Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Tisha's schoolhouse and old town of Chicken, Alaska still attract visitors

Old Chicken schoolhouse as it looked in the 1990s


The first time we visited Chicken in the 1990s there was little you could see from the Taylor highway.  Downtown Chicken (adjacent to the highway) had a saloon, cafe and small store. There may have been a gas station—I don't remember.

The highway skirts the south edge of the old townsite, and if you didn't know old town was there, you might drive by and not notice.  However, we had read Anne Purdy's book, “Tisha,” about her first year as a teacher in Chicken, had even gone to college with one of Anne's daughters, and knew of old Chicken. One our goals was to find the old schoolhouse, shown in the drawing.

Chicken is in the heart of a mountainous, isolated region through which the Fortymile River tumbles from its headwaters in Alaska to its confluence with the Yukon River in Canada, forty miles downriver from Fort Reliance, near Dawson City. A combination of rough trail and wagon road from Eagle to the north (only 55 miles by air, but 90 miles by pack train) was the community's primary surface link for almost 50 years.

The region, home to Han Kutchin Athabascans for thousands of years, began to attract prospectors in the late 1800s. Gold was discovered along the Fortymile River in 1886 and the town of Fortymile sprang up at the river's mouth (which miners thought was in the U.S.).

Pierre Berton, in his book “Klondike, the Last Great Gold Rush,” said the men attracted to the region appeared to be chasing their fortune, but “…seemed more like men pursued than men pursuing, and if they sought anything, it was the right to be left alone.” Berton goes on to describe Fortymile as “…a community of hermits whose one common bond was their mutual isolation.”

Prospectors found gold along Chicken Creek (on the U.S. side of the border) in 1891 and a town formed around the claims. In her book, Anne relates two possibilities for how Chicken got its name.  The first is that miners wanted to name the community after the abundant Ptarmigan in the area, but no one was sure of the spelling so they settled on calling the town Chicken. The other possibility is that gold found in the area was commonly about the size of kernels of corn—i.e. chicken feed.

A post office was established in 1903 and three years later the two-story Chicken Creek Hotel was constructed.  The town's heyday was between 1910 and the mid 1920s, when, according to census data, about 100 people lived in the immediate area. During this period Chicken served as a supply center for surrounding creeks.

Alaska’s territorial government took over the Chicken Creek Hotel building in 1924, tore the second story down and converted the building into a schoolhouse. There were two rooms in the front of the 25’ x 32’ squared-log structure. One of the front doors led to the teacher’s quarters, and the other opened into the classroom.

Chicken's population had started to decline by 1927 when Anne (called Tisha by a young Native student who couldn't pronounce teacher) arrived to teach school, and shrinking enrollment forced the school to close the next year. 
           
After the school closed it became a roadhouse for a number of years. The Fairbanks Exploration Company bought up the land and buildings in and around the community in the 1940s, and in 1959 it
moved a dredge to the area. The dredge operated until 1967, using the old town as a support camp.

When the F.E. Company stopped mining, it sold the camp and dredge, which are now tourist attractions. A handful of people still live in Chicken year-round, and the area's population swells during summer when miners come to work their claims, and tourists (bound for Eagle, Dawson City, and Tok) drive through. And there are still more than a few who come specifically to see the old town and Tisha's schoolhouse. The old townsite, which is private property, was declared a Historic District in 2001, and tours are conducted in the summer.

Sources:

  • “Chicken Historic District, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form,” Rogan Faith, 2001, National Park Service
  • “Cultural Resource Survey of the Taylor Highway, Rolfe Buzzell, 2003, Alaska Department of Natural Resources
  • “Klondike, the Last Great Gold Rush,” Pierre Berton, 1958, McLelland and Sewart
  • “They didn’t come in Four-Wheel Drives, An Introduction to Fortymile History,” Terry Haynes, 1976, Bureau of Land Management
  • "Tisha,” Anne Hobbs Purdy, 1976, St. Martins Press
  • “Yukon, the Last Frontier,” Melody Webb, 1985, University of Nebraska Press



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