Monday, March 5, 2012

St. Mark's Episcopal Church a reminder of Nenana's early history

Traveling through the small town of Nenana, about 60 miles south of Fairbanks, you might get the impression that it is a relatively new community—the fortuitous juncture of the Alaska Railroad, Parks Highway and Tanana River. However, Nenana is actually much older.

According to a 1984 report done for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game,
Athabascan Indians were living near the confluence of the Tanana and Nenana Rivers on a seasonal basis hundreds of years before non-Natives discovered the site. It was a gathering place where Indians came for mid-winter potlatches and summer fishing. Natives called the village Toghotthele (meaning “mountain that parallels the river”), but early western explorers corrupted that to Tortella. Now the town is called Nenana after the nearby river.

The original village was two miles up the Tanana and across the river from Nenana’s present location. In 1900, when non-Natives began pushing into the Tanana basin, the village featured about 20 cabins. A telegraph station was established in the village in 1902, and the next year a trading post was built.

The Episcopal Church, continuing work done by Episcopal and Anglican missionaries along the Yukon River, envisioned a series of missions throughout the Tanana basin to serve its Native population. Eventually four missions were established: St. Barnabas at Chena Native Village (about two miles below the confluence of the Chena and Tanana Rivers), St. Luke’s at Salcha, St. Timothy’s at Tanacross (near Tok), and St. Mark’s at Nenana. (For a short article on Alaska's Episcopal missions,written in 1936, click here.)

Episcopal church documents indicate work on the Nenana mission began in approximately 1907 across the river from the Native village. Its location was ostensibly to minimize any negative influences associated with the village. (Episcopal Archdeacon Hudson Stuck later lamented that the influences of a railroad town next to the mission were even worse.)

Over several years a church, school building, dormitory, small hospital and other facilities were completed. The boarding school, which could house about 40 students, attracted children from all over the Interior and in time a second village formed adjacent to the mission.

Events such as the arrival of the railroad and the 1920 influenza epidemic changed the nature of Nenana and led to a gradual decline in the Native population. The boarding school was forced to close in 1955.

The original mission site has been lost to river erosion. The current St. Mark's Church vicar, Marilyn Duggar, told me it was a tearful day when the last mission building fell into the encroaching Tanana River. Her mother had been a nurse at the mission, and they both stood forlornly on the bank as the structure floated past.

One of the few reminders of this earlier period is St. Mark’s Church (shown in the drawing) in downtown Nenana. It was moved about a mile downriver from the mission’s original site in 1955 after the mission school was closed.

The picturesque  church is similar in design to other Episcopal mission churches throughout Interior Alaska—a log structure with gable front and bell tower. The 22 foot by 28 foot building is constructed of logs squared on three sides, with the bottom courses of logs flaring outwards. Gothic arched windows contain stained glass, and the building is topped by a shake roof. 

Its interior is just as charming, with a hand-carved altar, and altar covering adorned with Athabascan beadwork on bleached moosehide. Visitors are welcome to tour the church when services are not being held.

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