‘Eskimo Village’ survives on Lathrop Street in Fairbanks
During and right after World War II there was a rapid influx of people into the Fairbanks area as the U.S. military expanded its presence. With the increased demands on the Alaska Railroad during the war and during the “Cold War” era that followed, the railroad also expanded its operations during this period.
To house some of its new workers, in 1946 the railroad began erecting temporary housing on railroad property near the freight yards. That housing consisted of “Jamesway” huts. These prefabricated structures had the same design as Quonset huts. However, instead of metal ribs and galvanized metal sheathing, Jamesway huts were more tent-like, with wooden ribs covered by insulated fabric. By the end of the war there were at least 20 huts on railroad property. The 16’ x 32’ structures were electrified but not plumbed.
Some of the new railroad workers were coastal Eskimo, primarily Inupiat from Northwestern Alaska, but also a few Yupik from the Kuskokwim Delta area. According to a 1981 University of Alaska master’s thesis by Gay Ann White, in the mid-1940s about 110 Eskimo lived in Fairbanks, including 21 complete families.
Six Inupiat families, as well as numerous single Inupiat males moved into the railroad housing, which became known as “Eskimo Village.” In 1948, workers were still living in the huts which by then had become dilapidated.
The railroad replaced the structures in 1949 with military-surplus “Dallas huts,” 16’ x 16’ prefabricated buildings constructed of 2×4 framing and plywood, with shallow-pitched hipped roofs. The “new” Eskimo Village was erected near the railroad’s engine house. Again, the huts were electrified but not plumbed.
Ten years later, most railroad workers lived off railroad property, but seven Inupiaq families still lived in Eskimo Village. Sanitation was deplorable and the Dallas huts had deteriorated to the point they were not worth repairing. The railroad needed to expand its Fairbanks facilities and decided to close Eskimo Village. In May of 1960 it gave its tenants notice to vacate by June 1, 1961.
It was at that point that the Presbyterian minister in Fairbanks, Brian Cleworth, stepped in to help the families. Presbyterians have a long history of working among the Inupiat (a mission was established at Barrow – now called Utqiagvik – in 1890), and some Eskimo Village residents attended Cleworth’s church. Brian told me he was also familiar with Inupiat culture through his work with the church’s Board of Missions.
Cleworth spearheaded efforts to obtain housing for the families, working closely with the railroad, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The families desired to stay together. As a result, Eskimo Village was relocated to a small tract of BLM land between 25th and 27th Avenues along Lathrop Street. There is even an “Eskimo Village Road” that shows up on maps. The land was obtained under the 1906 Alaska Native Allotment Act.
The railroad sold the Dallas huts to families for $1 each. It then moved and set up the huts at the Lathrop Street location. As with the railroad location, the huts were electrified but not plumbed. The relocation was completed by October 1961.
Moving to the new location did not end the families’ travails though. The 1967 Fairbanks flood severely damaged their homes (they were only elevated off the ground by wooden sills) and all the structures had to be replaced in 1969 and 1970. New 20’ x 31’ wood-frame houses were constructed on concrete foundations on top of gravel pads.
Because of the poor soil conditions in the area, extending sewer and water lines to the houses was very expensive. It was not until 1974 that they were hooked up to the municipal sewer and water system. Almost 30 years after the Inupiat families moved to Fairbanks, Eskimo Village finally had running water and modern sanitation facilities.
- Conversation with Brian Cleworth, Presbyterian minister in Fairbanks during relocation of Eskimo Village
- “‘Eskimo Village,’ and ethnic enclave in Fairbanks, Alaska.” Gay Ann White. University of Alaska, Fairbanks master’s thesis. 1981
- Fairbanks North Star Borough property records.