"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Town Called Nenana

I've been workin' on the railroad....

Actually, not me after all. My dad. My dad worked on the railroad from June of 1948 until he retired thirty years later. I came close. In the late winter of 1976, I was standing in the employment office of the Alaska Railroad, handing in my sure-thing application to be a cook on the railroad for the summer extra gangs.

Then came a phone call from my mother.
The dispatcher at the Operating Engineers Union hall in Fairbanks had called and offered me a job on the construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline. And that simple phone call changed my life. But, that's another story. Today's story is about a small part of the Alaska Railroad, and a continuation o
f my trip to Fairbanks over last weekend.

There have been almost 500 wildfires in Alaska this year, and many of them are still active. The largest, the Railbelt Complex fire south of Fairbanks, has burned more than a half million acres and remains out of control.

As I neared the town of Nenana, sixty-five miles from Fairbanks, I saw what looked like a large black rain cloud, so my hopes rose about avoiding the smoke I’d heard was limiting visibility. If it was raining, I thought the rain would lessen the smoke.

Eventually, I realized the black cloud was smoke. A temperature inversion layer was holding the smoke close to the ground, and I entered the smoky area before I reached Nenana.

With the discovery of gold in the Fairbanks area in 1902, miners rushed to the Interior. A trading post/roadhouse was established in 1903 at what became the town of Nenana. St. Mark's Episcopal Mission and school was built in 1905.

I want to tell you something about Nenana.

There is a town called Nenana, pronounced Nee–NAN-uh. There is a town called Tanana, pronounced TAN-uh-naw.

There is a river called Nenana. There is a river called Tanana. The Tanana River runs through Nenana and empties into the Nenana River.

Nenana sponsors the annual Nenana Ice Classic, a game of guessing when the ice will go out on the Tanana River. Go figure.

Legend says two bored railroad workers in 1915 started the whole thing by starting a pool on when the ice would go out.Actually, with the winner getting more than $300,000 in prize money,who cares what the town and river are called? My mother, along with a number of other people, won one time with a guess on her May 5 birthday. She said she got enough to pay her Anchorage property taxes for that year.

Each winter a huge tripod is placed on the ice, frozen into place, and a wire attached to a clock mechanism. Once the tripod has moved a hundred feet with the out-going ice, the ice is declared “out” and spring is here. So, for two bucks a ticket, you place your guess and you takes your chances.Wanting to get a photo of the tripod, I pulled off the highway, drove down the main street of Nenana, and parked next to the Railroad Museum that’s located on the banks of the Tanana River.

Then I visited the Railroad Musuem. The Alaska Railroad played a prominent part in the history of Alaska. From its inception in Seward in 1903 as the Alaska Central Railroad, it was owned and operated by the federal government, eventually becoming the Alaska Railroad. With crews working north from Fairbanks and also from the south, the golden spike was driven at Nenana in 1923 with President Warren Harding attending the ceremony.

The president left Alaska, and died of food poisoning in San Francisco. Just thought I’d throw in that little tidbit.

In the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964, damage to the railroad was estimated at $30 million, with a substantial portion of that in Seward where the rail terminal was hit by a tsunami. The railroad was up and running within two weeks.

Ownership of the railroad was ceded to the state in 1985. Since then, it has become a symbol of pride for the state. It hauls a tremendous amount of freight, and has been declared one of the best passenger railroads in the country. Recently I heard on the news that the ride between Seward and Portage has been named the premier train excursion in the U.S. I took that ride some years ago, and though I am almost jaded by the incredible scenery around me, I found that to be a jaw-dropping excursion.

The railroad has been important to the town of Nenana also, so it is fitting that the museum is located in the old station house there.

I found a number of interesting things inside, including a framed newspaper front page bearing the tragic news of the plane crash that killed Will Rogers and Wiley Post in northern Alaska in 1935.

In a glass display case, there are two old concertinas. I took pictures of them and e-mailed the photos to my friend Polka Dan as soon as I could.

A tiny cook stove that probably burned coal or wood.

There was also a newspaper with a photo of a white moose.

And a “telephone” that looks like a character in a Pixar movie.

With a last look around Nenana, I pointed the truck and trailer north and headed out of town, over the bridge spanning the Tanana River that runs through Nenana. That's the old station house, to the right of the crane, which houses the museum. Click on this photo to enlarge it to full screen and you'll see St. Mark's church left of the crane, and the top of the black and white tripod left of that.

The smoke from wildfires became more pronounced, looking like a thin, low-lying ground fog, but smelling of burning wood. Once I reached the top of a ridge that runs towards Fairbanks, I glanced over my left shoulder and saw this:

And into the Valley of Death rode the Five Hun.... No, it was just Pablo and me, actually.

(to be continued)


  1. I really enjoy the history you tell us. Every state has interesting history, different from the other 49, but Alaska's is so full of sights we don't see in the lower 48.

    We have had a rash of wildfires in the winter months for the last 4 or 5 years. Many a house and acre burnt. They arrested someone who was setting them, a volunteer fireman. Go figure.

  2. You're a fine historian, Gully. A book of all your stories about Alaska will be invaluable to tourists prior to, during or after their visits to the state.

    You've an adventurous spirit for sure and the rest of us benefit greatly from your traveling.

    Thanks for for introducing me to Nenana, Nenana River, Tanana, Tanana River and all the rest.

    Did the smoke bother your eyes and/or breathing?