Old Independent Lumber warehouse representative of Interior Alaska’s lumbering history
|Independent Lumber’s Fairbanks warehouse in 1990
As the town of Fairbanks grew between 1901 and the early 1920s it was not built with brick and stone. The city was far from Outside sources, and shipping space limited. Heavy building materials were generally too expensive to ship, so residents built with local materials when possible. Wood was the construction material of choice, and Fairbanks had an insatiable appetite for lumber during its early years.
Logs and milled lumber were used to construct buildings, boats and other implements; timbers were needed for bridges and mine tunnels supports; and cordwood was essential to fuel the countless steam engines used at mines, and to heat homes and businesses. Huge wood lots lay scattered about town. One early photo of a cord-wood yard describes it as being 20 acres in size.
The first buildings in Fairbanks were cabins constructed of logs hewn by the builders themselves, but by 1903 local sawmills were supplying lumber. A 1904 photograph shows Fred Noyes’ Tanana Mill at the edge of town, about where the Morris Thompson Cultural Center is now. (The Tanana Mill later moved across the river to “Noyes” slough, where the Golden Valley Electrical Association complex now is on Illinois Street.)
According to a 2003 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article by Candy Waugaman, four lumber mills supplied the Fairbanks area’s needs by 1907. There was Chena Lumber at Chena townsite downriver from Fairbanks, Fairbanks Lumber on Garden Island, the Noyes mill, and Independent Lumber at the east end of Seventh Avenue, on the far side of the city cemetery.
Independent Lumber began as a partnership between Roy Rutherford and Sylvester Widman. A 1909 article in Alaska-Yukon magazine relates that Rutherford came to Valdez in 1901, spent several years there operating a sawmill, and then moved to Fairbanks. Widman stampeded to Dawson City in 1898, moved to Eagle after a couple of years and finally landed in Fairbanks about the same time Rutherford did.
In May 1906 Rutherford bought land on the bank of the Chena River at the edge of town and erected a mill, and in September of that year he partnered with Walker to form Independent Lumber Company. For many years they operated a large lumber yard stretching from the city cemetery at Seventh Avenue to 10th Avenue where the Regency Hotel is now.
Facilities included a saw and planning mill, garage, offices, two residences, numerous sheds and warehouse. Logs for the mill were felled in the upper reaches of the Chena River Valley and floated downriver to Fairbanks. An early photo of the sawmill shows an inclined skidway four-logs wide leading up from the river to stacks of unprocessed logs, with the mill building in the background.
The operation was so successful that it opened an office downtown on First Avenue and had an additional office across the river near the railroad yard.
In 1918, it bought out the Tanana Mill. Independent Lumber remained at its eastside location until the 1960s when the business moved to a new site on south Cushman Street (where Independent Rental is now).
The 50-foot by 84-foot timber-frame gable-roofed warehouse shown in the drawing is the mill’s only surviving building. It is depicted with its original ship-lap siding and corrugated metal roof. Located at the corner of Clay Street and 8th Avenue, it lay empty and deteriorating for almost 50 years. In 1975,the Borough even assessed it as only being worth salvage value.
However, the building was recently rehabilitated, including replacing the siding and roof. It now houses Automotive Concepts. One can hope that the building, visible from the Steese Expressway, will be around for many years to come.
- Buzby and Metcalf photo album. University Archives. University of Alaska Fairbanks
- Fairbanks, A city historic building survey. Janet Matheson. City of Fairbanks. 1985
- “In the woods.” Candy Waugaman. In Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 2-23-2003
- “Men and Endeavor in the Tanana Valley.” B. B. Metheany. In Alaska-Yukon Magazine. January 1909
- “Mill stood where hotel is today.” Candy Waugaman. In Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 4-23-1995
- Woodrow Johansen Papers. University Archives. University of Alaska Fairbanks