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Bowers, Peter M., Catherine M. Williams, Amy F. Steffian, and Robert M. Weaver (1998) 4.4 Northern Commercial Company Dock. In Historical Development of the Chena River Waterfront, Fairbanks, Alaska: An Archaeological Perspective, edited and compiled by Peter M. Bowers and Brian L. Gannon, CD-ROM. Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, Fairbanks.

The NC Co. Dock, investigated in operational Area B2, lies 20 meters east of Area B1 along the left (southern) bank of the Chena River (Figure 4.2). The site is located on land owned by the City of Fairbanks, Lot 1, Block C of the Fairbanks Townsite (Figure 1.2), within a 40x164 feet tract originally claimed by E.T. Barnette. Our excavation area is believed to lie close to the spot where Barnette and the steamboat Lavelle Young originally landed in August 1901.

The area of investigations is within the excavation zone for the eastern end of the abutment to the proposed Barnette Street bridge. Like Areas A and B1, Area B2 deposits lay below the modern sidewalk and the steeply sloped, weed covered river bank. The area was tested in 1992, and received a small amount of mitigation in 1993. Excavation in Area B2 was aimed at locating any structural remains of the dock, associated revetments, and associated artifacts.

The excavation of the NC Co. Dock yielded only 1,296 artifacts, a sample of which is illustrated in Figures 4.44 and 4.45. Stratigraphic relationships are shown in Figure 4.46. Additional details about the archaeology are given in Appendices 1 and 5.

Figure 4.44

Figure 4.44. Sample of artifacts recovered from Area B2.108

Figure 4.45

Figure 4.45. Sample of bottles recovered from Area B2.109

Figure 4.46

Figure 4.46. Area B2: Profile along N1011, south wall of EU 205, with wooden drain dating to circa 1904 (Feature 1). Note drain type is illustrated in Figure 2.2.

Historical Context

The NC Co. arrived in Fairbanks in the spring of 1903. The company had been formed in 1900, through a division of the Alaska Commercial Company, the Seattle-Yukon Transportation Company, the Alaska Exploration Company, and the Empire Line, brought about by the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.110 The NC Co. bought out two thirds of E.T. Barnette's interest in his trading post within the burgeoning gold camp, and purchased the remaining one third interest in 1904.111 This purchase included the blocks between Turner and Barnette streets, and First and Third avenues,112 and the company also had "another square block for storage and docks on the riverfront across Front Street."113 In 1903, the original NC Co. building was constructed, a 30x60 foot store114 at the northeast corner of Barnette and Front streets,115 followed soon thereafter by a 30x100 foot warehouse. Another warehouse was added in 1905.

The NC Co., through its subsidiary the Northern Navigation Company,116 was one of the town's two main suppliers of wholesale and retail goods.117 The riverfront was used by the company from 1903 on, but analysis of historical photographs suggests that not even temporary docks were built in the first two years of the company's presence.118 In 1905 a large dock was constructed directly across from the NC Co. complex on First Avenue (Lot 1, Block C).119 While this dock is usually referred to as the NC Co. Dock and indeed had "N.C. CO." painted on its roof as early as 1906, the structure was built by and belonged to NC Co.'s "sister company," the Northern Navigation Company.120 Figure 4.30 (in Section 4.3 above) illustrates the dock in June 1905 while under construction, before the letters were painted on the roof (Figure 4.47). The dock was completed in July 1905, but shortly thereafter it was heavily damaged by a massive flood. Repairs were made immediately.121

Figure 4.47

Figure 4.47. Construction of the Pioneer Dock in 1907, with the NC Co. Dock in full operation in the background. Note the floating piledriver used to place the dock foundation. Clara Rust Album [81.07], Alaska and Polar Regions Archives, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

A small tramway was used to transport goods from the river side to the NC Co. warehouses on the south side of First Avenue. The western end of the dock accommodated the Northern Navigation Co. offices, including clerks' cages and a public waiting room/boarding area. In 1906, the office space was enlarged to accommodate the Orr stage line, which provided year-round transportation along the Richardson Trail between Fairbanks and Valdez.122

Due to the length of time it took to unload the large riverboats and barges and the high volume of traffic on the river, it was necessary by 1908 to use a canvas-covered gangway and a stationary scow off shore to allow passengers to disembark from boats that could not pull alongside the dock (Figure 4.48). In 1910, a small gable was built off the office end of the building to protect this gangway.123 Unfortunately spring breakup in 1911 caused major damage all along the waterfront, and the ice pushed between the pilings, destroying many of them and damaging the dock decking and the new gable. It also disturbed the flood gauge so that accurate measurements of the river flow could not be taken.124 Driving of new pilings began within three weeks, but the gable was not replaced.125

Figure 4.48

Figure 4.48. NC Co. Dock in 1910, showing gangway and stationary scow. Turner Street Bridge is visible to the left. Vertical Files [103.01], Alaska and Polar Regions Archives, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

On April 7, 1914, Northern Navigation was bought out by its competitor, the British-owned American-Yukon Navigation Co. (A-YNC),126 several years after steamboat traffic had began to decline as a result of the overall economic downturn in the Fairbanks District. The hard times were reflected in worn paint, weeds growing on the wharf, and the occasional "For Rent" sign on the office (Figure 4.49).127 As part of the agreement, the NC Co. was able to use the dock in connection with the operation of its stores and warehouses on the opposite side of Front Street. Despite the fact that A-YNC was the new owner, the "NC CO" initials were never removed from the roof of the warehouse.128

Figure 4.49

Figure 4.49. NC Co. Dock circa 1914 showing different construction of office (foreground) and warehouse (background) walls. Note "For Rent" sign on warehouse wall. View to northeast from corner of First and Barnette streets. Wilson Erskine Collection [22.12], Alaska and Polar Regions Archives, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

In 1922, the American-Yukon Navigation Company sold the dock and warehouse to the NC Co. and a newspaper article summarized their plans to raze most of the warehouse but save the office and part of the wharf as a gas boat fueling dock.129 For some unknown reason this plan was not carried out, and the whole building was torn down. The waterfront subsequently became a dumping place for NC boiler ash and other debris and the dock site was completely covered over with fill by 1926.130 Only the flagpole remained to mark the spot where the warehouse had been; even the pole was taken down in 1930.131 The NC Co. continued to operate its stores and warehouses on First Avenue until 1975, when it sold out to Nordstroms.132

Riverboat traffic was in major decline by 1920. A quote from a 1922 newspaper article observes: "It seemed like old times to hear the Alaska whistle in as she steamed up the river to dock here last night. The good ship made fast at 11 o'clock, and a crowd lined the wharf to pass a greeting to those on board, all old-timers in river transportation."133 Figure 4.50 illustrates the overall rise and decline of steamboat traffic on the Chena River.

Figure 4.50

Figure 4.50. Graph showing relative frequencies of steamboat landings on the Chena River at Fairbanks and Chena, recorded in Fairbanks newspapers between 1903 and 1921. No landings were reported for 1922; data for the period before 1903 are not available.134


The visual record of the NC Co. Dock shows a wooden plank platform supporting a warehouse (transfer shed) and an office building. As described in Rivertown, the dock ran along the waterfront between Turner and Barnette streets. The dock is described by one source as 150 feet long and supported a warehouse that was only slightly shorter.135 However, a second source gives the length as 250 feet, with an attached warehouse 30 by 100 feet.136 A 1910 survey of the Fairbanks Townsite137 hints at probable dimensions. The plat shows Lot 1 in Block C having a length of 163 feet along the waterfront and a width of 28 feet. For the last 40 feet at the east end, the lot widened towards First Avenue by an additional 11 feet. Photographs suggest that the actual dock structure ran beyond the northern lot line and past the official meander line for the Chena River, giving the structure at least a 35 foot width. The platform lay several feet below the surface of First Avenue. A wooden retaining wall ran along the south side of the property line, and creating a narrow walkway under the eaves of the warehouse building. Driveways from the shed ramped up to the street grade.

The original construction of the NC Co. Dock in 1905 would have been similar to that of the Pioneer Dock in 1906. Figure 4.47 shows a pile driver setting two outward rows of the Pioneer Dock pilings, which, when tied together with timbers and braces, would have formed the outer support (nominally a 'foundation') for the dock.

The dock superstructure consisted of a wood frame transfer shed and office covered by a hipped roof. Corrugated iron served as the roofing material, and appears to have lasted throughout the entire period of use. Only the office and waiting room area on the west end were enclosed. Two double-hung sash windows occupied a portion of the west wall of the office. Entry to the office passed through a door at the southwest corner, flanked by two additional double-hung windows that butted together. No photographs have been found showing the interior structure of the building. The transfer shed probably followed construction techniques used in the other two waterfront docks. If so, the main structure would have been a post and beam system holding up the roof rafters.

Sliding panels provided some weather protection around the exterior of the transfer shed. The panels consisted of vertical slats joined to horizontal cross braces. Similar construction shows in photographs of the Pioneer Dock further downstream. Portions of the panels were fixed, with sliding units located midpoint along First Avenue, in the center of the east end, and at the unloading ramp along the waterfront.

In most historical photographs, steamboats and shadows obscure specific details of the dock supporting structure. Pilings supported the outer edge on the north side, but the associated beams and stringer system that provided support for the planking does not show clearly in the photographs. The record suggests that an inner row of pilings may have provided mid-point support for heavy beams. The archaeological record in Area A suggests that a common river bank construction technique extended and buried these main beams under First Avenue. This would have provided the needed lateral bracing for the structure.

Clearly, the dock and its structure withstood substantial loadings from the river. Although damaged several times during breakup and flooding of the Chena River, the overall structural integrity held through the 15 or so years of its existence. Improvements and repairs provided additional resistance to the river's forces. Some of these were documented through the archaeological work. Excavations encountered a sequence of boards, fill, and timber structure that represent the underpinnings of the dock area. The array of boards provide a mix of materials, probably from the final collapse of the dock, as well as boards that frequently washed beneath the dock. Historical photographs document the latter condition when the river flowed beneath the building.

The most substantial structure encountered during field excavations consisted of a rectangular cell of log cribbing. The construction details, however, indicate that the cribbing extended in a continuous unit along the river bank, at least in the area beneath the dock. The structure fits descriptions of bank stabilization activities related to the 1907 breakup and dating using tree rings (Appendix 7) substantiates this period for construction. As noted in Rivertown, "the businessmen of First Avenue took immediate steps, however, to safeguard the waterfront between Turner Street and the end of the Pioneer Dock. Cribbing and brush fill were placed behind the piers to protect the river bank underneath the Northern Navigation and Pioneer docks, and NC Co. took charge of the work of driving a double row of piling along the remaining stretch of river bank between the two structures."138

The design of this stabilization measure relied on a combination of interlocking logs anchored into the embankment. In the excavated unit, the cribbing formed a 4x6 foot cell with the longer dimension paralleling the river (Figures 4.51 and 4.52). Logs ranged from 8 to 12 inches in diameter, with the more massive timbers fronting the river. Construction used a saddlenotch technique throughout with additional spikes to hold the logs together. The north face along the river presented a consistent mass with alternating parallel and perpendicular logs. Likewise, the sides perpendicular to the river were tightly stacked, one log upon another. The rear courses parallel to the bank saved materials by using cross-logs every other course. Some additional stabilization resulted by projecting side logs at least a foot or more into the natural embankment. The structure as excavated stood at least six courses high, although the archaeological work never reached the lowest footing level of the cell. As found during excavations (Figures 4.53 and 4.54), the cribbing would not have reached the lower part of the dock platform structure. Given the massive construction, however, one would suspect that the original intent would have included providing additional support for the dock, but no direct evidence of this exists. At least some of the structure either washed away or was salvaged after the demise of the dock.

Figure 4.51

Figure 4.51. Area B2: Composite profile along E665, west wall of Area B2, 1992-93 field seasons, with NC Co. Dock foundation at base of excavation.

Figure 4.52

Figure 4.52. Area B2: Profile along E665, west wall of EUs 211 and 214, showing detail of log cribbing at base of NC Co. Dock.

Figure 4.53

Figure 4.53. Area B2: General view of 1993 excavations in EUs 211 and 214, showing log cribbing at base of excavation. Safety shoring and metal pipe bracing are also visible. NLUR Photo (BAR-93-23-20).

Figure 4.54

Figure 4.54. Area B2: detail of NW corner of log cribbing at base of excavation, EU 214. Note log notching. View to northeast. NLUR Photo (BAR-93-23-27).

Additional protection measures show in association with the outer pilings. Photographs from 1905 reproduced in Rivertown (Table 5.4-2) show a series of pilings sheathed with boards, not only in the area of the dock but also along the main stretch of the river. The board solution did not last the thrust of ice and current of that year's floods. The 1907 construction, which ran from Turner Street to the end of the Pioneer Dock, also included a more substantial outer bulkhead. These photographs show a line of vertical logs running down the river from the bridge area corresponding to the outer edge of the two docks. This treatment appears to have worked. Other photographs (Table 5.4-2) from the 1920s after the waterfront was cleared of structures show a line of pilings running along this area of the river.


Excavations in 1992-93 of the NC Co. Dock offer new insights into several aspects of the Steamboat era of Fairbanks' history. Through analysis of archaeological data and historical photographs, we have identified some of the construction techniques used for the dock's foundations. Although artifacts were scarce in this area, several items specific to steamboat transportation were recovered, including luggage tags, dock-related hardware, and a lead customs seal from Skagway (Figure 4.44).

In addition to materials clearly associated with the dock, excavators uncovered a storm drain. This clearly shows in a 1904 photograph of E.T. Barnette's trading post and the western two segments of the NC Co. store.139 In that photo (Figure 2.2), a ditch has just been dug out perpendicular to the river, and the box drain appears to be in a position where it would soon be lowered into the trench.

Several features associated with the dock provide examples of how the townspeople combated the problem of flooding by the Chena River. We found several masses of small logs and brush just upslope from the log cribbing/revetment in Area B2. These materials correlate with brush which is described in historical photos and in archival sources.140 Brush reinforcement was used as an engineering technique as early as 1905, and was placed perpendicular to the river, behind pilings, in an attempt to slow river bank erosion and to repair previous damage.

This engineering practice of using a lattice of brush in a matrix of sand and gravel for erosion control was apparently common for the time.141 As quoted in Rivertown:

Work began immediately [July 1905] to reclaim the waterfront above the NC Co. after the flood. The city let a contract in July to have a double row of pilings driven in the river along a line approximating the former location of the river bank, and work was also under way to cut the vast quantity of brush which would be required to fill in the 40-foot wide gash down First Avenue. [The job] called for filling in the spaces behind the piles with layers of brush and sand and surfacing the top with sand and gravel pumped from the bed of the Chena River. The fill was then to be graded to a one percent slope maintained from the sidewalk to the riverfront.142

Perhaps the most dramatic early historic example of river bank erosion control was in the discovery of Feature 2, the log cribbing found deep in the northern end of our Area B2 trench. This feature, which served as a revetment to protect against flooding and perhaps as additional foundation for the deck as well, matches written descriptions of construction techniques,143 and illustrates some of the materials and processes used by the builders of the NC Co. Dock. The use of deeply-dug "cells" of joined logs offers supporting evidence that Fairbanks residents were willing to go to great expense of time and money to build and preserve the infrastructure of the city.

NC boiler ash recorded in Area B2 is discussed in greater detail in our treatment of Area B1 (Section 4.5). A noticeable difference in overall frequency in artifacts was observed between the two areas; whereas B1 had over 8,000 artifacts in the NC boiler ash layers, B2 had only 393. We attribute this to the location of B1 at the end of Barnette Street, while B2 was occupied by the dock structure and was located in front of the NC Co. store. The street end location was clearly more suited for dumping of trash than was the store front location, in that it was more accessible and convenient than its upriver counterpart. The end-of-the-street dump area may have been regarded as a public dumping area, whereas the B2 area may have been regarded as company-owned and private. Only a few of the artifacts found in Area B2 are immediately associated with the dock itself, although many of them may be connected with it in the sense that they were lost from shipments of cargo that moved across the dock. Others probably do represent "trash," probably miscellaneous debris from the street edge and flotsam from the river that was caught in the cribbing and revetment.

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