Alaska – Alaska’s Golden Heart

NINE out of ten stories of Alaska towns begin with a dance hall and end with a dance hall. That seems to be the accepted and ready-made formula. To the person who has learned Alaskan life only from film and fiction, Alaska’s past, present and future are all contained within the walls of a dance hall; and perhaps all through our own long journey into this far country you have been wondering why I have overlooked giving you a lurid description of an up-and-doing, open-full-blast dance hall. The simple reason is, I’ve never seen one.

Quite recently a moving-picture corporation was formed to film typical Alaskan stories, in Alaska: an innovation, for before this time ” Alaska ” films had always been ” shot ” in California. This film was indeed taken here, and well taken, and we greatly enjoyed the experience of meeting and entertaining many of the actors and helping them to get authentic Alaskan background for their sets. But the very first step was to reconstruct a dance hall, painstakingly and from the memories of oldest in-habitants. The director said he ” had to have a dance hall, for people in the States always expect a dance hall in Alaskan stories.” But the dance hall had to be re-constructed. Many of my older neighbors and acquaintances in Fairbanks, it is true, could tell us vividly of those days and scenes—though usually they don’t. Some loved the garish day and hark back with a real regret to the old times; but many more wish permanently to forget them, press forward now, remember not past years. It’s better so.

But never in all my own Alaska travel all over the Territory have I myself as much as seen a dance hall or heard in passing the blare of its music, for all this is part of the distant past. In its day the dance hall filled a need long since drifted into the limbo of things forgotten. Do not come to Fair-banks expecting to see dance halls. You won’t. You will see farms and mines, many healthy children, 600 motors for 2,400 people so that all may ride who will, and more airplanes and more landing fields per capita than in any other section of the world today. But nary a dance hall! Nor is there a glacier within a hundred miles of Fairbanks, so I found, but there are at least a hundred hothouses. There’s not a totem pole in sight nor ever has been—but there are scores of telephone and electric-light poles! Most people here have never seen an Eskimo, any more than do you in your own home town, except upon the silver screen at our fine, new, and ” Farthest North Theatre,” seating 700 people and with an excellent built-in pipe organ. And there are not as many Indians to be met with on our streets as one might find in many a Western town today. For Fairbanks is a new and white man’s town, and never was an Indian or a Russian village.

What I found here instead, to my amazement, was a library, a hospital, a school, a kindergarten, churches, hotels, banks, stores, club-houses, restaurants, laundries, electric lights, telephones, telegraph, a bus service to ” the creeks,” busy boats and launches, and a railroad terminus; for even before Uncle Sam constructed his railroad from the coast to Fairbanks, enterprising local citizens had built a narrow-gauge road to the creek mines, the Tanana Valley R. R., since taken over and operated by the Government as a feeder to the ” big road.” ” Going to the Creeks ” or ” living on the Creeks ” does not mean, in Alaskan parlance, a picnic. Far from it! The creeks are the gold-bearing placers, radiating and ten to thirty miles from the central town which is the commercial, transportational, financial and social center. When a man goes ” back to the Creeks ” from town, he is going back to work, hard work. For any one who thinks of either lode or placer gold mining as a ” snap job ” is a person strangely ignorant of fact.

Fairbanks very much resembles a Western cattle town in its physical appearance. The majority of the older cabins are built of log, and locally there is sharp distinction made here: a ” cabin ” is a log building, while a frame dwelling is a ” house.” The newer houses are of frame, and all—both log and frame—are very substantially and warmly built. Then, too, Fairbanks is not itself a mining town, but is the feeder for a score of mining settlements near, and it is also the commercial center, transportation head, and outfitting point for the whole enormous interior of Alaska, north to the Arctic Ocean. Commercially it stands to the Middle North to-day very much as Westport Landing (that was later to become Kansas City) stood in the early development of the Middle West—the place where one type of transportation ended and another more primitive type, for further-going pioneers, began. Hence Fairbanks has a commerce far exceeding that which you might expect from the size of its population, and has, too, a very real financial and geographical importance; for like another Kansas City it is located in almost the exact center of the main land bulk of the country. It is a very bustling town, just as up-to-date as it knows how to be: quite as much so, indeed, as the sub-arctic conditions of climate and its far isolation from civilization, in time and space, permit.

Whereas Dawson is, roughly, 190 miles south of the Circle and Nome 140, Fairbanks is but 120 miles below the actual Circle. However, the winters in both Nome and Dawson, so I am told, are far more windy than in Fairbanks, because with us, as cold weather comes on, the air becomes phenomenally quiet and still, the atmosphere almost breathless in its keen, clear, poised intensity. If you have ever lived where it is both cold and windy, you will readily appreciate this difference. Any mid-winter picture taken in Nome shows cabins covered to the roof in drifts of snow through which, as Nome friends tell me, they often tunnel from one house to another. A typical Fairbanks winter experience, in the ” deep cold,” is that our thin light snow will lie for weeks piled up on picket fences like high-domed caps of marshmallow; or, even more a test of quiet, the snow will hang in unshaken white ribbons two inches high, on weighted loops of telephone line—undisturbed, untouched by any faintest breath of wind, for weeks! This I have seen from my own windows, not once but many times, in our afar hyperborean home ” back of the North Wind.”

Fairbanks was the last great gold camp of the North, but the men who founded it were not stampeders. They were graduates from the rough, hazing, sophomoric days of Juneau, Skagway, Dyea, Dawson, Nome. In the great sifting process the weaklings and the tin-horns had, for most part, been discarded, dropped over the North’s rim—and so lost to it, good fortunately, forever. The men who remained had already sowed their untamed youthful oats in untamed youthful camps, had seen greed and sin and lawlessness in their unlovely end-products, and tasted dregs of bitter Dead Sea fruitage. Often in lonely cabins of a blizzard-blown winter night they had talked of how they loved the North, esteeming her good in spite of all her sternness and caprice. They had talked of how they wished some way, some how, a man could really live here with this loved Alaska as a white man should—lawfully, and not, as Robert Service even then was writing, up in his lonely Dawson cabin: ” Rape her riches, and curse her, and go away.”

These seasoned Alaskans were fit, were tried, were sure of themselves and of the land. They wished to see a town rise in the North some day that would not be a Port of Missing Men, ” a city wicked, wonderful, short-lived.” They wished, and they wished hard, for a good place to settle in, to colonize, to work honestly and loyally for: a place of permanent human habitation and of possible future development, and not a mere treasure house to pillage quickly. They wished to find a place where men might penetrate below the mere surface of life, where men might have a chance to reach down to life’s bed-rock pay of all-enduring richest values. These ” old Alaskans ” were tired of wandering, tired of a rootless tumbleweed existence, tired of saying, ” Lo, here! Lo, there!” They had in them, as Service with his keen perception saw and wrote, a very real hunger:

” A hunger not of the belly kind, that’s banished with bacon and beans,

But the gnawing hunger of lonely men, for home, and all that it means.”

Then, at the psychologic moment, the ” Tanana camp ” came in. To it there came not a mad rush of frenzied cheechakos, but a group of determined sourdoughs who knew just what they wanted and were fully determined to make the pot of gold and rainbow end actually coalesce this time. That secret wish must have been lying dormant long, in minds of many men, in many places. From Klondike creeks, Nome beaches, from Gastineau lode mines and the green-stained Copper Mountains of the Southern Coast, old-timers rallied to the clan call. Men who had met before on many a hard-won trail and tried their common mettle, met again here in the very heart of The Great Country to build an all-Alaskan town. This was to be that ideal ” no mean city,” for which in lonely scattered dreaming they had been, unconcertedly, so long devising.

The site was limitless in possibility of ultimate expansion, set in a gravid width of valley, upon a navigable river, with worlds of coal and wood at the back door. Here they could build as they wished, from the ground up, and build as they had learned to wish to build—permanently. Here there would be no cruel Russian past to undo, no superstitious Indian past to haunt, no bad-town past to wipe away. This town would not be set upon the sea edge so that a man might be, at certain itch-foot times, tempted to skip away to Seattle on any boat that passed; nor was there any threat of towering mountain hanging over it. Here there should be a settlement of actual, factual colonists, of men who were already pioneers, acclimated, prepared, knowing the odds—a law-abiding town to which they could fetch gladly and with quiet assurance the women of their serious choice from older soils, a town in which they could shape for them many happy homes.

For the very first time in the North, home-making women were considered in the founding of a gold camp. Fairbanks is and was, and I think long will be, a place of home-dwelling people. Other Alaska towns have been, in time and with an effort of good citizenry, re-worked from camps of struggling law-less men to settlements of home makers, which now they surely are. The real distinction of Alaska’s Golden Heart is, that almost its first conscious throb began with the steady pulse-beat of actual home-seeking colonists.

It seems to me that this determined spirit of a permanent founding, so characteristic of Fairbanks at its best, was bravely shown in 1905 when the infant settlement, not yet on firm financial feet, in one year fell victim to the shock of two major disasters, from which it rallied with rare courage. A great flood in the river caused a loss of $50,000, a heavy blow to the struggling three-year-old village; and then, in less than a year and when all the flood damage had scarcely been repaired, there came a great fire which in forty terrifying minutes swept and destroyed the whole business center of our town. But—before the fire had stopped burning and while men were yet hard at work fighting it contracts for rebuilding were being made at the very fire nozzles; and townspeople were at work, clearing away wreckage and preparing for new buildings, before the very ashes of disaster were even cold!