Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Fairbanks-Circle Trail gradually morphed into Steese Highway

Adams "Leaning Wheel" grader used on Steese Highway, now at Circle Distirct Museum in Central
Ever since the 1892 discovery of gold along a Yukon River tributary called Birch Creek, prospectors have been tramping the region searching for riches. Miners primarily worked streams such as Mastodon, Miller and Independence Creeks draining northward towards the Yukon, but a few hardy souls crossed Twelvemile Summit (so named because it was 12 miles from early miners’ diggings on Birch Creek) to explore the headwaters of the Chatanika River, which drains into the Tanana.

When Judge James Wickersham first visited Fairbanks in spring 1903 he mushed southwest through this region from the Yukon River community of Circle. He later wrote in his book, Old Yukon: Tales, Trails and Trials, of overnighting in a one-room log roadhouse near the mouth of Faith Creek just south of Twelvemile Summit. The cabin had been constructed in 1901 by Circle stampeders.

A system of trails from Circle to the mines was blazed during the early years of the Circle Mining District, and these became part of the Fairbanks-Circle Trail, a primary route for freighters and mail carriers. Running northeasterly from Fairbanks, the trail followed the Chatanika River, crossed Twelvemile and Eagle summits, ran along Crooked Creek to Central, and then across lowlands to Circle.

The Alaska Road Commission (ARC) was formed in 1905 and took over the responsibility for the Fairbanks-Circle Trail. By the mid 1910s it had built a rough wagon road from Circle as far south as Miller House (a popular roadhouse) just north of Eagle Summit.

As with many early trails, The Fairbanks-Circle Trail included summer and winter routes. These seasonal alternatives could be found on sections of the trail north of Central and south of Twelvemile Summit.

Some maps show the southern end of the trail wending its way northeast from Fairbanks, skirting the hills south of the Chatanika River before ascending Twelvemile Summit. However, a 1928 ARC map labels this route as a summer trail and indicates that the winter trail lay next to the Chatanika River on its north side. It was this winter route that Judge Wickersham traveled in 1903.

In the early 1920s the ARC began improving the Chatanika end of the trail, installing bridges across streams and constructing a road along a route above the old winter trail on the north side of the Chatanika River. Most of the work was in tandem with the construction of the Davidson Ditch by the Fairbanks Exploration Company (FE Co.). The initial work, however, was accomplished before the FE Co. began exploration work in the Fairbanks area. By 1926 the road reached the upper limit of the Chatanika River, just below Faith and McManus creeks, where the Davidson Ditch’s containment dam was located.

The ARC then extended the road over Twelvemile and Eagle summits, linking up with the Circle-Miller House road, and re-routed portions of the Circle to Central road. (Oscar Bredlie, an early freighter and mail carrier between Fairbanks and Circle, related in an interview with Jane Williams that the Circle to Central road used to be as “crooked as a dog’s hind leg.”) 

The ARC also upgraded the entire road to automobile standards. Bulldozers hadn’t been developed yet, and tractor-pulled scrapers and graders accomplished most of the road construction, supported by WW I-era GMC and 1920s Ford Model T trucks. The 1920s-era Adams grader shown in the drawing was used on the road and is now located at the Circle District Museum in Central.

The Fairbanks to Circle road was officially opened in 1928 although freighters utilized the brushed-out right-of-way between Central and Circle before the road was actually completed. Freighters and mail carriers also continued to travel the old “abandoned” winter trail whenever practicable since it cut 12 miles off the distance between Central and Circle.

The road was later named the Steese Highway in honor of Gen. James Steese, former president of the Alaska Road Commission. It used to be billed as the farthest-north highway in the United States, and is still an important year-round connection between Fairbanks and Circle.


  • Alaska Road Commission map of Steese Highway. In Rare Map Collection at University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives. 1928
  •  History of Alaskan Operations of United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company. John Boswell. University of Alaska. 1979
  • Old Yukon: Tales, Trails, and Trials. James Wickersham. University of Alaska Press. 2009
  •  Oscar Bredlie interview by Jane Williams. Oral History Collection at University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives. 1983
  • Paving Alaska’s Trails, the work of the Alaska Road Commission. Claus-M. Naske. University Press of America. 1986
  • Tom Long is interviewed by Harrie Hughes. Oral History Collection at University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives. 1961

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