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.
Nenana is home to just a few hundred residents, but Alaskans from Ketchikan to Barrow 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 Nenana River, which runs right past town, and entrants pay $2 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 or so.
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. Nenana was formally established as a railroad construction camp in 1916; surveyors for the rail line from Seward to Fairbanks originally created the Nenana Ice Classic.
Things to do
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 State Railroad Museum, which houses railroad memorabilia and local artifacts. East of the train station, a monument commemorates when President Harding drove in the gold spike marking the completion of the Alaska Railroad.
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 and Museum houses information on the local Athabascan culture, including the iconic floral beadwork that is the signature of Athabascan artisans.
Alaska State Railroad Museum
The Alaska State Railroad Museum is housed in the baggage room of Nenana train depot that was built in 1923 and today is listed on the National Register of Historical Sites. Inside the museum is railroad memorabilia along displays ranging bear traps and ice tongs to old entry books for the Ice Classic. on local artifacts ranging from ice tongs to animal traps.
Alfred Starr Nenana Cultural Center
The Alfred Starr Nenana Cultural Center focuses on the culture and lifestyle of the Athabaskans along with local history of Nenana. Exhibits cover Native Alaskan beadwork, Yukon 800 riverboat racing, dog mushing and the Nenana Ice Classic. A gift shop is stocked with local Native crafts.
Historic St Marks Episcopal Church
Historic St Mark's Episcopal Church dates from 1905 and inside features beautiful handcrafted items including an altar dressing made from bleached moosehide with traditional Athabascan beadwork.
Nenana Ice Classic
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 only the stakes are higher with a jackpot usually exceeding $300,000. A tripod is set up after the Tanana freezes and in the spring any surge of ice will dislodge it, the exact time of the occurrence determining the winner. Ice Classic tickets are on sale throughout Alaska from February 1 to April 5 and during the summer in Nenana.
Taku Chief river tug
Located near the Nenana Vistors Center is the Taku Chief river tug, which once pushed barges along the Tanana River.