Facebook Page

2013 NRHS Convention -- Tanana Valley Railroad and Salmon Bake at Pioneer Park, Fairbanks ~ September 14th, 2013

by Elizabeth Guenzler

The motorcoaches transported all the National Railway Historical Society conventioneers from the Riverboat Discovery {the previous travleogue} to Pioneer Park for an extremely memorable and absolutely fantastic afternoon.

Pioneer Park Background

Pioneer Park is a 44-acre facility in Fairbanks that is intended to preserve the history of inner Alaska and Fairbanks in particular. It includes numerous museums, shops and restaurants and has no charge for admittance, although many of the individual museums do have a charge. Pioneer Park began soon after Alaska became a state when in late 1960 the Pioneers of Alaska requested public land from the State of Alaska. The plan for the land was to create a tourist attraction that showed historical Alaska exhibits. To manage the project, the Pioneers of Alaska formed the non-profit organization Pioneer Memorial Park, Inc. Almost immediately, several historic structures were moved to the property and efforts began to create a historic village explaining the history of Fairbanks. In 1965, another group known as the Alaska 67 or A-67 committee, requested that the park be used for the 100th year celebration of Alaska's purchase from Russia. While seeking funding for the expanded park plans, the A-67 committee subleased the property and reopened the facility as the "Alaska 67 Centennial Exposition."

After the event, the Pioneer Memorial Park returned the property to the State of Alaska who immediately turned over the property to the City of Fairbanks. On May 1th, 1968, Mayor Red Boucher of Fairbanks stated that the name for the park was now "Alaskaland". The name Alaskaland lasted more than thirty years, but there were many complaints that tourists often seem to expect to find a theme park along the lines of Disneyland. With the theme of history and recreation, a push began in 1999 to rename the park. In October 2001, approval was received to return the park's name to Pioneer Park and it became official in July 2002.

Today, the park is open year-round, but most concessions are only open from Memorial Day to Labour Day, and generally only from noon to 20:00 hrs. Some of the major attractions in Pioneer Park include:

♦ Chena Hotel - This building has an interesting history dating to some of the earliest days of Fairbanks. The Palace Hotel originally stood near the corner of Cushman and Fourth Avenue. The name of the hotel was changed to the "Palace Hotel and Bathhouse" when bathing facilities were added and opened to serve local miners. The hotel was apparently never considered to be the best in town as it stood at the edge of the "red-light district", a row of small cabins on Fourth Avenue between Cushman and Barnette in which prostitution was tolerated behind a high protective fence. In 1906, fire destroyed most of the downtown buildings, but the hotel survived in nearly its original condition. In 1957, the hotel was renamed the Chena Hotel. With changes downtown, the building was moved to the park in 1967 and restored.

♦ Gold Rush Town - Since the park's founding, twenty-nine rustic cabins have been relocated and refurbished at Pioneer Park to create Gold Rush Town. Among these cabins are a few notable structures that include:

♦ The Kitty Hensley House was built around the turn of the century on Eight Avenue and moved to Pioneer Park in 1967. It resembles the small Queen Anne-style cottages of the western continental United States. Kitty Hensley was a friend of Captain Smythe of the Florence S. steamboat on which she and her daughter sailed for many years. Kitty died in 1931 and the local newspaper reported that her "friend" and "neighbor" Captain Smythe had been tending her fire during her brief illness. Hensley and Smythe never lived together nor legalized the union that gossips recorded for history. Even nearly three quarters of a century after her death, Kitty is still not accepted into polite society. A hand-written sign over the staircase reads that "This cabin is not a tribute to Kitty but to the many kind and\ loving homemakers whose children and grandchildren are the solid citizens of today."

♦ Judge Wickersham's House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was moved to Pioneer Park in 1968. On April 15th, 1904, Wickersham bought the lot at the northeast corner of First and Noble Streets for $175 and built a house while he and his wife lived in a tent pitched at the front door of the house, with the first part completed by the middle of June. Leaving Fairbanks for the winter, the house was finished in June 1905. In 1906, a heating plant was installed as he and his wife planned to finally stay a winter in Fairbanks. Wickersham sold the house for $1,500 in 1922. At the time the house was moved to Alaskaland in 1968, the original kitchen, woodshed, closet, porch and a north addition were believed to be too deteriorated to move. The kitchen was recreated in 1986. The original sitting room of 1904, now the dining room, and the parlor and northwest bedroom or study of 1906 have been restored.

♦ The First Presbyterian Church arrived at Pioneer Park in 1966 when the church's congregation needed the original building site to build a two story community center annex. The Presbyterian Church started when Dr. S. Hall Young arrived in Fairbanks in 1904 when only 500 people lived here. Dr. Young could not afford a downtown lot so he purchased one on the outskirts of town at Seventh and Cushman and gathered materials for the first church. In the 1930s, the church was moved further east on its site at Seventh Avenue and Cushman and turned to face Seventh Avenue. Sometime in those early years a front vestibule and large steeple were added. In 1931, a new building was moved and the original building was moved to the back of the lot and used for Sunday school rooms.

♦ The Georgia Lee's House is thought to have once been an establishment of ill repute. The building started out in Nenana in the 1920s, but was moved to Fourth Avenue in Fairbanks in 1928. After its move to Pioneer Park, its interior was refinished "in the stylish manner reminiscent of its heyday". Today, the building serves as the park office and headquarters.

♦ Doc Stearns' Cabin was built in the 1920s by the first veterinarian in Fairbanks on 6th Avenue. Doc Stearns was an avid moviegoer and also operated a small farm.

♦ Pioneer Air Museum - Housed in the Gold Dome at Pioneer Park, the organization began in 1979 and opened in 1992. The museum chronicles the development of flight in Alaska. The collection includes complete aircraft, mechanical parts, and many documents about the history of Alaska air flight.

♦ The Alaska Native Village Museum takes a look at Alaska through the Athabascan culture. It houses such Native artifacts as a wolverine parka and traditional tools. A mural depicts life along the river.

♦ Pioneer Museum, also known as Pioneer Hall, offers a glimpse of frontier Alaska. Pioneer Hall was built to represent the design of a fine 1900-era building and includes photos, documents and displays explaining the early days of frontier life in inner Alaska.

The entrance to Pioneer Park.

The Tanana Valley Railroad Museum

The Tanana Valley Railroad Museum was built and is managed by the Friends of the Tanana Valley Railroad (FTVRR). The FTVRR is a non-profit organization of volunteers. Over a period of eight years, the volunteers restored and now operate Engine 1 at Pioneer Park. The $2.5 million dollar museum building was built in 2005 and opened to the public in 2006. The museum building consists of two parts: a large shop area to work on Engine 1 and other restoration projects, and a smaller area where there are displays and a short track to display Engine 1 and other rail stock. This is a working museum where visitors can see what is going on in the shop and learn something about the engine and the Tanana Valley Railroad.

The Tanana Valley Railroad Museum shares track with a second narrow gauge railroad throughout Pioneer Park known as the Crooked Creek and Whiskey Island Railroad. The ride takes about fifteen minutes to cover two laps of the 0.6 mile route, built in 1967 as a part of the Alaska 67 Centennial Exposition. The regular boarding site is at the TVRR museum building. The museum features Tanana Valley Railroad Engine 1, an 0-4-0 saddle tank, builder's number 1972, steam locomotive built by H. K. Porter & Co., on January 12th, 1899. This steam engine was the first locomotive that operated in the Yukon and Tanana River drainages, beating the WP&Y. TVRR Engine 1 first arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska on July 4th, 1905. Currently, Engine 1 operates on selected dates during the summertime at Pioneer Park.

When originally built, Engine 1 operated near Dawson at a various coal mines until Falcon Joslin bought it for his Tanana Mines Railway, where it ran locally from 1905 until the early 1920s. The Friends of the Tanana Valley Railroad was incorporated in 1992 to restore Engine 1 to working order and they returned it to service on July 2nd, 2000. The running gear of 1 is all original, but the cab has been reconstructed and the boiler replaced, burning locally-mined coal.

The steam engine was purchased new from company stock on May 5th, 1899 by the North American Transportation and Trading Company. Its purpose was for hauling coal from mines up Cliff Creek to the Yukon River (1.75 miles), about 50 miles downstream from Dawson City, Yukon Territory. It arrived in August 1902 and stayed there until July 1903. It was sold to the nearby Coal Creek Coal Company of which Falcon Joslin was a major stockholder. The Coal Creek Coal Company mines were 12 miles by rail from the Yukon River. In early June 1905, Engine 1 was sold to the Tanana Mines Railway (TMR) (also a Joslin property) located at Chena, Alaska. It departed Coal Creek on June 5th, arriving at Chena on July 4th, using a steam paddlewheel river boat and barge to make the move. Chena, the headquarters of the TMR were first connected by rail to Fairbanks, ten rail miles away and a Golden Spike was driven there on July 7th 1905. Via a wye five miles from Chena by late fall 1905, rails had reached 20 miles towards the gold mines terminating at Gilmore. The financial backers of the TMR were the Close Brothers of London. In order to extend the railway beyond what the Close Brothers would finance, the railway was reorganized in 1907. The ownership of Engine 1 changed to the Tanana Valley Railroad due this reorganization. The new funds enabled the TVRR to lay 25 more miles of track from Gilmore to extend the rails to Chatanika, Alaska. On November 1st 1917, TVRR was sold at a bankruptcy auction for $200,000, and then sold to the Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC) for $300,000 on December 31th, 1917. In August 1923, the AEC became the Alaska Railroad with Engine 1 still listed on its inventory.

The actual retirement date of Engine 1 is unclear, but there is some evidence that it was about 1924. On July 18th, 1924, Alaska Railroad General Manager Lee Landis ordered the railroad to "discontinue the use of any narrow gauge equipment that has not been equipped with automatic couplers". This must have included Engine 1 as to this day, it still has link and pin coupling. More evidence suggests a retirement date of 1924 as a letter from the railroad's Superintendent of Motive Power and Equipment to Noel Smith, Special Assistant to the Secretary of Interior, dated August 12th 1924, stated "Engine 1 - Purchased from coal road near Dawson in 1904 by the Tanana Valley Railroad". It is a small dinky and unfit for service. During FTVRR's restoration the truth of the statement "unfit for service" was confirmed.

Sometime later, but definitely by 1930, the steamer was given to the City of Fairbanks and placed on display by the old train station. It sat for almost four decades beside the downtown station before being removed in 1966, cosmetically restored, and being placed on display at the Alaska 67 Centennial Exposition in 1967. Twenty-five years later, Engine 1 was leased to the Friends of Tanana Valley Railroad restoration, exhibition and operation. It returned to service on July 2th , 2000. To haul passengers, the railroad has several small bench cars which sit approximately twenty adults each.

The Friends of the Tanana Valley Railroad shares track with the Fairbanks North Borough's historical park, Pioneer Park, the successor to the Alaska 67 site. Since the opening of the Alaska 67 Centennial Exposition, the historic park has operated another train conveniently also on 3 foot gauge. This 3 foot gauge track was one inspiration to restore Engine 1. The Park today still operates, Whiskey Island 67 (numbered for the centennial celebration), a Ford engine, gas-powered locomotive disguised as an 0-4-4 steam locomotive. According to data on the builder's plate, it was built in 1967 by the C.M. Lovsted Company of Seattle, Washington. C.M. Lovsted was a railroad parts supplier who also had a history of manufacturing and selling machinery and industrial elevators.

My Visit

My first destination was the railway museum and train ride.

The Tanana Valley Railroad Museum.

The American Railway Express truck on display outside the station.

The train schedule board inside the station.

The Golden Spike sign to commemorate the centennial of the arrival of the Tanana Valley Railroad.

My first view of Tanana Valley 0-4-0 saddle tank 1.

The steam engine's builder's plate.

The builder's plate on the tender.

The coal tender.

Views inside the cab of Tanana Valley 1.

The firebox. I then boarded the train for my first ride on this unique railway.

The Crooked River and Whiskey Creek Railroad water tower.

The view ahead before we started.

The cylinder cocks were released and off we went.

The weather was perfect this September afternoon as we left the water tower and end of track behind.

Smoke billowing from the smokestack.

THe PIoneer Park bridge that we had just traversed.

Taking a large curve on the Tanana Valley Railroad.

A small bridge which goes over the path that leads to the Salmon Bake.

The train curving around another part of the line in Pioneer Park. I returned to the boarding area then Chris and I decided to chase the train on its next run as well as a second time.

Tanana Valley Railroad 1 leading the train out of the station area.

A fireman's job is nevver done.

The sun went behind the cloud at the wrong moment.

The aspen trees were brilliantly shining in the sun.

Rounding one of the curves.

Steaming past our photo location. We then moved to the next spot.

The train in a typical park setting.

The Tanana Valley Railroad steam crew were following each trip with a fire extinguisher car just in case.

Mining equipment was on display as we walked around the grounds.

The train came by us again with plenty of happy conventioneers.

The Tanana Valley Railroad steam train with a group of new riders.

We caught it coming by the storage building.

The fire speeder.

Bart Jennings and the Tanana Valley Railroad crew enjoying themselves. Over the course of the afternoon, I rode the train seven times and the speeder twice. I was having the time of my life and sharing the experience with my best friend made it even more special.

The murals on the side of the storage building. I then went to explore other parts of the park.

The sign for the Harding Car "Denali" which used was by President Warren Harding to drive the Golden Spike for the Alska Railroad in 1923.

Alaska Railroad observation car "Denali", built in 1905 as a compartment observation car with four staterooms, 1 drawing room, a buffet room, a card room and observation room. It was originally sold to the Great Northern Railroad then acquired by the Alaska Railroad in 1923 and renamed "Denali". It is modified in 1945 to Outfit Car 003 and parked on a siding near Nenana. It was then donated to Pioneers of Alaska as car 4 in Fairbanks with the creation of Pioneer Park. The car was placed in storage until damaged in a 1966 warehouse fire. During the 1967 Alaska centennial, the car ws renovated again and placed in Pioner Park.

The observation end of the car.

One of the beautifully-restored clerestory windows inside "Denali".

The window below.

One of the history boards inside the car, which had re-done thanks to a grant from the National Railway Historical Society.

Part of the interior of this wonderful car.

Looking into one of the staterooms from the narrow corridor. I continued exploring Pioneer Park.

The sign for the S.S. Nenana, a paddle wheeler.

The S.S. Nenana. a five-deck (main or cargo, saloon, boat or hurricane, Texas and pilothouse), western river, sternwheel paddleship. Two-hundred and thirty-seven feet in overall length, with a 42-foot beam, she was rated at 1,000 gross tons register. Nenana was built at Nenana, Alaska, and launched in May 1933. Marine architect W.C. Nickum of Seattle designed the sternwheeler, which was pre-fabricated in Seattle and put together at Nenana by Berg Shipbuilding Company. Nenana was built to serve as a packet. She could carry both passengers and freight and had accommodations for 48 passengers on her saloon deck. Up to 300 tons of freight, including two tons in cold storage, could be carried on her main deck. A Texas, topped by a pilothouse mounted forward in poolboat style, provided staterooms for a portion of the crew of 32. Nenana could push five or six barges on the Yukon River; but, because of sharp bends, only one on the Tanana River.

Fully laden, she drew three feet, six inches of water. World War II brought a military buildup in Alaska and kept Nenana busy. She supplied Galena Air Base from which fighter aircraft were supplied to the Soviet Union as well as transporting supplies to a number of military establishments in the advance defense system in Alaska. After the war ended, the decline in passenger revenues that had been arrested by the war continued. Alaska Railroad suspended all river passenger services after the 1949 season. At the close of the 1952 navigation season, Nenana was reconditioned at Whitehorse at a cost of $164,409.20. She only made one more trip north for the Alaska Railroad before being laid up until a newly formed company, Yutana Barge Lines, leased the entire Alaska Railroad fleet in 1954. Yutana Barge Lines operated Nenana to haul freight on rivers for one season but discontinued her lease at that time as unprofitable.

The General Services Administration called for bids on Nenana on December 10th, 1955. All bids were rejected as too low until a group with associations to the Chamber of Commerce formed to bring Nenana to Fairbanks. This group, Greater Fairbanks Opportunities, Inc., purchased the steamboat, steamed her up the Tanana and Chena rivers to Fairbanks and opened her as a museum ship in 1957. For a time during a severe shortage of rooms, Nenana also operated as a hotel.

Weather, neglect and souvenir hunters damaged Nenana at her berth on the river, and to protect, preserve and interpret her, the vessel was moved to a permanent protected dry berth in 1965. Nenana became the centerpiece of Alaskaland, a historical park in Fairbanks. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. An extensive restoration program was begun to return her to her former glory. She is the only surviving wooden ship of this type, and was for this reason declared a National Historic Landmark in 1989.

The National Historic Landmark sign.

Dioramas such as this one were on display inside the ship but the lighting did not aid in photographing them.

The main Pioneer Park Museum building.

Other buildings at Pioneer Park which I passed.

By this time, I was getting quite hungry so went in search of the Salmon Bake, passing The Valley sign.

Outdoor displays were throughout the park, keeping the history of Alaska and Fairbanks alive for current and future generations.

I do not often see directional signs like this, but was quite taken with these.

Another set as I strolled down the path to the Salmon Bake.

The object of my search.

Prime Rib, anyone? What a buffet feast was offered! Plentiful and varied salad options, salmon, other meats, vegetables, rolls and condiments. I thoroughly enjoyed my meal.

The dessert cabin!

I had finally seen everything that I wanted to see and made my way back to the entrance. The Fountainhead Auto Museum did not appeal to me and as I had eaten a large meal, walked back to the hotel, savouring everything that I had done this day. One last view of the Tanana Valley Railroad Museum on this incredible autumn day and many memories and photographs.

This first day of the NRHS convention had been incredible and I had not even ridden the Alaska Railroad yet! I definitely want to return to Fairbanks and re-live the wonderful experiences I had this day.