Panic on the Chena

In the early days of Fairbanks, just like today, activity on the Chena River never ceased due to the long daylight hours. Nothing happened along the Fairbanks waterfront that regular saloon patrons did not witness or know about. One thing sure to get a lot of attention was any threat to the bridge spanning the Chena River, a life-giving link between Fairbanks and the gold fields. The following story was about one midnight riverfront spectacle that emptied the saloons in 1908.

Fairbanks Daily News – June 9, 1908


Shortly after midnight Sunday a wild panic was caused on the waterfront by the sight of a boat steaming at the rate of 12 miles an hour directly for the bridge.

The craft was sighted as it rounded the bend just above the old Noyes Mill. It was making a noise like a full grown steamboat, and the cloud of stem it was throwing out of its exhaust on either side made it appear much bigger.

The saloons quickly emptied themselves and the bank was soon line, the spectators staring at the unusual sight of a steamboat headed from above spell-bound.

One group consisted of Claud Kelly, D. E. Griffith and O. A. Wells. Since Kelly is an advocate and subscriber of the upper bridge, as one of the firm members of the Senate (saloon), and Griffith is a strong partisan of the Turner street bridge, as a member of the Horseshoe(saloon), the plot began to thicken, and it occurred to Griffith, perhaps, that Kelly and his upper bridge associates had hired the steamer to go up stream and take a football bunt at the bridge. All of the spectators were mystified how the boat could have ascended the Chena river without the fact having been known.

As the “infernal machine” swiftly approached the bridge, however, its paddle wheel kicking up a white spray of foam behind, and its bow splitting a furrow in front, and its tall smokestack looking up above the bridge, many of the spectators were electrified into life and began shouting a warning. Some remained still hypnotized, thinking it a phantom boat.

To make matter more interesting, instead of heading for the main arch under the draw, where there was some chance of the smokestack scraping under, the strange craft made a bee-line for one of the low arches towards the other side. The people on the bank began shouting anew. Not a word in reply was said by the silent men in charge, and they never even looked around towards the bank.

“They are crazy as loons,” said Griffith, rushing out on the bridge, closely followed by Wells and Kelly, who wanted to be in at the death.

Griffith waved his arms and yelled: “Say! Come over here! You’ll wreck your boat!” etc., with a view of getting the men to change their course. But not one single hair breadth did the silent and stone-like navigators swerve from their course.

As the prow of the racing boat reached the bridge archway, everyone held his breath and awaited the ripping, tearing sound that was sure to follow the smokestack being torn from its roots. At the critical moment, when the stack almost touched, one of the silent men made a quick movement, and the upper part of the pipe was lowered on hinges; the boat passed through, and stack was hoisted into placed again.

“Well, I’ll be damned!” exclaimed Griffith, wiping his brow, as the strange craft rapidly disappeared downstream.

The boat was built above the cemetery and is equipped with a powerful prospecting boiler. The owners are headed for the Koyukuk, and expect to ascent that swift stream with her, so it is evident that she must have good power.

Note: The boat most likely belonged to Capt. E. W. Johnson, who along with Mr. & Mrs. Sam Williamson left for the Koyukuk around that same time. Just about all the spectators the vacated the saloons to watch the show were members of Men’s Igloo No. 4. This breath-taking history nugget has been proudly brought to you by Men’s Igloo No. 4 and Women’s Igloo No. 8 of the Pioneers of Alaska.

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