photo courtesy Pioneers of Alaska Igloos 4 and 8.

Ever wonder how Pioneer Park began?

Now there is an easy way to learn the history of the park. Located next to the Harding Car, a new sign created by the Pioneers of Alaska Igloos 4 and 8 displays the park’s history and includes many historic photographs.

The Fairbanks Golden Days Celebration Committee came up with the idea, and the president of the group proposed the project to the Pioneers of Alaska Igloo No. 4. Pioneers made it happen, creating an historic attraction that will benefit both visitors and local residents.

Here is the story the sign shares, according to Jan and Jim Plaquet.

Back in 1960-61, Igloo 4 Pioneers of Alaska began negotiating with the Bureau of Land Management and local entities to gain access to a parcel of land on which they intended to build an historic theme park. The Pioneers were granted 40 acres on the banks of the Chena River and named it Pioneer Memorial Park. Pioneers collected historic equipment for the mining valley, restored a gold rush-era stamp mill there (1980s) and acquired the Harding Car from the Alaska Railroad. Tanana Valley Railroad Locomotive No. 1 was also donated during this time.

Members of the Pioneers of Alaska collected and donated what became the bulk of the Pioneer Museum’s collection.

In 1965, Pioneer Park leased the park to Alaska ’67. The state Legislature granted Alaska ’67 authority to create a centennial site for the 100th anniversary of the purchase of Alaska from Russia. State and federal grants were available to construct major buildings in the park and to move historic cabins from downtown Fairbanks into what makes up the park’s gold Rush Town.

The Centennial Center for the Arts, Pioneer Hall, the Native Museum and Palace Theatre were all constructed at this time.

The sternwheeler riverboat SS Nenana was floated to the site and permanently installed. It is the only surviving sternwheeler in Alaska.

The plan was that all these improvements would become property of Pioneer Park after the 1967 Centennial Exposition.

In 1967, Alaska ’67 renamed the park Alaskaland and negotiations began to determine which organization would run the park after the centennial. But heavy rains led to the big flood on Aug. 14, 1967. Floodwaters covered the entire park, “to a depth of over 9 feet.”

Alaska ’67 went bankrupt, and the park did not get handed back to the Pioneers of Alaska. Pioneers were unable to take on the massive debt, so the state of Alaska assumed it. The state later turned ownership over to the city of Fairbanks, which operated the park until Aug. 1, 1987.

Then the city transferred ownership to the Fairbanks North Star Borough, which has parks and recreation powers. (The city does not have those powers.)

After many studies, the borough decided the name “Alaskaland” gave an amusement park expectation which did not match what the historic park actually offered visitors. On Oct. 25, 2001, the borough changed the official name of the park to “Pioneer Park.”

Local residents continue debating that name change even now, 20 years later.

Pioneers of Alaska still operate the Pioneers Museum, which includes a collection of gold rush murals, titled “Big Stampede.” Artist C. (Rusty) Heurlin gave the murals to the Pioneers at the end of the centennial celebration. The murals are highlighted in the “Big Stampede Show,” set to narration by Ruben Gaines, who describes what “gold fever” will lead people to do. Gaines was Alaska’s poet laureate in 1973.

The sign displays a special notation: “Over the years, park attractions have changed, but the spirit of Pioneer Park remains the same. It is a place to celebrate Fairbanks’ history and is enjoyed by visitors and residents alike, regardless of age.”

Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at Follow her on Twitter @FDNMKris.

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