The changing fortune of Old Chatanika, Alaska
|Old Chatanika cabin in 1994|
In 1902 Felix Pedro washed gold out of Cleary Creek about 25 miles northeast of Fairbanks. Relatively few miners worked the creeks near Fairbanks in 1902, and it wasn’t until the end of the next summer that any big strikes occurred. Cleary Creek became one of the richest gold-producing areas near Fairbanks, and by 1904 two camps had sprung up along the eight-mile-long stream.
Cleary City was established along the upper creek. Another camp, which, according to Nicholas Deely’s book, Tanana Valley Railroad, the Gold Dust Line, was called 15 Below-Cleary (the 15th claim below the creek’s discovery claim), and coalesced farther down the creek near the Chatanika River. The lower camp was eventually re-named Chatanika.
In 1907 Chatanika became the northern terminus for the Tanana Valley Railroad (TVRR). Chatanika’s achievement was the result of fortuitous circumstances rather than deliberate planning, though. The TVRR reached Gilmore, just a few miles northeast of Fox, in 1905. Builders planned to extend the line over the Cleary Summit ridge to reach the rich diggings at Fairbanks Creek and in the Upper Cleary Creek drainage near Cleary City.
The development of mines to the northwest of Gilmore, in the Dome and Vault Creek areas (in the valleys on either side of the present Elliott Highway about 15 miles north of Fairbanks), prompted the TVRR to change routes, however. Instead of continuing in a northeasterly direction over the ridge towards Cleary Creek, the route doubled back and climbed Fox Gulch before crossing into the Chatanika River drainage.
Tracks reached Chatanika in September 1907 but were never extended beyond to Cleary City. Chatanika became the trans-shipment point for people and supplies headed to Cleary City and other destinations. Chatanika’s position was further bolstered when, in November 1907, the business district of Cleary City burned down and about half that city’s residents moved to Chatanika.
Chatanika began as a tent camp, but soon progressed to log cabin town. Early photographs show a business district comprised of wood-frame buildings, many with false-fronts. The rest of the community was primarily small wood-frame houses and log cabins, with log cabins predominating.
The town’s glory days were short-lived. At its zenith Chatanika probably boasted about 500 residents. Gold production from drift mining peaked in 1909 as easily mined deposits were exhausted, and the town’s population began dwindling. The Dictionary of Alaska Place Names records that by 1930 only 30 people called Chatanika home.
The introduction of gold dredges along Cleary Creek sealed Chatanika’s fate. The Fairbanks Exploration Company (FE Co.) began buying up Cleary Creek claims in the 1920s, built a support camp (Chatanika Gold Camp) in 1923-25, and started dredging Lower Cleary Creek in 1928 and Upper Cleary in 1929.
Unfortunately, the town of Chatanika sat atop placer claims the FE Co. planned to develop. After the TVRR shut down in 1930 most of the town was torn up so that Dredge No. 3 (still sitting at Chatanika) could expand operations.
The southern edge of Chatanika, above the limits of dredging, was spared. When I hiked into the abandoned settlement in the mid 1990s only a few structures remained. The building pictured in the drawing is one survivor. (Recent aerial photos indicate that it is still there.) It is a metal-roofed log cabin with a wood-frame porch tacked on to the front. The porch is sheathed with white-washed ship-lap siding, but vertical rough-sawn planking covers the log portion of the cabin. The book, Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough, states that the log-cabin portion of the structure probably dates from around 1910.
In addition to extant cabins and several collapsed buildings, numerous implements such as a rusted wheel barrow, tin-lined storage box, and an old donkey engine used to lie scattered about. The remains of what is now called “Old Chatanika” are on private property. Please respect private property owner’s rights if you plan to explore the Chatanika area.
- Dictionary of Alaska Place Names. Donald J. Orth. U.S. Geological Survey. 1971
- History of Alaskan Operations of United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company. John Boswell. Mineral Industries Research Library, University of Alaska. 1979
- Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. Janet Matheson & F. Bruce Haldeman. Fairbanks North Star Borough. 1981
- Steamboats on the Chena. Basil Hendricks & Susan Savage. Epicenter Press. 1988
- Tanana Valley Railroad, the Gold Dust Line. Nicholas Deely. Denali Designs. 1996