Thursday, May 17, 2012

Chatanika schoolhouse, a historic preservation success story

I enjoy tramping through the hills or along back roads, looking for hidden gems — out-of-the-way or forgotten buildings with lots of character. One of those hidden gems is the old Chatanika schoolhouse at mile 28 of the Steese highway.

The building sits on the hillside a half mile above the Chatanika Gold Camp, an old Fairbanks Exploration Company operations camp. It is a modest one-story wood-frame structure, about 18- by 24-feet, surrounded by trees and commanding a lovely view of the Chatanika valley. Out back you can still find the school’s two outhouses (boys and girls).

The schoolhouse actually started life at “Old” Chatanika, about three miles to the west. Old Chatanika (it began as just Chatanika) was established in about 1904. At its peak, the town was home to about 500 people. In 1912 the territory granted Chatanika permission to form its own school district, and the schoolhouse itself dates from the mid- to late-1910s.

A photograph in the collection of the Circle District Historical Society shows the schoolhouse at Old Chatanika sometime between 1922-24 looking much the same as it does today. The caption to the photo notes that some of the pupils who lived at Eldorado City a few miles away came to school by dog car along the Tanana Valley Railroad’s tracks.

After the area’s drift mines had exhausted the richest placer deposits, large dredges were brought in to process the lower grade gravels. According to a history of the Fairbanks Exploration Company, the FE Company started dredging Lower Cleary Creek in 1928, and added another dredge on Upper Cleary Creek in 1929.

Before the dredges began churning up the ground, the company built a camp in 1923-25 to serve its Cleary Creek operations. The camp was located just about equidistant from Chatanika and another town called Cleary (two miles southeast). The community that grew around the camp quickly became known as “New” Chatanika, and residents from Cleary and Old Chatanika gravitated there. The FE Co. acquired rights to claims all along Cleary Creek, including the land under Cleary and Old Chatanika, so it was inevitable that those two towns would disappear. Consequently, the school at Old Chatanika also relocated to New Chatanika, probably in the late-1920s. Along with the school came the schoolhouse (on skids).

The little school above New Chatanika taught students from all three communities and also served as a community hall. Its doors closed for lack of students in 1934, but re-opened briefly for the 1941-42 school year. (A federal government edict halting all gold production in the US for the duration of World War II probably had something to do with the final closure.) 

After that the schoolhouse passed into private ownership and it’s hard to say what the building was used for. When I visited in 1994, the structure was abandoned and askew. Windows were broken out, doors were missing, the floor and ceiling had gaping holes — it seemed destined for destruction.

However, in 2001 the schoolhouse and the land it sits on were acquired by Marlene Bach, a long-time resident of Chatanika (her father ran the trading post there for years). She has restored the schoolhouse and turned it into a museum filled with old photographs and exhibits, and the school’s original desks and piano. The museum is closed during the winter, but in the summer I encourage you to go out and see it. The visit is well-worth the time.

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