The History of Chena Hot Springs
Chena Hot Springs is one of Alaska’s most famous tourist attractions, drawing thousands of visitors every year to bask in its warm, refreshing waters. Located near the city of Fairbanks and the Chena River State Recreation Area, Chena Hot Springs is world-famous for its gorgeous sights and the unique healing properties of its thermal baths. Given its fame and popularity, you might be surprised to know that Chena Hot Springs has only been in use for barely a hundred years.
Alaska’s remoteness and small population prior to colonization means that many of its natural wonders, such as Chena Hot Springs, have only been known to the wider world for a short amount of time. Here is a brief history of Chena Hot Springs and its importance to Alaskan culture.
The History of Chena Hot Springs
Chena Hot Springs was formally discovered on August 5, 1905 by Robert and Thomas Swan, brothers who had moved to Alaska to work as gold miners in the wake of the various gold rushes in the region. The brothers had learned that in 1904, a U.S. Geological Survey team had seen steam coming up from a valley along the Chena River. The surveyors had surmised that the steam was coming from a hot spring, but did not follow up on their investigation.
Robert Swan suffered from rheumatism, a chronic disorder that causes extreme, intermittent pain in the joints. Seeking a remedy, he and Thomas Swan captained a boat and left Fairbanks to follow up on the observations made by the survey team the previous year. One month into their journey, they arrived at the North Fork of the Chena River and traveled to Monument Creek, where they found Chena Hot Springs, confirming the presence of hot springs in the Fairbanks region.
Word of Chena Hot Springs rapidly spread across Alaska and the U.S. and by 1911, the hot springs housed a stable, a bathhouse, and a dozen cabins used by visitors. Chena Hot Springs rapidly became popular among Alaska residents, who used it as a getaway from strenuous mining jobs, and also attracted visitors from other regions of the U.S.
As Chena Hot Springs became increasingly famous, Alaska congressional delegate James Wickersham asked the Department of Agriculture to analyze its waters, as their restorative properties were not fully understood. A team of chemists retrieved three pints of water from Chena Hot Springs and discovered that they were rich in sodium bicarbonate, sulfate, and chloride, which made them considerably different than any other hot springs in the U.S. Indeed, the chemical composition of Chena Hot Springs’ water was similar to that of hot springs in Bohemia (in the modern-day Czech Republic) that were patronized by visitors around the world.
The legend of Chena Hot Springs continued to grow, inspiring a town to spring up around the resort. Today, Chena Hot Springs continues to draw tourists worldwide, lured by the region’s scenic vistas and its waters’ ability to ameliorate or cure many chronic conditions. One of the most famous tourist attractions in Chena Hot Springs is the Aurora Ice Museum, which showcases ice sculptures by local artists Steve and Heather Brice.
Chena Hot Springs is also notable for its geothermal power plants, the first of its kind built in Alaska. Prior to the power plants’ construction, Chena Hot Springs was reliant on diesel generators for electricity due to its distance from Fairbanks and other cities. The construction of the power plants cut energy costs by 83 percent by allowing Chena Hot Springs residents to source their electricity locally and in an environmentally sustainable way.
Another tourist attraction in Chena Hot Springs is “Good Grief,” a DC-6A N6174C propeller aircraft that is on display in the town. The aircraft served as one of the most important lifelines connecting Chena Hot Springs to the outside world, amassing 56,000 flight hours over a 62-year period flying between the hot springs and Anchorage. In 2016, the aircraft was retired and made its final flight from Anchorage to Chena Hot Springs.
Chena Hot Springs remains one of the most popular hot springs in the world and a premier tourist attraction in Alaska. Its waters’ restorative properties have been documented by many scientists and health experts, with countless individuals seeking out Chena Hot Springs for help with various chronic disorders or simply to enjoy the feeling of relaxing in a thermal bath. The town has also continuously added new tourist attractions to entice visitors.
While visiting Chena Hot Springs used to be difficult due to its remote location, modern transportation improvements and road construction have made visiting the town, a short distance from Fairbanks, relatively easy. If you’re interested in seeing what the power of Chena Hot Springs’ waters can do for you, why not book a tour and visit one of the most unique wonders Alaska has to offer?