Thursday, May 24, 2012

Judge Wickersham was civilizing influence in Fairbanks

The Wickersham House in Fairbanks as it looks today
Judge James Wickersham was not favorably impressed when he arrived in Fairbanks on April 9, 1903. The judge was traveling to Fairbanks from Circle City via dog sled, and in his book, “Old Yukon: Trails, Tales and Trials,” Wickersham said that as he and his dog team came out of the forest onto the north shore of the Chena River “... the new Metropolis of the Tanana River came into view on the opposite shore. A rough log structure, with spread-eagle wings looked like a disreputable pig sty, but was in fact, Barnette’s trading post, the only mercantile establishment in the new camp.”

A hundred yards upriver, a half-finished, two-story log building, without doors or windows, announced itself as the Fairbanks Hotel. There were also two log cabins serving as saloons, a half-dozen smaller log cabin residences, and numerous tent frames. Not an auspicious introduction to the new home of the Third Judicial District.

Wickersham and his family had come north from Washington state to Eagle, Alaska in 1900 when he was appointed judge to the newly formed Third Judicial District of the Territory of Alaska, a 300,000 square mile area covering all of Interior and Southcentral Alaska. Although based in Eagle, his duties took him wherever there were court cases. Those communities included Rampart, Circle City and Valdez. His schedule also allowed him to help with court cases in Alaska’s other two judicial districts, and he spent considerable time in the Aleutians and Nome.

While returning from Nome in 1902, Wickersham met E.T. Barnette at St. Michael. There, Wickersham and Barnette reached an agreement that if Barnette named the new town on the banks of the Chena River after Sen. Charles Fairbanks of Indiana (a close friend of the judge), then Wickersham would move the judicial headquarters there.

So Wickersham found himself in Fairbanks in 1903. Even though there was little in the way of amenities to recommend the town, Wickersham saw its possibilities and set to work, quickly appointing a justice of the peace and making plans for a courthouse and jail. (The courthouse would not be built until the next year)

According to Clara Rust's book, “Wickersham: The Man at Home,” in the spring of 1904 Wickersham purchased a lot at the corner of First Avenue and Noble Street. With the help of a carpenter and day laborer, construction began on a small, two-room bungalow, the first frame house in the Tanana Valley.

Lumber for the house was purchased at a nearby sawmill and packed on shoulders back to the construction site since no wagons were available. By the end of the month the house was completed except for doors and windows, which would arrive via the first steamboat. That spring the judge also constructed a picket fence around the house, similar to the one around the house today.

Over the next few years, the house was improved and added on to. In 1906 the judge added two rooms; a parlor (the central portion of the house) and a small northwest bedroom. He also installed a hot-air furnace. Early photographs of the house show it looking much as it does today.

On one of his trips to the Lower 48 he puchased a phonograph. Once he got back to Fairbanks with the carefully packed phonograph and scores of tubular records, he would occasionally serrenade the cranking up the phonograph and sticking its bell out the living-room window of his home.

The house was moved to Pioneer Park (then the A-67 Centennial site) in 1967. It has been restored and in 1979 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Furnished as it might have been when the Wickershams lived there, Wickersham House is now a museum operated by the Tanana-Yukon Historical Society.

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