Saloons and churches were both integral parts of frontier Alaska. Many early churches survive, while examples of early liquor establishments are rare. Perhaps this is because missionaries and preachers thought in terms of eternity and built their churches accordingly. Saloon owners on the other hand were thinking of immediate profits and for the most part weren’t sure their establishments would last more than a few years—and built accordingly.
There were saloons along the riverfront in Fairbanks a least a year before churches were built here. The first church services in Fairbanks were actually held in saloons by clergy visiting town. The book, Oh Ye Frost and Cold, a History of St. Matthews Church, recounts that in March of 1903, the Reverend Charles Rice mushed from Circle City to Fairbanks to investigate the new mining camp. While in Fairbanks he held the town’s first church service in a tent-frame saloon. The barkeep covered his bottles with a white cloth during worship, and the other saloon in town closed for the duration of the service.
The drawing shows the Big I Pub, located just north of the Cushman and Barnette Street bridges in the Garden Island area. Garden Island actually used to be an island, separated by a small slough (long-ago filled in) from the Tanana Mill Lumber Company site (later the Fairbanks ExplorationCompany complex, and now the Golden Valley Electric Association offices). Christian Heine, a Klondike veteran, named the island when he established a homestead there in 1903.
Garden Island was one of the areas that provided early Fairbanks with fresh produce. (The other was on the south edge of Fairbanks.) St. Joseph’s Hospital, Immaculate Conception Church, businesses, warehouses, and the Tanana Mines Railroad quickly began claiming land there, and as Fairbanks expanded, the truck gardens and farms moved farther out of town.
Steamboat Slough (so-called because some steamboats overwintered in its protected waters) separated Garden Island from the larger land mass to the north. This small slough was located about where Phillips Field road is now. Long-time Fairbanks resident Jim Moody told me that the slough was gradually filled in, with much of the fill beings clinkers from the Fairbanks Exploration Company power plant.
According to the Fairbanks North Star Borough’s Commission on Historic Preservation, The Big I began life as the International Hotel and Bar, in a wood-frame building constructed by Emil Pozza in 1920. It was originally located approximately where the traffic island between the Cushman and Barnette Street bridges is now. However, in 1923 it and several other buildings were moved about 100 feet to the west across Turner Street to make room for the Cushman Street right-of-way and the new Alaska Railroad depot.
The hotel burned down in the 1940s, but Pozza rebuilt in 1950, this time erecting a two-story concrete-block and reinforced -concrete building with basement. The 29-foot by 100-foot building opened as the Big International Hotel and Bar. The bar was on the first floor, with hotel rooms on the floor above.
The Big International Hotel was forced to close after the 1967 Chena River Flood, but Jack Sexton bought and repaired the building, re-opening it in 1971 as the Big International Bar (usually shortened to just the Big “I”). Bert “Hap” Ryder later became the bar’s manager.
John Jackovich bought the building in 2006 and continues to operate the Big I as a pub. It used to be flanked by several other historic structures, including Samson’s Hardware and the old West Coast Grocery store building. However, the rest of the structures on the block were torn down to make way for the approach to the new Barnette Street bridge.
Jackovich, with a keen interest in historic preservation, successfully fought to save his pub from destruction. His plans (contingent on funding) include fixing up the property and turning the second floor into a venue for meetings and large social gatherings.
- · Conversation with Jim Moody, long-time Fairbanks resident
- · Conversation with John Jackovich, owner of Big I Pub
- · Fairbanks North Star Borough Commission on Historic Preservation signage
- “Fairbanks, a City Historic Building Survey.” Janet Matheson. City of Fairbanks. 1985
- “Like a Tree to the Soil, a history of farming in Alaska’s Tanana Valley, 1903-1940.” Josephine Papp & Josie Phillips. University of Alaska. 2007
- “Old Pioneer Laid to Rest.” in The Pathfinder. November, 1921 (article about Christian Heine)