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Felix Meets E.T.: The Founding of Fairbanks, Alaska

by Murray Lundberg

A Guide to (Modern) Fairbanks

    The discovery of gold in the Klondike in August 1896 sparked the wildest stampede of humanity that the modern world has seen. Although an estimated 100,000 people started off for the land of gold, only 30-35,000 ever reached their destination, and a mere handful found the riches that they had expected. The great discoveries in the Klondike, however, helped to encourage other prospectors to continue their labours in other parts of the Yukon and Alaska, and brought into the country a wide spectrum of personalities, ranging from those who believed that hard work was the secret to success, to those who believed that "there is a sucker born every minute."

    In the middle of that personality range was a man who reached Dawson City but didn't get rich there - Elbridge Truman Barnette. Born in Akron, Ohio in 1863, Barnette, known to everyone as E.T., was a man with huge dreams and determination to match, and he had been one of the first to catch gold fever, heading for Seattle 14 days after the arrival of the Portland and it's Ton of Gold. Having been in on several mining stampedes throughout the American West, E.T.Barnette had apparently made a few dollars, because upon reaching Seattle, he booked passage on the ocean steamer Cleveland to St. Michael, from which point a river steamer would take him and his outfit to Dawson City. This was the rich man's route - no packing over the Chilkoot, White, or some even more dangerous pass, no boat-building or running life-threatening rapids, just a leisurely cruise to the Klondike.

    The "leisurely cruise", however, was not to be. Following a terrifying trip that included fierce storms, fog, and a fire in the hold, the Cleveland arrived at St. Michael to find that their river steamer had gotten a better offer from the passengers of another ship, and had already left. Not discouraged, Barnette and about 60 other passengers merely bought their own little steamer, the 67 foot long St. Michael, as soon as she entered the harbour from her upriver tour of Jesuit missions. The attempt to reach Dawson before the river froze was plagued by breakdowns, a fire, and disease, and the St. Michael was frozen in at Circle City on September 28th. Barnette, still determined, bought the fastest dog team on the river, and eventually reached Dawson, only to find that every creek had been staked many months before.

    Barnette found a job managing some mines for the North American Trading & Transportation Company (NAT&T), but soon returned south. Becoming involved in a variety of trading and mining ventures, by late 1900 he had raised enough money to head back to Alaska to start a new venture. J.J.Healy of the NAT&T had told Barnette about a railroad that he was planning to build from Valdez to Eagle, as an "All-American Route" to the Klondike. Barnette decided to set up a trading post at a crucial river crossing which that railroad would have to make, at Tanana Crossing, and in July 1901 he arrived at St. Michael with a large load of freight, and a river steamer, the 124 foot long Arctic Boy, which he had bought at Circle City.

    Barnette's Alaskan luck held true, though - while out on a cruise around St. Michael harbor, the Arctic Boy hit a rock and sunk. With every cent he could raise tied up in this venture, Barnette was now desperate, and finally managed to convince Captain Charles W. Adams of the 150-foot steamer Lavelle Young to attempt to get him to Tanana Crossing. Included in the complicated (and very expensive) contract was a clause stating that Barnette, with his wife Isabelle and all their goods, would be put off at the furthest point the boat reached, whereever that might be.

    Captain Adams managed to get his boat 6-8 miles above the mouth of the Chena River before being stopped by low water, still 200 miles from Tanana Crossing. Barnette told Adams that he had heard from Indians that the Chena River was actually a slough that led back on to the Tanana River, so the Lavelle Young was swung around, and taken up the Chena until shallow water halted progress again. After a lengthy argument, Barnette's 130 tons of freight was unloaded on the riverbank, on August 26, 1901.

    Two log buildings were very quickly erected, a small cabin for E.T. and Isabelle, and a 26 x 54 foot trading post. Tents were put up for much of the freight, and for the 5 men who stayed with the Barnettes. Captain Adams then left, with Isabelle nearly hysterical at being left in the wilderness. The hills, however, were not as empty as they no doubt appeared to be; within a few hours, two prospectors, Felice Pedroni and Tom Gilmore, arrived at Barnette's camp, which he had christened Chenoa City. Felice Pedroni was an Italian immigrant who had been prospecting in Alaska since about 1895. In 1898, while he and his partner were in the Tanana Hills, lost and with their food supply almost used up, they discovered a creek with extremely rich placer gold deposits. They marked the creek, but were never able to re-locate it, even after years of trying. Pedroni, who became known by the name of Felix Pedro, kept searching, however - he would work for wages when it was necesssary to raise more cash for an outfit, then head off into the hills again. The two prospectors stayed at Barnette's camp only long enough to buy their winter outfits from him, then they quickly faded back into the hills.

    Barnette was still determined that Tanana Crossing was the place to be, so in March 1902 he and Isabelle and 3 of their men left for the Outside. Obtaining a loan in Seattle, they were able to return to St. Michael a few months later with more stock and a new boat, the shallow-draft Isabelle, which used the machinery from the wreck of the Arctic Boy. While waiting for the Isabelle to be assembled, Barnette had agreed to a request by Judge James Wickersham that the post on the Chena River be named to honor a man that the judge admired (and who would be a good man to be able to ask for a favor), Senator Charles W. Fairbanks, a Republican from Indiana.

    Returning to the Chena River in September, Barnette's new steamer was unable to reach the Fairbanks Trading Post due to extreme low water, and things looked very bleak for his future. But he soon found out that 6 weeks previously, on July 22, Felix Pedro had quit looking for the Lost Creek. On a small unnamed creek 12 miles north of Barnette's post, he discovered a substantial quantity of gold; in the next month, he also staked Discovery claims on 4 more creeks which flowed from the hill which he named Pedro Dome. In September, a small rush was already underway, and business was booming.

    Although things were suddenly going his way, Barnette knew the potential of an all-out stampede, and promoted the Tanana gold fields in every way he could think of, including possibly "salting" a shaft with gold from another area. He knew, however, that he needed to get word out in a dramatic way to spark his stampede. His cook, Jujiro Wada, was a musher of legendary prowess, and enjoyed a "show" as much as Barnette did - he was to serve Barnette's needs nicely. On December 28, 1902, Barnette sent him to Dawson City with some letters, and furs to sell. On January 3, 1903, the news of the Tanana strike made front page news, and, with the temperature at 53 degrees below zero, the stampede was on!!

    Although a fairly good trail to the Tanana district existed, it was long, and many of the 1,000 men who left Dawson immediately took the shortest route, and nearly lost their lives as a result - many had to eat their pack animals after running out of food. Those who reached the Tanana scrambled to stake any ground that was not yet taken (all of it miles from any Discovery claim), then re-supplied at Barnette's trading post. Even with all his new stock, however, Barnette had no planned on feeding several hundred people, and supplies soon ran short. Barnette's prices were high, and he was eventually forced by a miners' meeting to cut his price on flour from $12 to $6 per sack, and for a time, several men with rifles were hired by Barnette to guard his store.

    Despite early threats that a trading post at the mouth of the Chena River might overshadow Fairbanks because of the low-water difficulty of getting steamboats up the smaller stream, development at Tanana City (later Chena) was not well organized. At Fairbanks, E.T.Barnette was firmly in charge, having laid out a townsite block along the river, naming streets, and encouraging new settlers - a town lot could initially be obtained for only a $2.50 recording fee. At Tanana City, speculation drove prices sky-high during the first weeks of the rush. The turning point, however, was the decision by Judge Wickersham to build a jail and government offices at Third & Cushman Streets in Fairbanks, on a lot which Barnette had cut out from his trading post site and donated for the purpose.

    Despite the stamp of approval by Wickersham, development at Fairbanks did not always go smoothly, and most of the early stampeders soon left in disgust, but despite the problems, Barnette's pile of freight on a wilderness riverbank eventually grew into one of the largest towns in Alaska. A combination of hard work , determination, "creative truth" and just plain luck were successful in opening up yet another blank area on Alaskan maps.