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Railroad, Steamboat, River...

An Alaskan river town, Nenana has a sizable Native American population, and a strong historical background. It offers a real look at what a genuine river community is really like.

People here are known for their fine baskets, their beadwork, and their leatherwork. The gloves and mocassins shown here are by Nina Alexander.

In Nenana you’ll see fishwheels, a river town, and an historic train station.

Did You Know?

Nenana is an official U.S. port, and even has a Port Authority. Since the Tanana River is very shallow, its barges have a draft of less than 5 feet, fully loaded.

One of Several Alaska Depots

The train depot in Nenana is one of three still standing along the Alaska Railroad. All of them look very much alike. The other two are in Seward and Wasilla.

It is said the Nenana station was built using the blueprints from the Seward station – pencilling the word, “Nenana” over the name.

The depot was finished in 1923 and is now a museum. It’s where A Street dead ends in town.

Rivers of Gold

In 1934, the 500-ton S.S. Nenana used to travel 24 hours a day during the 5 months of summer, on a 774-mile trip to the coast of Alaska.

She used up to a cord and a half of firewood every hour, and was supplied by local woodcutters along the riverbanks. The Nenana carried 300 tons of freight, and up to 35 passengers and 35 crew members.

The S.S. Nenana was elegant. It was paneled in mahogany and trimmed with brass. In 1993, the Nenana was restored by volunteers and placed in Pioneer Park in Fairbanks.

A Working River

The Tanana River, which passes by Nenana, is a working river. As you travel Alaska, you’ll see many very wild rivers. On some, the largest boats are kayaks or rafts.

But Nenana still barges much-needed winter supplies to remote Alaskan villages.

The Tanana is the fastest navigable river in Alaska. It has shifting sandbars and water levels.

Like the old Mississippi, even today, Tanana River captains are trained with hand-drawn maps.

Did You Know?

The word “Nenana” means a good place to camp between two rivers in Athabascan. The larger river is the Tanana which is accented on the first syllable, like “Canada.”

Nenana has the accent on the second syllable – as in “banana.”

The "Real Iditarod" Begins Here

The Iditarod Sled Dog Race begins every March in Anchorage, and then heads off towards Nome.

But the first Iditarod race was a 1925 serum run that began in Nenana and followed old roadhouses along a winter sled dog mail route to Nome.

A diptheria epidemic threatened the Nome Inuits. So a 20-pound capsule holding serum was railed north from Seward to Nenana. Then, on January 27th, in the coldest part of winter, when it was more than 40 Below and planes couldn’t fly, a relay team of 20 mushers and over a hundred dogs passed the package from village to village along the trail to Nome.

They arrived on February 2nd, with the serum firmly wrapped in quilting, but frozen solid. It was still viable.

Nenana is still a mushing community, as you can see from this “dog crossing” sign on the corner of a Nenana cabin.

Last Days for Harding

President Warren G. Harding came to Nenana in fine style in July, 1923. He brought both his wife and mistress to celebrate the end of construction of the Alaska Railroad, and to drive the “golden spike” into the track at Nenana.

It was 95 degrees, and everybody was overdressed, including the Speaker of the House, who had come along for the ride in the opulent train of rail cars Harding used.

The president left Alaska for Vancouver where he fell ill after eating “a mess of King Crabs drenched in butter” and died in San Francisco.

Did You Know?

Records have been kept of the Nenana ice breakup since 1917. Stanford scientists say that the ice goes out nowadays an average of 5.5 days earlier than 90 years ago.

Nenana Ice Classic

You can’t help noticing the black and white tripods in Nenana.

The Nenana Ice Classic began in 1917, and is now a 3-day festival, held in March. That’s when Nenanans drag a 26-foot tall tripod out onto the thick river ice and wire it to a clock.

When the ice breaks up, a cable trips the clock. Alaskans from all over the state spend $2.50 per ticket trying to guess the exact day, hour and minute the ice will go out on the river

Those who share the closest minute (and quite a few people do) split the pot.

The ice usually goes out between April 20th and May 20th.

Propane tanks with household names attached wait on the Nenana dock to be barged down the river to far-away villages. The propane is used in cookstoves during the long isolated winter months.

Mighty Rivers, Enduring Traditions

North of the Alaska Range life, history, stories and songs are defined by the fabled mighty rivers that cross through it.

For thousands of years, these rivers have been the way through the country. Generations of people have made their lives around them.

Dried Salmon

Up and down the rivers, people made camps at the confluences of waterways. They harvested highly nutritious, oil-rich salmon returning from the ocean.

To keep salmon for the winter months, Native people build drying and smoking racks. When the fish are split, they are left joined at the tail so they can hang over poles for smoking.

Visit St Mark's Church

St. Mark’s Church is one of the loveliest little churches in roadside Alaska.

The altar is decorated with moosehide beadwork, in the traditional Athabascan manner.

An old-fashioned log building, this small Episcopal church was moved here after its 1905 location was washed downriver.

+ Activities + Things to Get
+ Where to Stay + Where to Eat

nenana altar cloth


Nenana Ice Classic
Nenana Depot

Nenana A-Frame Chevron

Roughwoods Inn

Roughwoods Inn
Nenana Depot

+ Map: City of Nenana Map (Downtown)
+ Map: The Parks Highway To Nenana
+ Map: Yukon, Tanana & Nenana River System

+ Map of Bearfoot Campgrounds

In Nenana, Don't Miss...
• Nenana Cultural Center
• The Fishwheels
• Nenana Visitor Center
• St. Mark’s Church
• Nenana Train Depot
• The “golden spike”
• The Taku Chief

A few observations about NENANA

Population: 549
304 miles from Anchorage
57 miles south of Fairbanks

Historic town at the junctions of a major river, a major highway, and the Alaska Railroad. Nenana is an actual port, and takes winter fuel and supplies by boat to remote towns downriver. Great visitor center.

NENANA: Railroad Town

Nenana’s location was important in the gold rush.

It had a trading post and roadhouse for river travelers. Native children from downriver villages came to school here. Gold miners arrived by the thousands in 1909.

By 1915, the Alaska Railroad had its workers here, and in 1923, the railroad was finished.

After President Warren G. Harding marked the joining of the tracks with a golden spike, the town dropped from 5,000 residents to only 291 by 1930. It wasn’t until 1968 that a road bridge was built across the Tanana River. Until then a ferry was used.

The Nenana Ice Classic
The Nenana Ice Classic is 'Alaska's coolest lottery.' Who will collect the big bucks when the tripod topples during the breakup of the Tanana river? To play, or to read a day-by-day log of the breakup, visit the official site. With colorful photographs.

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