Imagine a very large black and white striped tower, starting to sway and buck as the river ice begins to thin. A thin rope connects the top of the ice-bound tower to the officials’ observation platform on shore. The ice finally becomes too thin and the tower pitches, slowly at first and then noisily hauls sufficiently down river to yank the connecting rope.
Inside the observation platform the rope has released a meat cleaver which falls down and cuts a string, stopping the clock. This sets the time of breakup. The winner, or winners, guess the correct day, hour, and minute of breakup. Many years, several people may have guessed the winning minute and must share the prize.
The Nenana Ice Classic has vastly increased in popularity since it was founded in 1917 by Alaska Railroad engineers. The first year entries were $1 and the purse was $800. This year a sole winner (his correct guess was Monday April 23rd, 2012 at 7:39 p.m., the earliest breakup on record) took the entire purse of $350,000, funded by over 250,000 entries. All entries are in guess books like ones stored in these shelves.
The Nenana Ice Classic is operated by a nonprofit corporation formed by residents of Nenana. Charitable proceeds are the remainder after the winnings, salaries, and other expenses. A board of directors determines distribution of the proceeds to local charities.
We enjoyed the Nenana Railroad museum’s nice displays about railroading and early life in Nenana. It also houses some of the guess books from years past. Another set of displays, as well as a gift shop and nice prices on many furs, is down the street and across the tracks at the Heritage Center.
From the Heritage Center’s window we viewed this historic bridge, a 700-foot long Pennsylvania through truss. It was longest single-span truss bridge in the United States when completed. Some sources say it is still the third longest simple truss in North America. President Harding pounded the golden spike in this final link of the Alaska Railroad February 1923.
Nenana Alaska sits beside the Tanana River and is enroute from Fairbanks to Denali National Park. We pulled off the highway and all the way through town to the river where we parked at the old railroad depot. This is a good spot, or you can park at the Heritage Center. They are within walking distance of each other and also provide walking access to St Mark’s Mission Episcopal Church, founded in 1905.
The former link is a nice collection of info about the Ice Classic and Nenana and includes a partially correct reference to the serum run. The latter link is for National Snow and Ice Data Center’s Nenana Ice Classic page. It addresses the scientific significance of the almost 100-year record of Tanana River breakup dates. NSIDC is supported by NASA, National Science Foundation, NOAA and other federal agencies, and is part of CIRES at Univ of Colorado, Boulder.
We’re glad we stopped in Nenana Alaska. It would be easy to accidentally blow right by Nenana when driving down the highway. Several hours only provided us enough time for the exhibits at the Depot Museum, the Heritage Center, and a visit to St Mark’s Mission Church. There are a bunch of shops and cafés closer to the highway if you wanted to stay off the road even longer.
Jim and Debbie
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