In 1905, just four years after Fairbanks was founded, Thomas and Robert Swan paddled a canoe up the Chena River. On their journey they encountered miraculous hot springs that cured Robert Swan's rheumatism. The Swans also found the remnants of a campfire. They learned later that the campfire had been made by Felix Pedro, the prospector who discovered gold in the local hills.
While Pedro's gold strike led to the founding of Fairbanks, the Swan's discovery of the hot springs' healing powers may have led to the founding of Chena River State Recreation Area. As soon as the Swans returned to town, Robert Swan told his story of soaking in the waters and curing his rheumatism. Soon, other ailing Fairbanks residents headed for the restorative hot springs. The waters cured their ills too, according to testimonials filed in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
In 1913, at the request of local residents, the U.S. War Department built a trail to the hot springs. The trail was to have been an actual road, but funding ran short, and a trail - a winter only trail at that - was all the department could afford to build.
Today, people still travel the old trail in the cold and dark of winter--and without cars. Some hike, some ski, and some travel by dog sled. About ninety miles of the Yukon Quest, an annual 1,000-mile sled dog race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, is run on the old winter trail. But traveling the trail is no longer a necessity. A paved road parallels the old winter trail and provides easier access to the hot springs.
Health-seekers were not the only Alaskans drawn to the area. In the early 1900's, the area around the springs attracted a great deal of attention. Once word got out about gold in the hills of Fairbanks, many more prospectors came to seek their fortunes. The bustling new town of Fairbanks needed wood--lots of it--and along the Chena River stood some of the largest trees in interior Alaska.
Loggers quickly learned about the forested lands between town and the hot springs. Wood from those trees became the walls and roofs of local buildings and houses. This timber fueled the fires that produced electricity. The train engines carrying miners and supplies to all the mining districts around Fairbanks relied on wood as a source of fuel as did the engines of the river steamers that carried people and supplies to Interior Alaska.
The Chena River itself was central to the use of these lands. The waterway provided summer transportation to the hot springs and served as a route by which loggers could reach the timber, and logs could be transported into town. Loggers rolled the cut trees down the hills into the river, and the river floated the logs to sawmills in Fairbanks.
Fairbanks grew in spurts. First came the gold rush, then the military. World War II and the Cold War made Alaska a strategic location for American military interests. Large numbers of servicemen came to Fairbanks prompting the growth of new stores, schools and other amenities to serve the burgeoning population. Alaska's wild lands were rapidly being tamed.
By the 1960s, shortly after Alaska became a state, people began to fear that all of Fairbanks' wild lands would be covered with concrete and condos. The concerned Fairbanks citizens took action. Groups ranging from the Fairbanks Garden Club to the Tanana Valley Sportsmen Association and the Alaska Conservation Society asked Alaska legislators to save some of the wilderness close to town. The legislators granted this request in 1967, designating 15,360 acres for the Chena River State Recreation Area.
Just one year later came the greatest challenge of all to Alaska's wilderness: the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay. As lands were rapidly parceled out and developed, Alaskans fought to preserve a way of life deeply interwoven with the land and its natural resources. The Alaska Legislature helped meet this challenge in 1975, designating an additional 240,000 acres for the recreation area. This action brought Chena River State Recreation Area to its present size.
At the Chena River State Recreation Area you may hike, ski, snowmachine, dog mush, horseback ride, canoe, hunt, fish, camp and experience nature as the early settlers did--all within these 254,080 acres. You can still enjoy the wilderness in this beautiful area, a goal the Alaska State Park system worked for in setting up the park.