Published Date

August 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 20: What Has Alaska to Offer Postwar Pioneers? (1944)

Alaska has an area of more than a half million square miles—586,400 to be exact—or about that of the region we call roughly the “middle west.” It is considerably more than twice as large as Texas. Alaska’s coast line is 34,000 miles in length, about 60 per cent of it accounted for by the broken coast of the southeast. Cape Prince of Wales, the most westerly point of Alaska and of the North American continent, is more than 400 miles west of Honolulu. Attu, the most westerly of the Aleutians, is almost due north of New Zealand.

If Alaska were spread over the United States, parts of it would touch Georgia and California, Michigan and Texas. The Territory contains our highest mountain peak—Mt. McKinley, 20,300 feet; 1,500 miles of the Yukon’s majestic 2,300-mile length; a 1,500-mile chain of volcanoes along the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutians, some of then young and active; a great system of glaciers, many of them never explored. But Alaska also has more than 65,000 square miles of good farming land and about 35,000 square miles more that are suitable for grazing.


Southeastern Alaska

This is the part of Alaska most familiar to tourists, as it is easily reached via the Inside Passage from Seattle. It contains the largest concentration of population, and boasts eight towns—Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau (the capital city), Haines, Skagway, Sitka, and Craig. In addition, there are numerous fishing communities and canneries, and a number of sizable native villages.

Southeastern Alaska consists of a mainland strip some 30 miles wide and 350 miles long and of a great many islands, large and small, near the coast. The Inside Passage threads its way through this region, among heavily wooded islands and a coast from which mountains rise seemingly from the water’s edge, through treacherous channels sheltered for all but a few miles from the open sea, through a maze of fjords and inlets. The coast line in this region, if stretched out in a straight line, would measure more than 18,000 miles. Sitka spruce trees tower as high as 200 feet with trunks measuring as much as 14 feet around. Mountain peaks rise abruptly as high as 5,000 feet on the islands and 7.000 feet or higher on the mainland. Glaciers flow down to salt water from mountain snow fields. These rivers of ice tower 200 feet or more above sea level and throw off icebergs from. the sheer walls.

The climate of southeastern Alaska is very like that of the coastal region of the state of Washington—wet, rainy summers and mild winters. Precipitation is very heavy, averaging from 83 inches a year in Juneau to 106 inches in Petersburg and 151 inches in Ketchikan. January temperatures over the last 40 years in Juneau have averaged 27.51°, July temperatures 56.6°. The maximum temperature recorded in Juneau during this time was 89°, the lowest 15° below zero.

There are few roads in this region so the population travels from town to town by plane or in boats of all sizes and states of preservation, using the numerous channels and protected deep-water harbors. The main occupations are fishing for salmon, herring, halibut, and shrimp, mining gold and other minerals; logging; quarrying; and fur farming. Some local vegetable raising and dairy farming is carried on.

South Central Alaska

This region is also a country of spruce and hemlock, tall mountain peaks, and large, active glaciers—one of which, Malaspina Glacier, stretches along the coast for 80 miles. The great bay of the Pacific which washes this coast is known as the Gulf of Alaska.

On Prince William Sound are the towns of Cordova, once the southern terminus of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway, which no longer operates; Valdez, southern terminus of the Richardson Highway; and the port of Whittier.

West of Prince William Sound is Kenai Peninsula, well timbered and with rich land and abundant animal life. Seward is the southernmost terminus of the Alaska Railroad. Anchorage, a railroad center on Cook Inlet, is the Army’s headquarters in Alaska, and the largest town in the region. Near Anchorage and connected with it by railroad and highway is Palmer, center of the well-known Matanuska Valley.

Other towns in south central Alaska are Seldovia, Wasilla, and Chitina, in addition to many native villages and smaller communities. The chief occupations of the residents are fishing, mining, logging, fur farming, agriculture. and trades connected with the maintenance of the railroad and highway systems.

The climate of south central Alaska is not unlike that of southeastern Alaska. Precipitation over the last 27 years in Cordova has averaged 145 inches a year: the length of the growing season in the Cordova area is 149 days. Temperature ranges are about the same as at Juneau.

Interior Alaska

This great plateau-like region, containing fertile valleys, rolling tundra, and some mountains. lies in the drainage basins of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. It extends from the Brooks Range on the north, which shelters it from the Arctic, to the Alaska Range dividing it from the south central region; and from Canada on the east to the Bering Sea coast on the west. Elevations run from about 800 to 6,500 feet above sea level, with many portions at about 2,000 feet.

In climate interior Alaska is similar in many ways to the northern parts of such states as Minnesota, New York, or Montana. It is well wooded along the rivers, contains many fertile regions suitable for farming, and is rich in minerals and wild life. The subsoil in most places is permanently frozen, but the topsoil thaws in summer to 18 or 20 inches, unless the soil is plowed, when it thaws to about 30 inches.

The summers are very warm and the winters very cold. Over the last 34, years, July temperatures in Fairbanks have averaged 60° above zero, January temperatures nearly 12° below. The record high in this period was 99° above and the record low 66° below zero. Precipitation is scanty, averaging only about 12 inches a year. The growing season averages 89 days—but plants benefit from the sun at night as well as by day, so that in midsummer the growing hours can almost be said to be doubled. There are usually no killing frosts around Fairbanks from the end of May to the end of August.

The great Yukon flows through the interior, 800 miles of it flowing through Canada and 1,500 miles through Alaska, with a total drainage basin of some 330,000 square miles. It can be navigated in summer upstream from its mouth in the Bering Sea to Whitehorse, on the Alaska Highway, in Yukon Territory, Canada, and many of its tributaries are navigable as well.

The chief occupations are gold placer mining, in which gold is extracted by large-scale power dredges after the soil is thawed with water; fur farming and trapping; agriculture; and a number of local trades and industries.

Fairbanks is the principal town. An important station on world airways, it is on the direct route between New York City and Tokyo. It is linked with south central and southeastern Alaska by the Alaska Railroad and the Richardson Highway. It is connected directly with Canada and the States by the Alaska Highway, and with the Yukon River and Tanana River transportation systems. Thus Fairbanks, by reason of its strategic location on international air, river, and land routes, occupies a position somewhat like that of Chicago to the rest of the United States. But it’s a far cry from Chicago to the Fairbanks of today, with its frontier air, its single main street, its modern stores and houses fringed by simple cabins of peeled logs.

Southwestern Alaska

This area includes the volcanic Alaska Peninsula, the Kodiak-Afognak Island group, and the Aleutian Islands.

On the Alaska Peninsula are Mount Katmai, which had one of the world’s greatest recent volcanic eruptions in 1912, and the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, now a national monument. The peninsula is 500 miles long; is narrow, jagged, and volcanic throughout its length, with few trees and fewer people. It is racked by violent gales, facing as it does the cold Bering Sea on the northern side and the warm Pacific on the southern.

Kodiak and Afognak islands, sheltered somewhat by the peninsula, stretching some 160 miles parallel to it, are pleasant and fertile spots. They are fairly well wooded, with good soil suited to farming. The Karluk River, on the north side of Kodiak, is choked with red salmon at spawning time. Wild life is abundant, including the fierce Kodiak bear, largest meat-eating animal in existence. Kodiak and Afognak, on the islands of those names, are the only sizable towns.

The climate of Kodiak is pleasant, ranging from 40° to 80° in summer, and rarely going below zero in winter. Precipitation is moderate, averaging about 61 inches, and the growing season is long, averaging 160 days.

The Aleutian Islands consist of a 1,000-mile chain of volcanoes of which only the peaks are above water; stretching from the tip of the Alaska Peninsula to the Komandorski Islands of the Soviet Union. The most westerly is tiny Attu, 35 miles long by 20 miles. wide, briefly under the military control of the Japanese. The most easterly is Unimak, which is also the largest island, about 70 by 20 miles. Next to Unimak is Unalaska, on which is the naval base of Dutch Harbor.

The temperature, at Dutch Harbor averages slightly above freezing in January and 51° in July.

The fogbound Aleutians are treeless, except for the famous clump of 13 spruces planted at Dutch Harbor in 1805 and a few sprigs planted recently by American soldiers and sailors. The soil is covered with moss and grass, which flourish in the wet, stormy air.

The sea near the Aleutians abounds in fish and whale, and sea birds cover the rocks. The luxuriously furred sea otter, almost exterminated, is beginning to breed again, since the killing of this very rare animal has been strictly prohibited. Sheep are being raised on some of the islands, and the quality of the wool grown from them is remarkably fine. The residents live by fishing and fur farming. No agriculture is carried on.

The Pribilof Islands., famous seal grounds, were evacuated in the early part of the war, owing to the possibility of a Japanese invasion. The Aleut residents are being returned to their island home now that this threat has been averted. As a government reserve, these islands are closed to new settlers.

Bering Sea Coast

North of the Alaska Peninsula to the Arctic stretches the region fronting the shallow Bering Sea, named after the Danish sea captain who discovered Alaska. The Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers meander through a maze of channels and sloughs to the sea in a timberless region of tundra. There are no highways and no deep-water harbors. The shallow ports are frozen in winter, so that this region is linked only by air with the rest of Alaska during most of the year.

Bristol Bay, immediately north of the Alaska Peninsula, is the world’s greatest red-salmon producing region. There are few permanent residents, but the population is swelled by thousands of fishermen in June and July during the salmon run.

Further north, on Goodnews Bay, are the famous platinum mines. Traces of this rare mineral were discovered there in 1927 and large-scale mining operations were carried on through the 1930’s.

Due west of Fairbanks, facing Siberia across Bering Strait, is Seward Peninsula. Its principal town is Nome, known since 1898 as the site of one of Alaska’s famous gold rushes. Today some mining is done, but the principal occupation of the residents is fur farming and trapping.

The Arctic

Arctic Alaska is a low, rolling region extending from the Arctic Circle (66° 30°) north to the coast of the Arctic Sea. It is not a barren region of ice and snow. It is covered with tundra and willows and is brilliant with flowers during summer. Its many streams and lakes are full of fish. Over this area roam herds of reindeer, one of the Eskimo’s sources of food and clothing. Also important in the Eskimo’s economy are seal, walrus, and whale. The Eskimo supplements these resources with provisions which he purchases from his own cooperative stores or the local trading posts.

The climate, which is less severe than the Siberian Arctic, is liked by Alaskan Eskimos, the principal inhabitants of the region. There is much rain and fog in summer, with occasional snowfall. But the climate is on the whole dry, with much less precipitation than in southeastern Alaska. The harbors are, of course, frozen in winter, but planes equipped with skis can land anywhere.

There are no large towns in the Arctic, but there are considerable Eskimo settlements at Barrow, Wainwright. Point Hope, and Kotzebue.

Next section: What Are the People Like?