Who Built Alaska?

The discoverer of Alaska was a Dane, Vitus Bering, in the service of Peter the Great of Russia. Almost on his deathbed, Peter drew up in his own hand a charter commissioning Bering to explore Siberia and discover where Asia left off and North America began. In 1728 Bering sailed through what is now Bering Strait, establishing the fact that this narrow channel separated Asia from America. In 1741 Bering, then an old man, returned, and in July of that year men of his expedition landed in south central and in southeastern Alaska. On the return voyage Bering’s ship was wrecked on the island that bears his name in the Komandorski group, and he died there.

Hearing tales of the richness of the new land from Bering’s men, Russian fur traders pushed along the Aleutians in search of the sea otter. They almost exterminated both the Aleuts and the otter, but set up the first permanent Russian settlement in the New World on Kodiak Island in 1784. They established the capital of “Russian America” at Sitka in 1805, and soon made it the metropolis of the Pacific coast.

In 1859, Robert Kennecott., a young biologist, explored Alaska for the Smithsonian Institution and the Audubon Club of Chicago. Six years later he headed the scientific section of the American exploring expedition which surveyed a route for a proposed overland telegraph line to Siberia. The successful laying of the transatlantic cable stopped work on the telegraph line, but the information concerning this almost unknown outpost was useful to Congress and executive officials when, in 1867, Russia ceased its expansionist policy and offered to sell Alaska to the United States. Secretary of State Seward negotiated the purchase for $7,200,000.

From 1867 to 1880 Americans in the States did not pay much attention to Alaska. Gold was discovered at Juneau in 1880, and in the Klondike, Yukon Territory, near Alaska, in 1898. More than 30,000 chechakos (tenderfeet) rushed into Alaska to get rich quick. Most of them were disappointed, and Alaska lost about 10,000 of its new population in the ten years after the gold rush. Those who remained became sourdoughs (old-timers) and spent their brains and muscle in the long task of building up the Territory.

Between about 1920 and 1940, the history of Alaska was one of slow and steady growth. The government’s plans for conserving the natural resources, protecting salmon, seal, fur animals, and other wild life, assuring the natives medical care and education, and building a transportation system began to bear fruit. The Alaska Railroad and the Richardson Highway and its extensions were completed. The University of Alaska was founded. The radio and the plane arrived to link Alaskans more closely together. Farmers and their families from the northern midwest were settled in fertile Matanuska Valley, and after some preliminary dissension and maladjustment; the little community flourished.

In 1941 a new boom began—this time occasioned not by the discovery of gold, but by a new realization of Alaska’s military importance. The Alaska Highway, started in March 1942, was declared “officially” open in November of the same year—a 1,600-mile rough “pioneer” road linking a chain of airports. There was a spectacular development of Alaskan airways. Some 20,000 civilian workers went to Alaska to do war work, and workers in Alaska gold mines, halted by a War Production Board order, turned to wartime activities, principally construction. An as yet undisclosed number of soldiers, sailors, and marines saw service in Alaska.

Whether this new boom will collapse, as have other Alaskan rushes, or whether it will be made the basis of a mighty stride forward in the Territory’s development, is a problem worth discussing. Some facts and figures to aid in the discussion will be brought out in the section, “Alaska’s Future.”