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The History of Nenana, Alaska


    Nenana is located in Interior Alaska, 55 road miles southwest of Fairbanks on the George Parks Highway. Nenana is located at mile 412 of the Alaska Railroad, on the south bank of the Tanana River, just east of the mouth of the Nenana River. It lies 304 road miles northeast of Anchorage. It lies at approximately 64 34' N Latitude, 149 05' W Longitude (Sec. 14, T004S, R008W, Fairbanks Meridian). The community is located in the Nenana Recording District. The area encompasses 6 sq. miles of land and 0 sq. miles of water.

    Nenana is in the western-most portion of Tanana Athabascan Indian territory. It was first known as Tortella, an interpretation of the Indian word "Toghotthele," which means "mountain that parallels the river." Early explorers such as Allen, Harper and Bates first entered the Tanana Valley in 1875 and 1885. However, the Tanana people were accustomed to contact with Europeans, due to trading journeys to the Village of Tanana, where Russians bartered Western goods for furs.

    The discovery of gold in Fairbanks in 1902 brought intense activity to the region. A trading post/roadhouse was constructed by Jim Duke in 1903, to supply river travelers and trade with Indians. St. Mark's Episcopal mission and school was built upriver in 1905. Native children from other communities, such as Minto, attended school in Nenana. A post office opened in 1908. By 1909, there were about 12,000 residents in the Fairbanks area, most drawn by gold mining activities. In 1915, construction of the Alaska Railroad doubled Nenana's population.

    The Nenana Ice Classic - a popular competition to guess the date and time of the Tanana River ice break-up each spring - began in 1917 among surveyors for the Alaska Railroad. The community incorporated as a city in 1921. The Railroad Depot was completed in 1923, when President Warren Harding drove the golden spike at the north end of the 700-foot steel bridge over the Tanana River. Nenana now had a transportation link to Fairbanks and Seward. According to local records, 5,000 residents lived in Nenana during this time, however, completion of the railroad was followed by an economic slump. The population in 1930 was recorded at 291.

    In 1961, Clear Air Force Station was constructed 21 miles southwest, and many civilian contractors commuted from Nenana. A road was constructed south to Clear, but north, vehicles were ferried across the Tanana River. In 1967 the community was devastated by one of the largest floods ever recorded in the Tanana Valley. In 1968, a $6 million bridge was completed across the Tanana River, which gave the city a road link to Fairbanks and replaced the River ferry. The George Parks Highway was completed in 1971, which provided a shorter, direct route to Anchorage.


To Community Histories Index Alaska DCCED Community Database Online


History and map graphic used with permission from the Alaska Department of Community and Economic Development. The photo of the Nenana train station is © 1997 by Julie Coghill, and is used here with permission.