North America

The Fortunes of the Far North

written by | Posted on March 1st, 2009

Alaska is celebrating 50 years of statehood this year. But for more than a century people have been coming to Alaska and finding gold.

In the last half-century, however, the seductive mineral has morphed into the shape of snowcapped mountains, salmon-saturated rivers, swells of wildlife, stories of colorful adventure and a sense of getting away to the far and forbidden northlands where man is but a drop on nature’s palette. In other words, tourism is Alaska’s new gold.

Sitting in the center of this great northcountry is Fairbanks, once the center of the rush for yellow nuggets, furs and fortune and now an epicenter in America’s oil activities, all some 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle. If Fairbanks is anything, it is full of history. But it is also a modern boomtown at the heart of Alaska’s new tourism rush.

While just over 1.7 million out-of-staters visited Alaska last summer, about a quarter of them ventured to Fairbanks, whether as part of a train journey, a road trip, a group tour or on a quest to hunt, fish, hike and see the northern lights. They tended to be from the western United States overall, in their early to mid-50s and earn around $100,000. They tended to use air to get there, rent a car when they got there, stay in hotels, stay a week and spend about $1,000 on location, according to studies published by theFairbanks Convention & Visitors Bureau. And they tended to be doing it all for pleasure.

In fact, Alaska’s visitors overwhelmingly come for pleasure more than anything else (82 percent), according to Alaska tourism reports, and a good 59 percent of all visitors to Alaska last summer came for a cruise line experience.

“Fairbanks is both a destination in and of itself and also the gateway to the Interior and the Far North,” says Karen Lundquist, v.p., marketing, Fairbanks Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We have the juxtaposition of midnight sun and northern lights, which really distinguishes us from any place in the lower 48 states.”

But what visitors also find in Fairbanks is plenty of living history, Lundquist says. “Riverboats, bush planes, railroad, and sled dog teams continue to provide experiences to visitors now as they have in the past. So much of what is on your life checklist can be found in and around Fairbanks—seeing the northern lights, going above the Arctic Circle, crossing the Yukon, seeing North America’s tallest peaks, seeing the pipeline….”

Fairbanks is Alaska’s second largest city and home to some 31,000 people (burgeoning to three times that number if you count the spread to the surrounding Fairbanks North Star Borough). A river runs through it—the Chena—as do dog sled teams in winter competition, Athabascan, Aleut and Eskimo families and traditions, the world’s largest oil pipeline, wandering moose and bear, veins of gold, and rail lines connecting Fairbanks with Denali, Anchorage and Seward.

Princess Cruises and Holland America Line run popular cruise/land tours that often include a pre- or post-cruise tour to Fairbanks and Denali National Park, using decked-out rail coaches as transport for optimum sightseeing along the way. For non-cruise clients or independent visitors to Alaska, the Alaska Railroad offers a variety of packages, daytrips and itineraries for a broad range of interests and budgets.

rails through history and beauty The railroad’s history is as lengthy and adventurous as the land itself. In 1903, Alaska Central Railway built the first railroad in Alaska starting in Seward and extending 50 miles north. In 1907, the ACR went bankrupt and reorganized as the Alaska Northern Railway Co., extending the railroad to Kern Creek—71 miles from Seward in 1910. In 1914, Congress agreed to fund construction and operation of the railroad from Seward to Fairbanks at a cost of about $35 million. In 1923, President Warren G. Harding marked the completion of the Alaska Railroad by driving the golden spike in ceremonies at Nenana, then died of food poisoning on the return trip back to San Francisco.

Four score more years of triumphs and tests and Alaska Railroad is now a product earning honors and awards from business peers and becoming a part of Alaska itself. In 1999, it started a full-scale move up the tourism ladder by purchasing the defunct Florida Fun Train that added nine new single-level dome passenger rail cars to the fleet. In 2005, the Alaska Railroad introduced GoldStar, a first class rail service, by adding two new double-deck luxury cars built by Colorado Railcar to the Denali Star Train that operates daily mid-May through mid-September.