Fairbanks, Alaska is not a major city in the same way that New York or Los Angeles are, but it has still exerted a large influence on American history and the economy. Situated in the Alaskan Interior, Fairbanks is perhaps best known as the gateway to the Arctic Circle, where numerous tourists, truckers, and oil workers depart north on the Dalton Highway to view Alaska’s gorgeous scenery or work at the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay.
While a relatively recent city, having only been incorporated in 1903, Fairbanks has played a pivotal role in the Alaskan gold rush, the exploitation of oil deposits along the North Slope, World War II, and countless other events. Here is a brief history of Fairbanks and its significance to the United States.
The History of Fairbanks, Alaska
While the region where Fairbanks is located has seen human habitation for generations, a permanent settlement was not established until the early 20th century. Prior to the Alaska Purchase, Russian settlement in Alaska was limited to its coasts, and indigenous Alaskans preferred to reside in regions of the state that were more habitable, though they would settle in the Fairbanks area for brief periods.
The discovery of gold in the neighboring Canadian territory of Yukon in 1897 changed all this. Promises of riches drew thousands of migrants to Yukon and Alaska, many of whom chose to migrate to the territory via the Yukon River, which was safer than taking an overland route through the mountains. Riverboat captain E.T. Barnette established a trading post along the Yukon River in 1901, hoping to profit off of miners traveling to and from Dawson City, where the Klondike gold fields were located.
Shortly thereafter, gold was discovered near Barnette’s trading post, turning what had been intended as a temporary waystation into a boomtown, as miners flocked to earn their fortunes. On November 10, 1903, residents of the trading post voted to incorporate as a city, electing Barnette as their mayor. The city was named Fairbanks after Charles W. Fairbanks, a senator from Indiana who had helped settle a boundary dispute between Alaska and Canada some years before and would later serve as vice president under Teddy Roosevelt.
For the first decade of its existence, Fairbanks grew rapidly, adding residents and infrastructure at a breakneck pace. Barnette would later be discredited after a bank he founded failed, and while he was only convicted of one of the 11 charges leveled against him, he was believed to have embezzled from the bank. By 1911, Fairbanks’ population had swelled to 3,500, making it the largest city in Alaska.
Fairbanks entered into decline in the 1910’s, as gold reserves dried up and residents began leaving for other locations. World War I also severely hurt the city’s economy, as young men who would have otherwise worked in the city were drafted to fight in Europe. Fairbanks was also particularly hard hit by the flu pandemic of 1918, which was estimated to have killed 2,000 to 3,000 people in Alaska, a large slice of the territory’s population. By 1923, Fairbanks’ population had shrunk to less than 1,000 people.
The city saw a partial recovery in the 1920’s due to the completion of the Alaska Railroad, connecting the city to Anchorage on the state’s southern coast and allowing rapid travel to Fairbanks for the first time in its history. Still in operation today, the Alaska Railroad carries both freight and passengers along one of the longest and most scenic rail routes in the world. The Railroad also helped breathe new life into the gold mining industry, making it possible to mine low-grade ore through the transportation of heavy mining equipment, which was previously impossible.
Fairbanks was also aided by the foundation of the University of Alaska in 1915. Founded as the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, the university is still in operation today and led to a new wave of students relocating to the city in the 1920’s. The university also spurred development of agriculture in and around Fairbanks, previously neglected due to the city’s focus on gold mining. The city was economically strong enough by the 1930’s that it was relatively unaffected by the Great Depression, with Fairbanks banks declining a bank holiday offered by then-President Franklin Roosevelt.
The 1930’s saw Fairbanks assume importance as a hub of military activity in Alaska. The invention and popularization of air travel made Fairbanks a natural center of aviation due to its status as one of the northernmost cities in the U.S. and the lack of road connections across much of the Alaskan Interior. In the late 1930’s, Ladd Army Airfield was established, turning Fairbanks into an important center for the U.S. military.
During World War II, Fairbanks saw a boom in military-related activity due to the Japanese invasion of and attacks on Alaska. Ladd Army Airfield was a major transit point for the Lend-Lease Act, where Soviet pilots would receive aircraft intended for the war effort and pilot them back home. Development was also spurred by the construction of the Alaska Highway, linking Alaska with the continental U.S. by road for the first time.
Development continued into the 1950’s, as Alaska assumed a new role as a front during the Cold War. The federal government also began investing in scientific facilities in the city, establishing the Geophysical Institute to study the Northern Lights and other peculiarities of Alaskan wildlife and geology. The city was also a hub of the Alaska statehood movement, and the admission of Alaska to the union as the 49th state in 1959 led to much celebration in Fairbanks.
In 1967, Fairbanks was struck by disaster when unusually high rainfall led to a rapid rise in the Chena River, causing massive flooding in the city. Four people were killed and hundreds of millions of dollars of damage was inflicted on the city’s infrastructure. The city recovered rapidly from the flood and was designated as an All-America City in 1969 in honor of its citizens’ resilience in the face of tragedy.
Fairbanks would see a new wave of boomtown development following the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay, located along Alaska’s North Slope. As the largest city in the region and a hub of Alaskan air travel, Fairbanks was a natural starting point for oil development in the state. The construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which ran through Fairbanks between Prudhoe Bay and Valdez, cemented the city’s newfound importance as an oil town, while the Dalton Highway was constructed in 1977 and connected Fairbanks with Prudhoe Bay directly.
The mass influx of residents to Fairbanks due to the oil boom caused a massive strain on public services, as roads and electrical grids struggled to accommodate thousands of new residents. The city also saw an uptick in crime. While oil construction largely ended in the 1970’s, increased taxation brought in more revenue to the city’s coffers, while an increase in global oil prices in the 1990’s further benefited the city.
Today, Fairbanks remains an important hub of economic activity in Alaska. The oil industry continues to bring in large amounts of money to the city, while local military bases reaffirm the city’s importance to American defense. Fairbanks has invested considerable amounts of money into upgrading the city’s infrastructure, making it one of the most livable cities in Alaska. The growing tourist industry has also brought countless newcomers to Fairbanks to witness the Northern Lights or view Alaska’s scenery and wildlife.
Fairbanks’ importance to American history cannot be understated. While it is not a massive metropolis like the cities of the continental U.S., Fairbanks has played a pivotal role in America’s economic development and military defense. As oil and natural resource exploitation continues in America’s 49th state, Fairbanks will continue to play a large role in the U.S. economy for years to come.