Dispatches From the Road: Fairbanks, Alaska

     Courthouse News Service began in-person coverage in the state of Alaska in October 2015. This includes daily trips to the Anchorage Trial Courts and the Anchorage division of the federal court for the District of Alaska, as well as regular live coverage of the majority of other state courts including the trial courts in Fairbanks, Palmer and Juneau.
     Fairbanks Facts
     Fairbanks is Alaska’s second largest city, with a population of just over 100,000.
     It’s known as the Golden Heart City — a nod to its central location in the heart or interior of Alaska and its beginnings rooted in gold mining.
     But it’s also known as Hub of the Interior and Gateway to the Bush — the launching spot for people heading to the wilderness, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, gates of the Arctic National Park or up the Haul Road toward Prudhoe Bay and Arctic Circle.
           Fairbanks has been a boom town of one sort or another since its beginning in 1901, when E.T. Barnette cruised up the Tanana River on the SS Lavalle Young with 130 tons of supplies bound for the Tanacross gold fields. He had intended to continue upriver until the captain refused to go any farther for fear of running the sternwheeler aground. Capt. Charles Adams dropped Barnette and his wife, a business partner, three other men and $20,000 in provisions on the south shore of the Chena River at what is now downtown Fairbanks.
     One year later, Felix Pedro discovered gold in a creek 12 miles north of Barnette’s trading post and the stampede of miners began.
     Barnette named his settlement Fairbanks in honor of then-Indiana Republican Sen. Charles Fairbanks — later Theodore Roosevelt’s vice president — as a favor to Fairbanks’ admirer Federal Circuit Judge James Wickersham, who was said to be the most powerful government official in 300,000 square miles. Wickersham promised to help Barnette’s trading post succeed, and he did that in 1903 by setting up government offices in Fairbanks and later the first courthouse downtown.
     By 1905, gold production reached $6 million per year. But by 1920 the gold boom was bust until World War II brought military construction — building of the Alaska Canada Highway, cold-weather testing station, air fields and what is now Fort Wainwright due to Alaska’s proximity to Russia and Japan.
           The Cold War helped solidify the need for a continued military presence after World War II. By 1950, two-thirds of Alaska’s interior working population was employed by a government entity.
     The next boom came in the late 1960s in the form of liquid gold — oil at Prudhoe Bay. For a decade, pipeline construction and oil-related jobs brought another stampede of people to the interior.
     Most of the booms have since gone bust or leveled off. The area still provides jobs connected to gold mining, oil production, the military, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and tourism.
     Locals refer to the region around Fairbanks as Interior Alaska. It’s known for its extremes in temperature: 62 below zero on the cold end and 80s on the high end. Solstices bring extremes of 22 hours of darkness in winter and daylight in summer.
     Fairbanksans organize potlucks, yoga meditation circles and more to get through the cold and dark months. Fairbanks winters draw tourists from all over the world to their ice sculpture displays, nearby Chena Hot Springs, dog mushing and spectacular Northern lights.
           Typical wildlife includes moose, bear and voracious mosquitoes. The university breeds a domesticated form of caribou called reindeer (pictured right).
     Up the road from Fairbanks is North Pole, Alaska, where Santa Claus sits on the town council and you can have official letters from the red-suited jolly fellow postmarked and mailed from the North Pole to friends and family at Christmas.
     Chena Hot Springs and the Fairbanks area have been a popular destination for Japanese tourists who believe that copulating under the Northern Lights will bring good luck and hoped-for offspring.
     Fairbanks folks don’t care much for the big city of Anchorage (“Los Anchorage”) and vice versa (“Squarebanks”). The city boasts an interesting mix of people from military, academia, government, mining, wildlife protectors and adventurers.
     As heard by the CNS Western Regional Bureau Chief
     Heard at the bar in the Chena Hot Springs Lodge outside Fairbanks: “I’ve got a brother in Fairbanks, but that’s not Alaska.”
     From a bartender in Fairbanks, upon learning the bureau chief grew up in Maine: “You guys have worse weather there.” As the bureau chief stared at the bartender, he added, “We don’t get much wind here, and it’s a dry cold. There it’s a wet cold.”
     According to the CNS Fairbanks researcher, “Economists are predicting that returns from the (trans-Alaska) pipeline will be so low that one-third of Alaskans will eventually have to leave the state.”
     Alaska Facts
     Alaska became the 49th U.S. state in 1959, nearly a century after being purchased from the Russian Empire in 1867 for $7.2 million — 2 cents per acre — or $112 million in 2015 dollars.
     Despite the sweet deal (especially given later discoveries of gold and fossil fuels and the U.S. military’s substantial presence beginning in the 20th century), the United States’ purchase of Alaska from the Russians became known as “Seward’s Folly” and “Seward’s Icebox” after its key negotiator, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward.     
     Some Americans could not see Seward’s vision and opposed spending money on what they thought was a vast frozen wasteland inhabited by a few wandering savages, valuable only for furs and not even attached to the rest of the United States.
     After Seward’s death, however, discoveries of large reserves of gold in 1892 and fossil fuels in the 20th century brought a high return on that investment. Today, Seward’s Day is celebrated as a state holiday on the last Monday in March.
     The first U.S. federal court in what became the Territory of Alaska in 1912 was headquartered in Sitka, the only community inhabited by American settlers in the early years under the U.S. flag.
     The state’s name is derived from an Aleut word used to describe the Alaska mainland, literally meaning “object to which the action of the sea is directed.”
     At just over 663,000 square miles, Alaska is the largest U.S. state. In fact, Alaska is larger than the next three largest states — Texas, California and Montana — combined. When superimposed on a map of the lower 48 states, Alaska stretches from coast to coast.
     Residents like to say, “Everything is bigger in Alaska” – fitting since the state is also home to the tallest mountain in North America. The peak’s name Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley) is an Athabaskan word meaning “the great one” or “the high one.”
     But Alaska is also the third least-populated state with 738,432 people, and the least densely populated state in the union.
     Alaska recognizes 21 languages including English and the 20 Alaska Native languages declared as official languages by the state Legislature in 2014.
     According to the 2010 U.S. Census, nearly 67 percent of Alaska’s population was white and nearly 15 percent was Alaska Native or American Indian. Asians, African-Americans and Pacific Islanders made up less than 10 percent of Alaska’s population in the last census combined.     
     Oil and gas dominate the Alaskan economy, with over 80 percent of the state’s revenue coming from petroleum extraction. Fishing, military bases and tourism also make up a significant portion of the state’s economy.
     The official state sport is dog mushing, and the state motto is “North to the Future.” And while Alaska’s official state bird is the Willow Ptarmigan, Alaskans joke that the real state bird is the mosquito — following the sentiment that everything is bigger in the Last Frontier. Nickel- to quarter-sized slow-moving mosquitoes first appear as snow and ice melts into puddles and parts of the forest floor and tundra begin to bloom with forget-me-nots, the state flower.
     Continuing with the theme of big in Alaska, the state’s largest island is Kodiak and its longest river is the Yukon. Wildlife tends to be bigger in Alaska as well, with Kodiak and polar bears weighing up to 1,400 pounds and reaching heights of 11 feet. Alaska is also home to brown and grizzly bears, moose and caribou.
     Alaska hosts the half the world’s glaciers and is the only state to have coastlines on three seas: the Arctic Ocean, Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. The latter forms the U.S. border with Russia, with a little over two miles from soil to soil through the Big and Little Diomede Islands separating the two nations.
     The state also has 29 volcanoes, some active.
     Interior Alaska boasts the state’s high and low temperature records: 100 degrees and minus 78 degrees.
     At winter solstice, the northernmost parts of the state experience 24 hours of darkness – 67 days’ worth in places like Barrow. But come summer solstice, people in Barrow enjoy 24 hours of daylight – where the sun just circles the horizon – for 80 consecutive days.
     Courthouse News stories from Fairbanks:

     The Fairbanks 4 released
     Fairbanks newspaper sold
     The Alaska oil pipeline
     Iditarod sled dog killed
     Inmate suicide case settled
     Photos by Chris Marshall
     From top: “Unknown First Family” statue at Golden Heart Plaza near the banks of the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks; Rabinowitz Courthouse in downtown Fairbanks; Chena Hot Springs Resort located in the wilderness outside Fairbanks; Reindeer at the Chena Hot Springs Resort; Alaska Range between Anchorage and Fairbanks, including Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley); Rabinowitz Courthouse;
Fairbanks, with the Chena River in the foreground (below).

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