Located about 55 miles south of Fairbanks on the George Parks Highway, Nenana is a former railroad-construction camp with a reputation far bigger than its population.
ABOUT NENANA (LOWER TANANA ATHABASCAN: TOGHOTILI)
Nenana is home to just a few hundred residents, but Alaskans from Ketchikan to Utqiaġvik are familiar with it because of its namesake game of chance – the Nenana Ice Classic. Each winter, a wooden tripod is placed on the frozen Tanana River, which runs right past town, and entrants pay $2.50 to record their best guess as to when the ice will break up each spring. Alaska has no lottery, so the Nenana Ice Classic is as close as it gets, and the pot usually exceeds $300,000.
THINGS TO DO
Nenana is also famous as the spot where President Warren G. Harding pounded the final golden spike into the Alaska Railroad in 1923, marking its completion. In preparation for the President Harding’s arrival, the Nenana train station was built in 1923 along A Street. It was extensively restored in 1988 and is now on the National Register of Historical Sites. It's an impressive building and includes the Alaska Railroad Museum, which houses railroad memorabilia and local artifacts. East of the train station, a monument commemorates the moment when President Harding drove in the golden spike.
An equally interesting building is the Nenana Visitor Center, a log cabin with a sod roof that is planted with colorful flowers during the summer. The Alfred Starr Cultural Center focuses on the culture and lifestyle of the Athabascans along with local history of Nenana. Exhibits cover Alaska Native beadwork, Yukon 800 riverboat racing, dog mushing, and the Nenana Ice Classic. A gift shop is stocked with local Alaska Native crafts.
The Nenana Ice Classic began in 1917 when Alaska Railroad surveyors pooled $800 and bet on when the ice would disintegrate on the frozen Tanana River. Today, the gambling contest is still being held with much higher stakes, with a jackpot usually exceeding $300,000. A tripod is set up after the Tanana River freezes in winter and participants guess the date and time they think the ice will break up in the spring.
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