(Well, some of it anyways)
The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 and on October 18, formally took control in the Russian America capital of Sitka. The financial decline of the Russian American Company, paired with the Crown’s uncertainty it could defend its North American holdings, forced Alaska’s sale. William H. Seward brokered the Alaska purchase for $7.2 million; his decision was unpopular as public opinion considered the investment worthless.
The United States was too preoccupied with Reconstruction efforts following the Civil War to devote any energy to the colonization of the Alaska acquisition. Russians residing in Alaska at the time of its sale were given a three-year deadline to determine whether they wanted to become American citizens or to return to a homeland many had only heard about. Relations quickly deteriorated between the remaining Russians and the U.S. soldiers charged with imposing American rule. Already feeling abandoned by their own government, the majority of Russians now felt neglected by the United States, a perception which hastened the decision for many to set sail for Russia.
See our Alaska Museums page.
Indigenous Alaskans were also confused by the recent land transaction and justifiably wary of American soldiers. It became quickly apparent that, with few exceptions, Americans had no desire to colonize this mysterious land with its rugged terrain and harsh climate. Something more tempting would entice newcomers: gold.
The Alaska Territory:
Alaska remained relatively unknown until the end of the 19th century when the Gold Rush lured tens of thousands of prospectors and adventurers to Alaska and the Yukon. As a consequence, small towns sprang up along the trail to supply those hoping to strike gold. Alaska was now billed as the “land of opportunity.”
In 1906, Alaska was authorized to send a voteless delegate to Congress. Six years later on August 24, 1912, Alaska gained official territorial status and was authorized to elect a local legislature. However, the federal government retained the power to appoint the Territorial Governor and it tightly controlled legislative activities. In contrast to every other organized territory, Alaska was not given jurisdiction to regulate its fish, game, and fur resources. Alaska’s limited population, remote location, and dicey relations between the indigenous population and American colonists complicated Alaska’s path to statehood.
The journey to statehood began in 1916 when James Wickersham, the Alaska Delegate to Congress, introduced the first statehood bill. The bill failed; neither Alaskans nor Congress supported any measure which would further formalize the relationship between the territory and the federal government.
Alaska captivated the nation in 1925 when dogsled teams successfully traveled through harsh winter climate to relay a diphtheria serum from an Anchorage hospital to the isolated village of Nome. As a result, Nome’s outbreak was contained and the successful mushers and sled dogs became national heroes. Held annually, the Iditarod dogsled race commemorates this historic journey and gives competitors from around the globe a chance to mush 1,049 miles from Anchorage to Nome.
Like many areas of the nation, the Great Depression significantly impacted the Alaska Territory. The price drop of Alaska’s then two greatest commodities, copper and fish, disabled the territory’s economy. The Federal Relief Administration, a part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, proposed a solution to the territory’s over-dependence on fish and copper: agricultural development. Simultaneously, New Deal aid offered Midwestern farmers hit hardest by the Depression a chance to begin anew. In 1935, the Matanuska Colonist Project funded 203 farming families and granted them the responsibility of introducing agricultural ingenuity to the fertile grounds of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. Located in Palmer, the Alaska State Fair celebrates the colonists’ fall harvests of 1936 and has matured into a statewide summer destination.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II spurred Congress to evaluate the vulnerability of Alaska’s global positioning. Japan invaded Attu and Kiska Islands on the Aleutian Chain, prompting the U.S. Government to increase its military presence and expand Alaska’s transportation system. Deemed a military necessity, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers traversed over old roads and trails and linked the inhospitable terrain between British Columbia, Canada and Fairbanks, Alaska. Miraculously, completion of the Alaska Canadian Highway took only 8 months. Alaska was no longer considered an irrelevant territory but a strategically located military buffer.
Journey to Statehood:
In the years following World War II, many Alaskans were disturbed by the fact that territorial status had not improved Alaska’s infrastructure, medical facilities, or community services. Moreover, the sentiment of being governed by a body thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C. did not sit well with the independent mindset of many Alaska pioneers.
Alaska Territorial Governor Ernest Gruening and Congressional Delegate Bob Bartlett spearheaded the statehood movement in Washington, D.C.; meanwhile local movements in Alaska had finally taken root. In 1949, the Alaska Statehood Committee was founded, merging populist and political efforts. In 1955, Alaska’s Territorial Legislature authorized the formation of a constitutional convention. Elected by Alaskans, 55 delegates assembled and drafted a constitution to be adopted should the territory be admitted as a state.
Emboldened by the constitution’s popularity, impassioned Alaska politicians tirelessly lobbied Congress for statehood. Eventually these efforts paid off. On January 3, 1959, President Eisenhower signed the official declaration and Alaska was admitted as the 49th state of the Union.
The 49th State:
Following statehood, a number of significant discoveries and unique incidents occurred in Alaska. In 1964, the largest earthquake ever recorded in the northern hemisphere shook Alaska. Recorded at a 9.2 on the Richter Scale (Moment Magnitude), the Good Friday Earthquake triggered destructive tsunamis as far away as California. In Southcentral Alaska, the quake ripped through the ground and unleashed catastrophic damage to many towns and cities.
As with the Klondike gold rush earlier in Alaska’s history, oil shaped the economy of Alaska shortly after statehood. In the 1960s, oil companies began to explore Prudhoe Bay and the surrounding area. Production began with the completion of the Alaska Pipeline in 1977. A year prior, in 1976, Alaskans amended the state constitution to establish the Permanent Fund to invest the income from mineral resources.
Alaska is the only state that is both in North America and not part of the 48 contiguous states; about 500 miles of Canadian territory separate Alaska from Washington. Alaska is the largest state in the United States in terms of land area, 570,374 square miles. If you superimposed a map of Alaska on the Lower 48 states, Alaska would stretch from Minnesota to Texas, and from California to Georgia.
Alaska, with its numerous islands, has nearly 34,000 miles of tidal shoreline. The island chain extending west from the southern tip of Alaska is called the Aleutian Islands. Many active volcanoes are found in the Aleutians. For example, Unimak Island is home to Mount Shishaldin, a moderately active volcano that rises to 9,980 ft above sea level. The chain of volcanoes extends to Mount Spurr, west of Anchorage on the mainland.
North America’s second largest tides occur in Turnagain Arm just south of Anchorage, which often sees tidal differences of more than 30 feet.
Alaska is the westernmost state in the Union. The Aleutian Islands actually cross longitude 180°, though the International Date Line doglegs around them to keep the whole state in the same day.
See Map of Alaska in 1895
The state’s 2003 total gross state product was $31 billion. Its per-capita income for 2003 was $33,213, 14th in the nation. Alaska’s main export is seafood. Agriculture represents only a fraction of the Alaska economy. Agricultural production is primarily for consumption within the state and include nursery stock, dairy products, vegetables, and livestock. Manufacturing is limited, with most foodstuffs and general goods imported from elsewhere. Employment is primarily in government and industries such as natural resource extraction, shipping, and transportation. Military bases are a significant component of the economy in both Fairbanks and Anchorage. Its industrial outputs are crude petroleum, natural gas, coal, gold, precious metals, zinc and other mining, seafood processing, timber and wood products. There is also a growing service and tourism sector.
The cost of goods in Alaska has long been higher than in the contiguous 48 states. This has changed for the most part in Anchorage and Fairbanks, where the cost of living is actually less than some major cities in the Lower 48, thanks to lower housing and transportation costs. The introduction of big-box stores in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau also did much to lower prices. However, rural Alaska suffers from extremely high prices for food and consumer goods due to the lack of transportation infrastructure. Many rural residents come in to these cities and purchase food and goods in bulk from warehouse clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club. Some have embraced the free shipping offers of some online retailers to purchase items much more cheaply than they could in their own communities, if they are available at all.
Alaska is arguably the least-connected state in terms of road transportation. The state’s road system covers a relatively small area of the state, linking the central population centers and the Alaska Highway, the principal route out of the state through Canada. The state capital, Juneau, is not even accessible by road. One unique feature of the road system is the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, which links the Seward Highway south of Anchorage with the relatively isolated community of Whittier. The tunnel is the longest road tunnel in North America at nearly 2.5 miles and combines a one-lane roadway and train tracks in the same housing. Consequently, eastbound traffic, westbound traffic, and the Alaska Railroad must share the tunnel, resulting in waits of 20 minutes or more to enter.
The Alaska Railroad runs from Seward through Anchorage, Denali, and Fairbanks to North Pole,with spurs to Whittier and Palmer. The railroad is famous for its summertime passenger services but also plays a vital part in moving Alaska’s natural resources, such as coal and gravel, to ports in Anchorage, Whittier and Seward. The Alaska Railroad is the only remaining railroad in North America to use cabooses on its freight trains. The route between Talkeetna and Hurricane (an area between Talkeetna and Denali) features the last remaining flag stop train service in the United States. A stretch of the track along an area inaccessible by road serves as the only transportation to cabins in the area. Residents board the train in Talkeetna and tell the conductor where they want to get off. When they want to come back to town, they wait by the side of the tracks and “flag” the train, giving the train its name.
Most cities and villages in the state are accessible only by sea or air. Alaska has a well-developed ferry system, known as the Alaska Marine Highway System, which serves the cities of Southeast and the Alaska Peninsula. The system also operates a ferry service from Bellingham, Washington up the Inside Passage to Haines. Cities not served by road or sea can only be reached by air, accounting for Alaska’s extremely well-developed Bush air services-an Alaskan novelty.
Dogsled as Transportation?
Another Alaskan transportation method is the dogsled. In modern times, dog mushing is more of a sport than a true means of transportation. Various races are held around the state, but the most well-known is the Iditarod, a 1,150-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome. The race commemorates the famous 1925 serum run to Nome in which mushers and dogs like Balto took much-needed medicine to the diphtheria-stricken community of Nome when all other means of transportation had failed. Mushers from all over the world come to Anchorage each March to compete for cash prizes and prestige.