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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  Government  >  Making of Alaska
America's New Land
By Jennifer Houdek Page 1 of 2   Next ยป

The people who lived in the newly formed Department of Alaska, and later the District of Alaska, petitioned the federal government for their promised rights of citizenship for decades, to no avail. The United States virtually ignored Alaska until the discovery of gold in neighboring Yukon Territory. Gold miners were already working the streams around Circle and the Fortymile country when the biggest gold boom of all struck in the Klondike. Thousands stampeded north beginning in 1898, accessing the Klondike by following Alaska's Inside Passage northward, or embarking on the Yukon River from St. Michael to Dawson City. Another stampede occurred when gold was discovered on the beaches of Nome in 1899, and soon more gold was found in Fairbanks and Ruby. Other minor rushes followed. The federal government began to realize that the Russian Alaska purchase wasn't such a bad idea after all.

Other natural resources were contributing to the health of the U.S. economy. The commercial fishing industry was flourishing and canneries sprang up. On the Pribilof Islands, Aleuts (Unangan) who had worked in slavelike conditions to harvest seal skins for the Russians continued in their unhappy arrangement, but with a new government in charge. New England whalers in along the Arctic coast freely hunted bowhead whales to meet the market needs of the United States, competing directly with the Iñupiaq whose subsistence depended on the whales.

In 1912, the Second Organic Act was passed by Congress and the District of Alaska became the Territory of Alaska, with a population of about 58,000. In 1916, Judge James Wickersham introduced the first statehood bill; however, it failed. The Jones Act was then established in 1920. The act required that all goods imported and exported from Alaska had to be transported by American vessels only, and routed through Seattle before going on to their destination. This ensured Alaska's dependence on the United States. Because Alaska was still a territory, the fact that one state cannot hold over another's commerce did not apply.

In the early 1900s, Alaska's overland transportation grid was established with the building of the Alaska Railroad and development of crude trails into roads. The Alaska Railroad officially opened in 1923, when President Warren G. Harding drove the Golden Spike at Nenana. The route connected Seward to Fairbanks in an essential corridor for freight and passengers, and with development of roads, the railway now linked the Yukon River with the southcentral coast.

Because of its strategic geographic location, the territory was once again thrown into the limelight during World War II. For the first time since the War of 1812, the nation had to defend itself against foreign attack on its own soil. Japanese forces bombed the U.S. naval base at Dutch Harbor on June 3, 1942, and ultimately, enemy forces occupied three of the Aleutian Islands. U.S. troops responded by attacking the Japanese on Attu Island, and after a prolonged battle, the occupying forces surrendered. Next the U.S. moved to regain Kiska, but discovered that it had already been abandoned. The enemy had escaped into the fog by transport ships.

In anticipation of the attacks, the U.S. and Canada had already begun work on constructing a military highway to link Alaska with the nation's road system. Built in a record eight months and 12 days, the Alaska Highway (then called the ALCAN) stretched 1,523 miles from Dawson Creek, B.C. to Delta Junction, Alaska. This amazing engineering feat was accomplished using 11,000 U.S. troops and 16,000 civilian workers. It was opened to the public in 1948.

With the World War II military construction boom, most of Alaska's cities experienced great population growth. Anchorage's population alone doubled between 1940 and 1945. The war again brought the nation's attention to Alaska's important resources, including minerals, fur-bearing mammals, timber and fish. With the discovery of commercially recoverable oil on the Kenai Peninsula in 1957, proponents for statehood again grabbed the chance to stump for their cause. After an aggressive lobbying campaign by statehood boosters, on July 7, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Alaska Statehood Act into United States law. Alaska officially became the 49th state on January 3, 1959, with Juneau remaining the capital and William A. Egan sworn in as the first governor.

Five years later, Alaska would again make history as the strongest earthquake in North American history occurred on Good Friday, March 27, 1964, at 5:36 p.m. At the time, the quake registered between 8.4 and 8.7 on the Richter scale. The number was later upgraded to 9.2 as scientists were able to refine their measurements. Shock waves from the earthquake were felt 700 miles away and the tsunamis generated by the quake destroyed many Alaska coastal villages, such as Kodiak and Valdez, before reaching Washington, Oregon, and California. Tsunamis even caused damage as far away as Hawaii, Chile, and Japan. Of the 131 deaths that occurred in the 1964 earthquake, 119 were caused by the tsunamis that hit the coasts of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest states.

Historically, Alaska's resource-dependent economy was characterized by boom and bust cycles. Rebuilding after the Good Friday Earthquake created yet another boom for Alaska's young economy.

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Gallery of Images
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Fleet demolished
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Fishermen in boat with nets, 1954
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First truck driving the Alcan from Dawson Creek to Whitehorse, 1942
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Americans and Canadians landing on Kiska
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105-mm gun and crew on Attu
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