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Fairbanks: Farthest north city with more than 20,000 people

Turning Bad Luck into Good

Bad timing and bad luck gave Fairbanks its start. But good luck, good sense, and strong hearts built it into Alaska's second-largest city.

Fairbanks grew up on the banks of the Chena River where a riverboat captain dumped E.T. Barnette and his load of supplies. It was August of 1901 and Barnette was headed further upstream. He planned to start a trading post where the Tanana River crossed the Valdez Trail. But he started late in the season and the water was too low to continue. Sitting on the banks of the river, Barnette decided to make the most out of his bad luck. He set up his tent to wait out the winter. Then, in a grand bit of good luck, Felix Pedro discovered gold nearby in July 1902. Barnette and his supplies were perfectly placed for an Alaskan gold rush.

E.T. Barnette may have founded Fairbanks, but Judge James Wickersham gets the credit for its staying power and its name. Wickersham had come to Alaska in 1900 to serve as the judge for the Third Judicial District. It was a huge area, about half of Alaska. Based in Eagle, Wickersham made a deal with Barnette. Wickersham asked Barnette to rename the town Fairbanks. In return, Wickersham promised to move the home of the District Court from Eagle to Fairbanks. This move made Fairbanks more than just a Gold Rush town. Wickersham's work kept Fairbanks from turning into just another Gold Rush ghost town. As a congressman for the Territory of Alaska, he helped pass the bill to build the Alaska Railroad to Fairbanks. He also got the land grant to start what is now the University of Alaska. Both of these actions gave Fairbanks staying power.

Today, Fairbanks remains a trading center for the Interior Region. The University attracts students from all over the world. The railroad brings thousands of tourists to the city each year. Thanks to its inland setting just south of the Arctic Circle, Fairbanks's dark, cold winters give way to some of the best summer weather in the state. It is known as the Golden Heart City. This name is as much a tribute to its Gold Rush past as it is to the warm and welcoming 30,000-plus people of the city and the 90,000 in the entire borough who choose to live here.

Who was Charles Fairbanks? Where was he from? Why do you think Wickersham wanted to name the new town for this man?

Gallery of Images

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Aurora over Aurora Borealis Lodge

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2006 WEIO (Jade Frank) 09

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Dog Team

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Fairbanks aerial

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Golden Heart Plaza & Unknown First Family

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Ice Slide

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