The Clay Street Cemetery

Fairbanks’ Final Resting Place for Alaskan Pioneers

The following article is from the final issue of Alaskan History Magazine, July-August, 2021. Back issues will remain in print.


The Clay Street Cemetery was established in 1903 as the first cemetery of the new town of Fairbanks, founded two years before. Located on the southeastern edge of the original townsite, the cemetery officially closed in 1938, when the City of Fairbanks established the Birch Hill Cemetery, which was, at the time, far from the actual city limits. Clay Street Cemetery is located at the end of 5th Avenue, bounded on the south by 7th Avenue, on the north by 4th Avenue, and to the east it faces the Steese Expressway, with the Chena River beyond, in the historic section known as ”Eastside."

 In 1982 the cemetery was listed on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places, which noted: “The significance of the Clay Street Cemetery (first in the new settlement of Fairbanks) lies in the fact that it holds the last remains of many outstanding Alaskans. Through their tireless efforts these pioneers laid the foundation for Alaska’s second largest city. Many of these men and women were not just socially, politically, or economically prominent, they were a cross section of Alaska's late 19th and early 20th Century collective heritage. The pioneers who arrived in the Northland during the great gold strikes—who experienced extreme adversities of weather and the vagaries of frontier mining boom camp life have consecrated this ground. Clay Street Cemetery documents a time, a place, and people who were significant in the vast Interior of Alaska.”

More about the people buried there from the National Register of Historic Places: “The Clay Street burials represent a broad spectrum of race, creed, geographic origin, and avocations—much more than might be expected. The people buried at Clay Street were essentially rugged and typical sourdough prospectors, miners, craftsmen and itinerant frontier traders. They also represent (a surprising number of) men and women who made important contributions to law, religion, medicine, metalurgy, science, commerce, linguistics, government, public service, writing, art, publishing, and journalism. At least 50 of the deceased buried here epitomized the unique frontier expertise of riverboat captains, freighters, stagecoach drivers, and dog-sled mushers -- all of whom adapted to the specialization of this time and place.  Of those who made contributions in this rich blend of history and significant events, more than half had been born before the end of the U.S. Civil War when the Nation still sought ‘Manifest Destiny’ in the Western Frontier beyond the Mississippi River. Most of them had arrived in Alaska in the later part of the 19th Century. 

“A high percentage of the people buried in Clay Street Cemetery were associated with events that represent broad contributions to the patterns of our history. In many cases, these graves are the only remaining physical evidence of once-prominent Alaskan miners, prospectors, madames, riverboat captains, postmistresses, roadhouse managers, ministers, bankers, doctors, lawyers, and others who contributed in some measure to this highly significant evolutionary era. This Fairbanks cemetery, therefore, represents an archival repository of pioneering people -- both substantial as well as commonplace citizens -- representative, in large measure, of a most important time and place. It constitutes the only known physical record extant of at least 100 pioneers who participated in some aspect of Alaska's greatest and most fabulous gold rush era.”

The National Register goes on to list the names of almost three dozen of the individuals in a cross-section of the graves, with short one- or two-line biographies which give some idea of the great diversity interred there.    ~•~

Clay Street Cemetery Links

National Register of Historic Places

Find a Grave

Billion Graves database

Wikipedia


The article above is from the final issue of Alaskan History Magazine, July-August, 2021. Back issues will remain in print.