Named after Ohio-born Indiana Senator and Theodore Roosevelt’s vice president, Charles W. Fairbanks, Alaska’s second-largest city is located in Alaska’s interior about 350 miles north of Anchorage. Nestled within a forested lowland between the Chena and Tanana Rivers, Fairbanks has population of about 32,000. The Fairbanks North Star Borough (analogous to a county in the lower 48) is about the size of New Jersey and contains about 100,000 people.
True to Alaska’s adventurous frontier spirit, Fairbanks has colorful beginnings. Fairbanks location was determined quite by accident. In 1901, Ohio-born riverboat captain, banker and swindler E.T. Barnette was a passenger on sternwheeler Lavelle Young, along with his $20,000 worth of trading goods. During a journey to Tanacross, the 150-foot boat ran into shallow waters and could not ascend the Chena River. The sternwheeler
captain left Barnette, his group, and his goods on the banks of the river at the site that would become Fairbanks. Barnette established a trading post at the site, but endured meager beginnings until gold was discovered nearby a year later. Word spread of the new gold strike, and Fairbanks quickly became the hub of the Alaskan Gold Rush.
Fairbanks grew steadily throughout the 20th century. The city’s growth has been stimulated by military activity, transportation and the construction of the Alaska pipeline in the 70s. Today, tourism plays a major role in Fairbanks’ economy, and gold mining continues to this day.
Known as America’s coldest city, Fairbanks’ climate is classified as subarctic. The brutally cold winters average lows are 15 to 25 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. 35 to 45 below zero temperatures are not uncommon, and extremes may approach 60 below or colder. However, in June and July, Fairbanks’ average high temperature is 72 degrees, and the average low is about 50… certainly warm enough to comfortably enjoy Fairbanks’ summer outdoor activities. During our three-day Fairbanks visit, the temperature topped out at well over 80 each day.
Due to Fairbanks’ location just south of the Arctic Circle, the city has extreme seasonal differences in daily sunlight. On the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, the sun rises above the horizon at 10:50 AM and sets just 3 hours and 41 minutes later at 2:41 PM. But on the longest day of the year, the summer solstice, the sun rises at 2:58 AM, and doesn’t set until the next day at 12:48 AM. Even after the sun dips below the horizon, the twilight remains bright enough to allow for daytime activities without artificial light.
Fairbanks offers many fascinating attractions. Riverboat Discovery takes passengers on a 3-hour ride on the Chena River. Visitors will witness a bush floatplane take off and land right next to the boat, visit the kennels of the late legendary musher Susan Butcher, and visit the historic Chena Indian
Village, where native Athabascan guides will show you around. Riverboat Discovery’s sister attraction is Gold Dredge 8, a massive piece of gold mining equipment operated by the Fairbanks Exploration Company from 1928 to 1959, now listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. At the end of the tour, visitors are handed a poke filled with pay dirt and are shown how to pan for gold. A few tiny nuggets are virtually guaranteed.
Fairbanks is the home of the Alaska Goldpanners, a college summer-league baseball team playing its home games at Growden Memorial Park. Since 1906, the park has hosted the Midnight Sun Baseball Game. Beginning at about 10:30 PM on the summer solstice, the Midnight Sun Game is played without any artificial lights. The game is briefly stopped at the half-inning break nearest midnight for the traditional singing of the Alaska Flag Song. Several famous big-leaguers have played in the Midnight Sun Game including Tom Seaver, Dave Winfield, Jason Giambi, and Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona. Fairbanks’ beautiful scenery, exotic location, and diverse selection of activities make the Golden Heart City an attractive addition to your Alaska itinerary.