Rediscovering the gold rush town of Chena
Tenacious anthropologists reclaim history of gold rush town that rivaled Fairbanks; legacy lives through rejuvenating waters North of 60 Mining News – February 3, 2023
Last updated 3/2/2023 at 6:20pm
In the days before Fairbanks' rise to prominence as the economic and transportation hub of Interior Alaska, a small trade camp about five miles downriver was already attracting all the attention. The town, dubbed "Chena," served as the port and resupply point for the multitudes of stampeders traveling up the Yukon and Tanana Rivers in search of riches in Alaska's gold-rich streams.
As the fervor of the Klondike Gold Rush began to cool, news spread of gold being discovered on the shores of Nome, enticing thousands of fortune seekers to make the 800-mile trek across what is now the great state of Alaska. While this signaled the end of the Yukon craze, not all hopefuls sped to the coast. Instead, many found gold along the way as they dipped their pans into streams in the heart of Alaska.
In 1901, a trader named E.T. Barnette traveled up the Tanana River trying to establish a trading post at Tanacross. However, low water conditions stopped the journey before reaching his destination.
Captain Charles Adams, co-owner of the riverboat, the Lavelle Young, was forced to divert into the Chena River, a tributary of the Tanana. In refusing to go further, Barnette decided to disembark.
It was around this time that Barnette would come into contact with famed Fairbanks prospector Felice Pedroni.
An Italian immigrant, Felice or more well known by his hispanized moniker Felix Pedro, spent years searching for gold in the creeks and valleys of the Tanana Valley, where Fairbanks would begin before the "American Klondike."
After being told there were some good prospects in the area by Pedro, Barnette opted to open his trading post along the Chena River.
This would prove to be a wise decision because on July 22, 1902, Pedro discovered gold north of Fairbanks, sparking the Fairbanks Gold Rush and setting off a stampede that would put the Interior town on the map.
Although Fairbanks would survive the century, there was a time when it was rivaled by the port town of Chena.
Losing the competition
Founded in 1902 on the north bank of the Tanana River, the Chena townsite was a bustling gold rush town, home to thousands of miners and settlers that flocked to the region in search of prosperity.
Initially, Chena rivaled its close neighbor, Fairbanks, as the commercial center of mining operations in the Alaska Interior. However, this rivalry would only last a few short years before ultimately fading into obscurity over the more well-connected Fairbanks politicos.
Similar to Forty Mile and Dawson City or Dyea and Skagway, a battle of competing towns was a common trend in the mining days of yore.
And similarly, Chena competed with Fairbanks, like the others, for the wealth that could be made serving gold miners.
Despite Fairbanks winning in the end, Chena initially held a huge advantage over Fairbanks – the Tanana Valley Railroad. Supplying mines in the Chatanika River Valley roughly 43 miles to the north, the railroad allowed Chena to supply mines that Fairbanks couldn't realistically serve, and so Chena thrived as a railroad town.
Due to this edge, it built a sawmill, powerplant, and major dock facilities with warehouses, repair shops, and businesses for the seasonal freight brought by riverboats.
Adding to its advantages, a telegraph station was built at Chena for the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS), which connected the continental United States North to Eagle and Nome, Alaska. At its peak, the town even had a hospital, school, city hall, dance hall, and three newspapers.
One of the newspapers, The Tanana Miner, would later be purchased by The Fairbanks Daily News and formed The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, which is still around to this day.
But like Dyea, which would fall into desolation due to various disasters and tragedies, or Forty Mile, which would be literally torn up for the gold built up underneath its foundations, the same advantages that allowed Chena to pull ahead in permanence would be its very downfall.
Chena relied so much on supplying mines and miners that it couldn't last. The amount of gold in the Tanana Valley declined quickly, so miners left to make money elsewhere. In addition to this slow decline, World War I would begin in 1914, and many miners were sent to fight.
This trend would continue until there were hardly any people left in Chena. Barely a year after the war, the population had dropped to around 50 people.
In 1917, the Tanana Valley Railroad that helped it prosper would file for bankruptcy, signaling the death knell for Chena. And finally, with the passing of the city's last business owner, grocer Harry Beldon in 1920, the population had dropped to only 18 until the townsite of Chena was canceled on July 14, 1921.
Fairbanks, however, would survive the downturn that came when World War I broke out.
Lost ghost town, modern rediscovery
Strangely enough, despite Chena's popularity during its heyday, for a long time, no one knew exactly where this mining town had once been, making it one of the more unique ghost town stories – as most at least leave behind some traces in buildings or equipment.
Although there are maps of the town from when it was successful, and a Sanborn Fire Insurance map of the commercial buildings, there were no surveys that give scale or specific locations.
Furthermore, none of the original railroad tracks remain, and the buildings were either destroyed by the Tanana River or repurposed in Fairbanks; looking at where the town should be today, there is no evidence that it even existed.
To help reclaim this lost piece of Alaskan mining history, an ongoing effort by the University of Fairbanks, and a local municipal surveyor, have deigned to reconstruct what was once the borders of Chena.
For the last several years, UAF scientists have been attempting to uncover the remnants of this once burgeoning town. Most recently, in 2021, a group of UAF researchers and students spent six weeks at an archaeological site just west of Fairbanks and began compiling reports on what they found in the area where the gold-mining town of Chena boomed more than a century ago.
"What we're looking at is basically the foundations of old structures," said University of Fairbanks Term Assistant Professor Justin Cramb. "Things that were left behind after the town of Chena was abandoned."
In their findings, a casual observer would not know a town with dozens of buildings and hundreds of residents once stood in what is now a swampy thicket, overgrown with willow and alder trees.
The preeminent gold mining town was buried by both nature and its nearby politically connected rival.
"Fairbanks was far more successful politically, which was one of the factors that led to the downfall of Chena within 20 years," said Cramb.
This political clout came from Judge James Wickersham, who convinced federal authorities to build a courthouse in Fairbanks. As miners had to go there to stake their claims, which in turn attracted other gold-related businesses, including some formerly based in Chena, before long, most of the town's population followed, meaning railroad tracks were pulled up and vacant structures were dismantled and salvaged.
"Buildings were repurposed – taken to either Fairbanks or Nenana," the UAF professor said. "People moved out, and then Chena was just abandoned."
Several decades later, the state would build a day-use picnic park at the townsite, but for the most part, it sat empty for nearly a century.
"We've found glass bottles," said Cramb. "We've found leather boots, that we tentatively will place with the Chena era. A ton of metal nails that are of course one of the hallmarks of historic archaeological sites."
One of the UAF undergrads working at the site said excavating and analyzing all those artifacts has deepened her appreciation for anthropology, and it convinced Sheri Karikomi to apply for grad school to continue to study the subject.
"It helps me understand a lot more about cultural anthropology," she said. "How people – how they lived, y'know, based on their culture and things that are left behind – their structures, their small artifacts, big artifacts."
Although the university has been seeking historical significance to broaden its understanding of a bygone era, municipal surveyor Martin Gutoski's study of the old site began even earlier than the university's, and his reason for unearthing the old site of Chena is perhaps more selfless than can be expected.
Gutoski has been a licensed surveyor since 1988, with more than 25 years as a platting officer at the Fairbanks North Star Borough (FNSB) Planning Department. He also holds a master's degree in anthropology and has been involved in surveying historical archaeology projects in the Fairbanks area since 1994.
"How do you find an Alaska ghost town which thrived over 100 years ago but was abandoned before the U.S. Government Land Office (GLO) approved the survey plat?" he penned in a story detailing the history of Chena from his research.
"So, can a surveyor today locate any of the abandoned town on today's maps? Since the 1907 Chena townsite survey was canceled by GLO in 1921 soon after the town was abandoned, there were no street alignments, blocks or lots with good bearing and distance ties to reestablish them," Gutoski wrote.
He goes on to describe that although the exterior boundary of the townsite was still being perpetuated by government lots, there were no survey plats of the old town itself.
"What remained in the Polar Region Archives at the University of Alaska Rasmuson Library and the national archives in Washington, D.C., were a few 1908 maps from the hey day of the old town when it was established for the TVRR dockside terminal yard, and a Sanborn Fire Insurance map of the commercial buildings that lined the three main streets.
"None of these maps had any bearing or distance shown for the street, blocks and lots depicted for a useful tie to any of the four original USS 436 corners set by the GLO in 1907. They were basically good scale drawings with no dimensional data other than using a ruler at the specified scales on the legends," the surveyor wrote.
Ultimately, through his meticulous work, Gutoski was able to narrow down through bits and pieces of interspersed clues a potential starting point to defining the borders of old Chena.
"Fortunately the GLO field notes had bearing and distance ties to the railroad tracks, telegraph office and associated lines from corner number one. Likewise two other original townsite corners were still intact from the government lots that were later subdivided out of USS 436. These lots were subsequently subdivided again by recent plats I processed at the FNSB during the 1980's post pipeline oil boom in housing. Corner number one is not lost!"
Ultimately, it was thanks to the serendipitous discovery of a surveyor's transcribed notes from over 100 years ago for an abandoned narrow-gauge railroad – which held a few scale maps by the founder of the first railroad in the Alaska Interior that became the longest government-owned railway in the United States – that Chena now lives in the FNSB GIS maps.
"As a staff surveyor of the community government that inherited Fairbanks favor over Chena's demise, I felt that we should show the little town that didn't make it on our maps as more than a ghost town in our archives," finished Gutoski.
Gutoski's complete retelling can be read at this link – https://amerisurv.com/2013/01/26/where-is-chena-the-search-for-a-lost-century-old-gold-rush-town/
Hot spring resort
In addition to the river on the shore of which the lost ghost town was built, the namesake of Chena lives on in a hot spring resort in Alaska's Interior.
Formally discovered on Aug. 5, 1905, by brothers Robert and Thomas Swan, who had moved to Alaska to work as gold miners in the wake of the various gold rushes in the region. They had learned that a year before, a U.S. Geological Survey team had seen steam coming up from a valley near the Chena River.
The surveyors had surmised that the steam was coming from a hot spring but did not follow up on their investigation.
Robert, who suffered from rheumatism, a chronic disorder that causes extreme, intermittent pain in the joints, sought a remedy. Thus, he and his brother captained a boat and left Fairbanks to follow up on the observations made by the survey team the previous year.
One month into their journey, they arrived at the North Fork of the Chena River and traveled to Monument Creek, where they found the hot springs.
Word quickly spread across Alaska and even south to the rest of the U.S., and by 1911, the hot springs housed a stable, a bathhouse, and a dozen cabins used by visitors. Chena Hot Springs rapidly became popular among Alaska residents, who used it as a getaway from strenuous mining jobs, and also attracted visitors from other regions in the U.S.
As Chena Hot Springs became increasingly famous, Alaska congressional delegate James Wickersham (the same judge who helped cement Fairbanks as a lasting city) asked the Department of Agriculture to analyze its waters, as their restorative properties were not fully understood.
Hence, a team of chemists retrieved three pints of water from Chena Hot Springs and discovered that they were rich in sodium bicarbonate, sulfate, and chloride, which made them considerably different than any other hot springs in the U.S.
Indeed, the chemical composition of Chena Hot Springs' water was similar to that of hot springs in Bohemia (in the modern-day Czech Republic) that were patronized by visitors around the world.
The legend of Chena Hot Springs continued to grow after this, inspiring a town to spring up around the resort.
While the original Chena is long lost, its legacy lives on as a world-famous hot spring with the same name. And, while the mystery of its location had been lost until relatively recently, Chena will reside as a crucial juncture to modern Fairbanks and, as such, an important chapter of Alaskan mining history.
Perhaps by visiting this relaxing hot spring, one can feel how the gold rush pioneers once did when they needed respite after a long journey or a hard day's prospecting.