Where is Chena?—The Search for a Lost Century-Old Gold Rush Town

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How do you find an Alaska ghost town which thrived over 100 years ago but was abandoned before the U.S. Government Land Office (GLO) approved the survey plat? That was my dilemma as a surveyor for the local municipality in Fairbanks, Alaska. The search began over a decade ago when I was processing subdivision plats at the Fairbanks North Star Borough (FNSB). I work at the FNSB as the senior platting officer reviewing subdivision applications for land development in a municipal area of 7,361 square miles (19,065 square kilometers) that has a population just under 100,000. The majority of the residents are clustered within a 25 mile radius of the town center. Two cities now lie within the Borough; the City of Fairbanks which was chartered in 1904 and North Pole in 1953. There is a third city that no longer exists, the old town of Chena.

Both Fairbanks and Chena were founded about the same time during the Gold Rush in central Alaska at the beginning of the 1900s. Fairbanks began as a trading post on the banks of the Chena River in 1901 by E. T. Barnette after the captain of the Lavelle Young, a sternwheeler carrying his supplies, could no longer navigate farther up the river because of low water. Chena town was located downstream on the larger Tanana River near the confluence of the Chena River as a waypoint to transfer shipments from the larger riverboats onto lighter sternwheelers to travel upriver to Fairbanks. Many of the paddlewheel riverboats that landed at Chena may have originated at the tidewater ports near the terminus of the Yukon River near St Michael over a thousand miles downriver.

Fairbanks Finds Federal Favor
By a strange circumstantial meeting earlier in 1902 at St Michael between Barnette and the incoming federal judge for the Alaska interior region, James Wickersham, it was agreed that if Barnette named his trading post after a senior senator from Indiana named Charles W. Fairbanks (who was running for vice president), that Wickersham would find favor in the national capital. True to his promise, Wickersham designated Barnette’s town as the Third Judicial District to be the location of his United States magistrate and center of federal government offices in Fairbanks when Fairbanks became Vice President under Teddy Roosevelt in 1904.

Chena and Fairbanks competed for commerce to serve the gold mines blossoming in the hills surrounding the river valleys. Even though interior Alaska’s Gold Rush was sparked by the mother load strike of Felix Pedro in 1902 whose grubstake was funded by Barnette extending credit, Chena appeared poised on the cusp of prevailing over Fairbanks when in 1904 developer Falcon Joslin started a narrow gauge railroad stationed at Chena to serve the gold mines 20 miles away. The first engine arrived on July 4th, 1905 to start the Tanana Mines Railway (TMR). In 1907 the railway was refinanced to extend the track another 20 miles and renamed the Tanana Valley Railroad (TVRR). Chena became a classic railroad town under the hand of Joslin and his partners who built a sawmill, power plant and major dock facilities with warehouses, repair shops, along with supporting businesses for the seasonal freight brought by the riverboats to the banks of the Tanana River. A telegraph station was even built in Chena for the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS) that connected the continental United States north to Eagle and Nome, Alaska.

Fearing competition looming from another railroad rumored to be considering a line, the TVRR also built a five mile spur track east to Fairbanks for passengers and freight. But the primary focus of the TVRR was to haul heavy freight from Chena directly to mines in the Chatanika River valley 43 miles north. For several years the boom continued as the two towns competed for preeminence until 1915 when that gold rush era collapsed at the onslaught of WW I. The TVRR filed for bankruptcy and the U.S. government bought it in June 1923 for inclusion in the new Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC) Railroad that was being built from tidewater at Seward, Alaska through the new town of Anchorage and north 400 miles to Fairbanks. This line became the Alaska Railroad (ARR) in 1923 continuing to serve Fairbanks from Anchorage and Seward as standard gauge, but the narrow gauge tracks were torn up for the four mile spur to Chena completely bypassing the railroad’s birthplace.

Surveys Start Simultaneously Today, nothing is left of the cabins, hotels, saloons, warehouses, shops, docks and depots at Chena. The Fairbanks townsite was given survey instructions for U.S. Survey No. 438 on November 12, 1906 and surveyed in June 1907 for 408.0 acres. Similarly the townsite of Chena was given initial survey instructions in October 12, 1906 for a 380.73 acre U.S. survey # 436 that was completed August 1, 1907. Although the Fairbanks townsite grew into lots for over 500 homes and businesses within 130 blocks and two dozen meandering streets that were platted in 1922, Chena suffered the inverse of that growth.

The Chena townsite that was approved in 1907 bears a brutal stamp across the bottom in bold letters, CANCELLED. At the top is a scratchy handwritten note: Sur. 436 Cancelled by letter… July 14, 1921. It continues: See supplemental plat of T.1 S., R 2 W., F.M. for lotting within the boundaries. This plat is retained as fixing in part the boundaries of the lots. What happened to the parallel towns that simultaneously cancelled one while the other flourished?

Poring through the subsequent lot surveys within the cancelled Chena townsite revealed that government lots were created within the oblique rectangle that had been reserved for the nascent railroad and port town on the north bank of the Tanana River. The townsite of Fairbanks eight miles northeast was almost a mirror image of Chena except Fairbanks was a rectangle bound on the north by the smaller Chena River. Each survey allocated certain parcels for a telegraph station, court house, city jail, school and military tracts in keeping with public land laws of March 3, 1891.

Fairbanks Flourishes While Chena Falls
Fairbanks flourishes today, growing beyond the original townsite boundary for ten avenues later platted in 1922, tripling those numbers in 50 years to 30 streets paralleling the south bank of the Chena River upon which Barnette landed in 1901. The town of Chena flourished for hardly a decade during the first Gold Rush while Fairbanks survived four booms and busts of gold, world wars, cold wars and black gold by its first centennial. Fairbanks became paved with four lane highways, an international airport, two major military bases and the most northerly rail terminus in the continent during that century. Chena disappeared altogether to become a state run picnic park and small boat launch for seasonal hunters and fishermen. None of the first interior Alaska railroad tracks that were laid there remain. No evidence of the dozen streets remain that led to the major docks which received tons of freight to be ferried out to the mines by the narrow gauge railway to Fairbanks. The docks, warehouses, shops and homes that sheltered more than a thousand people at its peak have been either washed away by the annual flooding of the Tanana River, or hauled away to be repurposed in Fairbanks. Chena is truly a ghost town living only in black and white pictures taken on glass plate negatives with large format view cameras that required a tripod the size of old survey transit legs to steady the long exposures.

Scaling is Not Surveying
So, can a surveyor today locate any of the abandoned town on today’s maps? Since the 1907 Chena t
ownsite survey was cancelled by the GLO in 1921 soon after the town was abandoned, there were no street alignments, blocks or lots with good bearing and distance ties to reestablish them. Albeit the exterior boundary of the townsite was still being perpetuated by the later government lots which were nested within the 380-acre boundary and adjacent subdivisions tied three extant corners of Chena townsite, there were no survey plats of the old town itself. What remained in the Polar Region Archives at the University of Alaska Rasmuson Library and the national archives in Washington, D.C. were a few 1908 maps from the hey day of the old town when it was established for the TVRR dockside terminal yard, and a Sanborn Fire Insurance map of the commercial buildings that lined the three main streets.

None of these maps had any bearing or distance shown for the streets, blocks and lots depicted for a useful tie to any of the four original USS 436 corners set by the GLO in 1907. They were basically good scale drawings with no dimensional data other than using a ruler at the specified scales on the legends. One had a tie to meander corner number one of the 1907 GLO plat. Unfortunately that reference monument was washed away by the glacier fed Tanana River decades ago. Fortunately the GLO field notes had bearing and distance ties to the railroad tracks, telegraph office and associated lines from corner number one. Likewise two other original townsite corners were still intact from the government lots that were later subdivided out of USS 436. These lots were subsequently subdivided again by recent plats I processed at the FNSB during the 1980’s post pipeline oil boom in housing. Corner number one is not lost!

A 1906 map was done for the survey of the rail line that began at station 0+00 for the Tanana Mines Railway at the dock terminal. It showed the bearing and distance tie to corner number one of USS 436. Although the corner was long gone, another missing link was found in a most unlikely document that was prepared in a 1981 study for right-of-way on a proposed natural gas line corridor that was planned to follow on the heels of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline (TAPS) finished in 1976. That document prepared by the State Joint Pipeline Office (JPO) needed to identify any prior claims that may have conflicted with the gas line route. The abandoned route of the TVRR had to be researched for any overlapping claims on the gas line right-of-way in the Chatanika River area.

Pipeline Dredges Up Old Railway
In amongst the 200 microfilm pages of the JPO report for a yet to be delivered pipe dream of a natural gas line were the1908 field notes of the TVRR for all 46 miles of track. Station by station transcriptions listed typewritten tabulations of the bearing and distance for every tangent and curve of the narrow gauge track from the stations beginning on the docks at Chena traversing the two main spurs to Fairbanks and Chananika. Fairbanks junction was 220 stations away to the northeast and the gold camp terminus at Chatanika was 1,022 stations to the northwest.

The GIS folks in our mapping section of the FNSB planning department where I work painstakingly entered each call starting with the bearing and distance tie to corner number one of USS 436 for Chena. Although the witness corner was long gone, subsequent recent subdivisions platted in the 1980’s on the perimeter had referenced the witness corner with new ties. Taking this data and plugging it into our AutoCAD base maps, we simply chugged along the tracks until we tied into the alignment for the overlapping portion of the present day ARR. The ARR had a map in their survey archives from the 1920’s that showed the stationing for the merger of the old narrow gauge with the standard gauge of today’s rail from Anchorage. The rest was applying the station equations against today’s maps of the ARR where it traverses the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) 1917 federal survey of the land withdrawal for the original Agricultural College and School of Mines that became the UAF.

The UAF farm fields were located where the original Happy Junction (a "Y" shaped juncture within a forty acre tract granted to TVRR) at four miles from Chena branched off to Fairbanks and Chatanika respectively. The spur that went to Chena was torn up in 1923 but the alignment from Fairbanks was the Gold Stream valley spur to Chatanika that is partially occupied by the present day ARR tracks (minus realignment when the narrow gauge was abandoned). However, any surveyor familiar with typewritten field notes from the 1900s knows they suffer from transcription errors of the non-surveyor typist. This was evident when some of the stationing did not match the distances called for by several hundred feet or more. Luckily there was also a separate map in the archives that showed the major PC, PT, PI and POT stations for the forty six miles to check against the typewritten calls.

Serendipitous Century Old Survey
Thanks to serendipitous discoveries of a surveyor’s transcribed notes over 100 years ago for an abandoned narrow gauge railroad, a few scale maps by the founder of the first railroad in the Alaska interior that became the longest government owned railway in the United States, Chena now lives in the FNSB GIS maps. The poorly registered maps dredged from various archives have been locked into the FNSB GIS maps to a certainty of less than 10′ by two ties between the past and present railroads overlapping in time.

One of these maps was an exhibit in a June 1905 lawsuit concerning Chena leasing a public street for a dock on the Tanana River. The City lost the case and interestingly the presiding judge was James Wickersham, the same one who promised E.T. Barnette that Fairbanks would find favor in the future. This case showed no sign of favoritism by Wickersham, but his promise to keep Fairbanks in good favor did prevail over Chena in the long term primarily because becoming the seat of federal power was the key factor in its survival between booms. As a staff surveyor of the community government that inherited Fairbanks favor over Chena’s demise, I felt that we should show the little town that didn’t make it on our maps as more than a ghost town in the archives.

Surveyor Sees Steaming Dead People
Thousands of footsteps trod the first decade of the twentieth century on the seasonally dusty, muddy, snow packed streets and boardwalks of Chena hoping for a future there as the steam boats and trains whistled their arrival during the brief gold rush. One surveyor’s footsteps over a century ago showed the way to tie a long dead town to a place that picnic goers have no hint that ghosts of vanished pioneer trains are steaming through their weekend barbecues or phantom sternwheelers churn the silt alongside their aluminum jet boats.

Martin Gutoski has been a lincensed surveyor since 1988, with more than 25 years as a platting officer at the Fairbanks North Star Borough Planning Dept. He holds a master’s degree in anthropology and has been involved in surveying historical archaeology projects in the Fairbanks area since 1994.

A 7.327Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE