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The northernmost community in the United States, Barrow sits 1,300 mi south of the North Pole. The village is 10 mi south of the Beaufort Sea and Point Barrow, from which it takes its name. Point Barrow, in turn, was named in 1825 by British captain Frederick William Beechey, who'd been ordered by the British Navy to map the continent's northern coastline. Beechey wished to honor Sir John Barrow, a member of the British Admiralty and a major force in arctic exploration. The region's Inupiaq Eskimos knew the site as Ukpeagvik, or "place where owls are hunted." Even today, many snowy owls nest in the tundra outside Barrow each summer, though they're not hunted as they once were: they are now protected by federal law.
About 4,000 people inhabit Barrow today, making it easily the largest community on the North Slope. Nearly two-thirds of the residents are Inupiaq Eskimos. Though they remain deeply rooted in their Inupiaq heritage, Barrow's residents have adopted a modern lifestyle. Homes are heated by natural gas taken from nearby gas fields, and the community is served by most modern conveniences, including a public radio station and cable TV and Internet access. The community recreation center has a gymnasium, racquetball courts, weight room, and sauna, and hosts a variety of social events, from dances to basketball tournaments. In Barrow, as in much of Bush Alaska, basketball is the favored sport, played year-round by people of all ages.
Barrow is the economic and administrative center of the North Slope Borough, which encompasses more than 88,000 square mi, making it the world's largest municipal government (in terms of area). The village is also headquarters of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, formed in 1971 through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), as well as the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corporation, which economically and politically represents the community of Barrow. Several village councils are also headquartered in the town.
Non-natives established a presence at Barrow in the early 1880s, when the U.S. Army built a research station here. Drawn to the area by the Beaufort Sea's abundant whales, commercial whalers established the Cape Smythe Whaling and Trading Station in 1893; a cabin from that operation still stands, and is the oldest frame building in Alaska's Arctic. The station is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places (as are the Birnirk dwelling mounds).
By the early 1900s both a Presbyterian church and U.S. post office had been established. Recalling those days, an Inupiat elder named Alfred Hopson once recounted that the famed Norwegian explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson used the church as a base for studies of local residents, including measurements of their head sizes. From then on, Stefansson was known locally as the "head measurer." Oil and gas exploration later brought more whites from the Lower 48 to the area; even more came as schools and other government agencies took root in the region. Hopson, too, played a role in the area's development, as he funneled millions of dollars in tax revenues into road building, sanitation and water services, and heath-care services.
Barrow has opened its annual springtime whale festival to outsiders, and there are several historic sites, including a military installation, points of native cultural importance, and a famous crash site. The Barrow airport is where you'll find the Will Rogers and Wiley Post Monument, marking the 1935 crash of the American humorist and his pilot 15 mi south of town.
Drawn by both cultural and natural attractions, visitors to Barrow usually arrive on a one- or two-day tour with Alaska Airlines, the only national carrier serving the area. Packages include a bus tour of the town's dusty roads and major sights. Though Barrow's residents invite visitors to attend their annual whale festival in spring, summer is the ideal time to survey the town and its historic sites.
Barrow at a Glance
Sports and Outdoors
Elsewhere in Northwest and the Arctic
- Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
- Bering Land Bridge National Preserve
- Cape Krusenstern National Monument
- Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve
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