Fairbanks Exploration Company revived Early Fairbanks
|Old FE Company office building on Illinois Street in Fairbanks
This drawing depicts the Fairbanks Exploration Company office building as it looked in 1992. This stately building, constructed in 1926, was the first concrete block building in Fairbanks. Locally manufactured concrete blocks, fashioned to mimic natural stone, were used in its construction. Behind the office building you can seen the gold recovery room, and across the railroad tracks in the background is the company’s two-story machine shop.
The FE Company was a subsidiary of U.S. Smelting, Refining and Mining Company (a 1916 New York Times article described the USSR&MC as the second largest smelting company in the US.) It became interested in Fairbanks in the early 1920s, when the city’s fortunes were at low ebb. Gold production, as well as the area’s population, had been steadily declining for over a decade. The city’s population dropped from a high of 6000 residents in 1905 to 1400 people in 1920.
The problem was that most of the gold around Fairbanks lay entombed under tens if not hundred’s of feet of frozen overburden. Because of the cost in time, labor, equipment and supplies, during the area’s early years it was only profitable to mine the richest and most easily accessible placers. As the easy diggings disappeared it became harder to mine profitably.
In the early 1920s several developments brought Fairbanks back to prosperity. The Alaska Railroad (from Seward to Fairbanks) was completed in 1923, providing inexpensive and dependable transportation. Heavy equipment, like gold dredges (which could take advantage of low-grade gold placers), could then be brought in. Also, the opening of the Healy coal fields provided cheap and plentiful fuel. Large corporations, with the deep pockets necessary to bring in heavy equipment and develop the gold fields were now interested in Fairbanks.
The FE Company was but one of several companies that began dredging in the Fairbanks area, but it was the most successful. It began acquiring individual claims in 1924, consolidating them into large blocks that could be efficiently mined using dredges. Three FE Company dredges began working in 1928, and by 1940 the company had eight dredges operating. Consequently, by 1940 the population of Fairbanks had rebounded to over 4,000 residents.
At the height of its activities FE Company facilities on Illinois Street included the office building, gold recovery room, power plant, several shops and warehouses, and numerous houses built for employees. Most of the industrial buildings are gone. Only the office building and machine shop are left on the west side of Illinois. These two buildings, along with the employee housing on the east side of the street, form the Illinois Street Historic District. Six of the buildings: the machine shop, manager’s house, and four employee houses, are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Golden Valley Electric Association now owns the old office building. This past year it completed an addition to the rear of the building that blends beautifully with the original structure. The electric cooperative used to buy power from the FE Company and purchased the FE power plant in 1952. (It was retired in 1972.) I think its fitting that GVEA now owns the building and is striving to preserve it.