Location/Climate: At confluence of Nenana, Teklanika, and Tanana Rivers, 50 miles southwest of Fairbanks on George Parks Highway. 12"/yr. precip., 49"/yr. snowfall, below zero°Fhigh 60s°F.
Population: 490 (47.8 percent native, mainly Athabaskan and Eskimo).
Travel Attractions: Access to Tanana River, Alaska Railroad Museum, visitor center.
Getting There: Scheduled rail service from Anchorage and Fairbanks; vehicle access via George Parks Highway.
Information: Visitor Center, A Street and Parks Highway, Nenana, AK 99760, 832-9953, www.alaskaone.com/nenana/bells.htm.
Located at the confluence of the Nenana and Tanana Rivers, "Nenana" derives from the Athabascan word "Nenashna," which roughly translates, "point of camping at two rivers." The Army Signal Corps established the town in 1903 as a base for running long-distance telegraph lines, while barge traffic plying the Yukon and Tanana during the gold rush period brought settlers. When the Alaska Railroad used the town as its northern terminus from 1918 to 1923, Nenana’s population reached 5,000. Today the town is an interesting mix of non-natives, Tanana Athabascans, and Eskimos. The economy is based largely on transportation services, both highway and river barge, as well as government jobs, tourism, and subsistence.
One great Alaska tradition is the Nenana Ice Classicthe annual contest to guess when the Tanana River ice will break up at Nenana. Local residents erect a large log tripod on the ice in the middle of the river, attached by a cord to a clock that stops when the tripod begins to move and the cord is pulled. Entrants purchase $2 tickets, writing in the date and time they believe the big event will occur, then wait for the fateful moment. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money was shared by the winners. They take this contest very seriously in the northland!
Dogsled races are held at about the same time as the expected ice breakup, partly in commemoration of the race to take serum to Nome in 1925 during a diphtheria epidemic. Serum was rushed to Nenana by train, then taken by dogsled to Nome via the route of the old telegraph lines. That event led to the creation of the Iditarod Race.
Things to See and Do in Nenana
Alaska State Railroad MuseumWhere A Street meets the river, this small museum preserves artifacts from the days of the building of the Alaska Railroad. It’s housed in the old train depot on Front Street with a B&B upstairs, 832-5500. Open late Maylate September daily 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., free.
Nenana Valley Visitor Information CenterYou can’t miss this little log cabin as you drive north on the Parks Highway where it meets A Street just south of the river. Inside, you’ll find the usual pamphlets, but also friendly folks who will give you the local lowdown (832-9953). Open in summer daily 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Railroad Roller BridgeThe Alaska Railroad bridge over the Tanana is "the largest single-span expansion bridge on rollers ever built." When the temperature changes radically and rapidly, you can hear the bridge moving on its rollers as the metal expands or contracts.
Saint Mark’s Mission ChurchBuilt in 1905 by early missionaries, the church was once paired with a mission school that held as many as 50 native students from throughout the area. The school closed in 1951, but the church still holds regular services.
Where to Stay and Eat in Nenana
Bed and Maybe Breakfast, in the old rail depot on Front Street, 832-5272.