Fairbanks is situated in the heart of Alaska, 370 miles (595 km) south of Prudhoe Bay, and 93 miles (150 km) south of the Arctic Circle. The city grew rapidly in the 20th century fueled by gold mining, military bases, and discovery of oil in Alaska's North Slope; but until 1901, the Tanana and Yukon Valley area was known only to the native Athapaskans.
On August 26, 1901, the paddleboat Lavelle Young, captained by Charles W. Adams, bumped the south bank of the Chena River at a place that would later become the settlement of Fairbanks. Eldridge Truman Barnette and his wife Isabelle, disembarked in this desolate wilderness, bringing with them $20,000 worth of trade goods. Barnette had wanted to ascend farther up the Tanana River, but the draft was too shallow. Therefore, Captain Adams tried the Chena River, thinking it might be a deeper channel of the Tanana, but it was not. So the Lavelle Young pulled away, leaving behind two discouraged first citizens of the future city. Matters quickly improved. Less than a year later, in July 1902, Felix Pedro discovered gold in a creek about 15 miles (c.24 km) from Barnette's trading post. The trade goods intended for the miners at Tanacross were soon purchased by stampeders flocking to the Tanana Valley. The gold strike had been announced in the Yukon (Canada) Sun on January 17, 1903 (other strikes soon followed). In April of that year, Judge James Wickersham arrived in Fairbanks, having traveled by dog sled from Circle, Alaska. He established Fairbanks as the seat of the Third Judicial District, thus ensuring a bright future for the tiny settlement. By December 2000, the state-certified population of Fairbanks North Star Borough (FNSB) was 83,814, including 31,423 people in Fairbanks, the administrative seat of FNSB (area, 7443 square miles).
Fairbanks is 95 miles (153 km) by road from the Yukon River, 358 miles (576 km) by road from Anchorage, 123 miles (198 km) from the entrance to Denali National Park, and 483 miles (777 km) via the Alaska Railroad from the port of Seward. The Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline (Aleyska Pipeline) passes through Fairbanks. The Alcan Highway connects Fairbanks by land with Canada and what Alaskans call "the lower 48" or "outside." The climate is typically continental, with very cold winters and pleasantly warm summers. Several consecutive days or weeks of -40°F (-40°C) are not uncommon. Summer temperatures usually top out in the 70-80°F (21-27°C) range. The average annual precipitation is 28.7 cm. Winter snowfall totals vary widely, with both 0.3 m and 3 m being quite common. Winds are typically calm in winter but can be gusty in summer. The generally windless winter has temperatures often below -30°F (-34°C). Fairbanks is located in a valley where temperature inversions are common, and the exhaust gases from thousands of vehicles, dogs, and people, all contribute to the formation of ice fog. Surrounded by vast stretches of taiga, largely underlain by permafrost, lumbering is a major industry, as are support services for gold mining and oil production. The University of Alaska-Fairbanks is located in the suburb of College. Fort Wainwright (Army) and Eielson Air Force Base are nearby.
J. Richard Gorham
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