Alaska News

2015 Nenana Ice Classic over after slow-motion breakup

If you guessed the tripod on the Tanana River would stop the clock at 2:25 p.m. AST on April 24, you'll get the $330,330 jackpot -- or at least part of it.

The Nenana Ice Classic website was updated Friday with an announcement saying the contest ended at 2:25 p.m. Alaska Standard Time. Contest officials said they were still logging all the guesses, so they had not yet notified a winner or winners of the $330,330 jackpot.

The contest had appeared to be over at about 7 p.m. Thursday when the ice rumbled and the bulky log structure painted black and white began to make its way downstream in the Tanana River.

But people who guessed that the classic would end April 23 with the third or fourth earliest breakup since 1917 will have to guess again next year. An ice jam stopped the moving tripod cold.

Moments earlier, the heavy, reinforced meat cleaver -- the guillotine of the ice classic -- fell on the main rope connecting the tripod to the tower on shore, slicing it evenly, but the tripod did not move the 100 feet required to pull the pin on the most important rope -- the one that connects to the hand-wound clock set to Alaska Standard Time.

The clock is connected to the tripod by a slack line that runs from the tower. When the tripod tugs on that line to make it taut, the classic ends.

A century ago and more, Alaskans paid close attention to the exact timing of breakup because it signaled that riverboat travel was about to resume. And because gambling was one of the main forms of entertainment, most Alaska towns on rivers had betting pools in the early 1900s in which winter-weary residents wagered large sums of money on when the ice would go out. The version in Nenana began in 1917.


"A stake set in the ice just a few feet from the stretched wire is kept illuminated by a strong electric light by night and guarded always against tampering," a 1926 account of the ice classic said. "Volunteers act as patrolmen for the two or three anxious weeks, expecting and generally accepting rewards from the winners."

In Fairbanks, one memorial from the 1927 Nenana winner can be found in a stained glass window in the Immaculate Conception Church. Ed Kehoe won $34,792 that year, the equivalent of about $470,000 today.

He had the words "In Memory of My Mother" placed on the window, reporter Pegge Parker wrote in a 1945 ice classic history. "He told everybody he was going to the States to build a house for his mother and father, but before he could get anything done he drank himself to death," she wrote. He died broke in 1940.

In 1944, a Kodiak soldier stationed in Fairbanks wrote his family to say that every nickel in Fairbanks was tied up in a bet on breakup. "Besides the regular Nenana pool, nearly everyone has side bets. They are betting if it will break in April or May, if it will break before 6 in the evening, if it will break before noon and dozens of other screwy angles," he said.

The jackpots in the Nenana Ice Classic topped $100,000 during World War II, when thousands of servicemen took part. That would be the equivalent of $1.3 million today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Winners had to pay federal taxes on ice classic proceeds, but most of officialdom looked the other way. The Alaska Legislature legalized the Nenana Ice Classic in 1960 with the arrival of statehood. This happened over the objections and the veto of Gov. Bill Egan, who feared opening the door to big-time Las Vegas-style gambling.

The first bill legalized both the lottery in Nenana and a smaller one in Fairbanks focused on the Chena River. In early Fairbanks, most bars had their own breakup betting pools, but there were often disagreements about choosing the winning minute. This was not like betting on a boxing match or the World Series. In 1919 in Fairbanks, a cable was connected to a flagpole planted in the Chena River and an electric clock on the south bank. The Chena Ice Pool ended when the flagpole hit the Cushman Street Bridge and tripped the clock.

The Nenana Ice Classic adopted something similar long ago. The heart of its timing system is an old mechanism, the details of which have changed little over many decades. There is a complicated pulley system attached to the tower that includes a large bucket of rocks that acts as a counterweight.

The earliest breakup in Nenana occurred on April 20 in both 1940 and 1998. The latest is May 20, which happened in 1964 and 2013.

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.