Colonial Alaska   Leave a comment

Alaska had a population of about 58,000 in 1916 when James Wickersham, former federal judge, then a delegate to Congress, introduced Alaska’s first statehood bill. It failed due to lack of interest on the part of Alaskans. Not even President Harding’s 1923 visit to the Territory could create sustained widespread interest in statehood. Efforts to amend the Second Organic Act, which had not (as advertised) extricated Alaska’s fishing industry from the influences of the “Fish Trust,” took up a great deal of time and energy but ultimately proved fruitless.

Some Congressional legislation was overtly discriminatory to the Territory. The U. S. Maritime Act of 1920 (commonly referred to as the Jones Act, after its sponsor, Senator Wesley Jones of Seattle) stipulated that all commercial ships travelling between American ports had to be American-owned and American-built. That sounds good, right?

Not for Alaska. All merchandise entering or leaving Alaska had to be transported by American carriers, which meant that all shipping had to go through Seattle. The Supreme Court ruled that, because Alaska was not officially a state, the Constitution’s provision that one state should not hold sway over the commerce of another did not protect Alaska. Routing ships through the Canadian ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert would have been much cheaper for Alaskans because under the Court’s ruling, the Jones Act allowed Seattle business interests to charge much higher than average prices for shipping, which raised the cost of living in Alaska and funneled Alaskan dollars out of the Territory and into the pockets of Washington businessmen. I suspect Senator Jones’ pockets were well-lined with the wages of Alaskans just trying to fill their pantries.

Other territories (such as Hawaii) controlled their own fisheries, but the salmon industry was able to prevent this transfer of power to the territory of Alaska in 1912, leaving various federal agencies — Treasury, Commerce and the Interior departments — running the salmon fishery.  They didn’t do a very good job and the fishing cartels were often permitted to trap the entire mouth of salmon rivers for a year or more at a time, thereby threatening the fishery viability in the “distant” future. If salmon cannot make it upstream to spawn, there are no salmon in about seven years. The White Act of 1924 (referred to as the “Magna Carta of fishery conservation” by both federal officials and industry spokesmen) favored the big companies’ fish traps and worked against development of small operators in Alaska because they couldn’t afford to meet the regulatory guidelines. It also prohibited subsistence fishing within commercially-designated streams.

Alaskans themselves played a hand in the confusion. Compounding national discrimination were regional conflicts among the territory’s judicial divisions, which further blurred the focus on statehood. Under the conditions of the Second Organic Act, Alaska had been divided into four divisions, each with a capitol city

  • First Judicial division (southeastern Alaska) at Juneau
  • Second Division (northwestern Alaska) at Nome
  • Third Division (southcentral Alaska) at Valdez, and later at Anchorage
  • Fourth Division (the interior) at Fairbanks

The Southeastern division, or “Panhandle” region, had the largest population of the four regions and began investigate becoming a state separate from the other three less-populated divisions. Government control over Alaska was the primary concern. Over 52 federal agencies had a hand in the daily workings of Alaska! Exasperated, Congressional delegate James Wickersham declared “there actually exists today a congressional government in Alaska more offensively bureaucratic in its basic principles and practices than that which existed here during the seventy years of Russian rule under the Czar.”

Under the Coolidge administration, there were federal attempts to streamline administration, but these couldn’t overcome the unfair Congressional legislation and really had little success in changing the bureaucratic control over Alaska’s development. The exploitative resource industries of the contiguous states still had the power to completely withdraw the sources of livelihood for most Alaskans. They maintained this power through the willing cooperation of corrupt DC politicians and Washington State business interests.

The Depression hit Alaska hard as prices paid for fish and copper, the territory’s two chief commodities, declined. In an attempt to manipulate the gold standard, Roosevelt also shut down gold mining in Alaska and made it illegal to own gold privately. Miners couldn’t buy food because their gold essentially became worthless. Between 1929 and 1932, the work force in Alaska decreased by more than half, and wages dropped. Help came from New Deal programs such as the National Reforestation Act of 1933 (which brought my brother’s father to Alaska, which would lead to the family relocation here after the War) and various Public Works Administration construction efforts.

Most famous of the government efforts in Alaska during the Depression is the 1935 Matanuska Valley colonization scheme. President Franklin D. Roosevelt imagined that Americans from depressed agricultural areas could be transplanted to Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna region and given a fresh chance at agricultural self-sustainment. Around 1,000 colonists were selected from some 15,000 applicants — largely from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota (which is what gave Alaska a strong Midwestern influence, hence Sarah Palin’s accent) on the assumption that the similar climate of these areas to Alaska would best prepare settlers for life in the North.

While the New Deal aided Alaska, it took an event of much greater scale and purpose to truly bring the Territory onto the national stage. As early as 1933, Delegate Anthony J. Dimond had recognized Japan as a threat to America’s security and asked Congress for military airfields and planes, a highway to link the territory with the United States, and army garrisons. Telling his colleagues in the House of Representatives that Japanese fishermen off Alaska’s coast were actually disguised military personnel scouting out information on Alaska’s harbors, Dimond pleaded that Alaska was as much a key to the Pacific as Hawaii and must be defended. Nobody listened to him until just before the outbreak of open hostilities. In 1940, Congress appropriated money for military installations, but it took the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the 1942 occupation by Japan of Attu and Kiska islands on the Aleutian Chain for military mobilization to begin in earnest. Billions of dollars in defense spending came into the territory with the construction of the Alaska Highway, the recapture and eventual fortification of the Aleutian islands, and the construction of military bases throughout the state. Often military bases were placed with little or no regard to existing homesteads. Unable to demand recompense via imminent domain, Alaskans were sometimes impoverished by these takings.

The Alaska Highway stretches 1,500 miles from Fairbanks, Alaska to Dawson Creek, British Columbia. The construction took only eight months and twelve days! To the right is a good example of what it looked like in 1943.

In 1940, about 1,000 of Alaska’s 75,000 residents were military. By 1943, 152,000 out of 233,000 belonged to the armed forces stationed in Alaska. There was a post-war drop in population to about 99,000 in 1946, but Cold War military expenditures pushed it back up to around 138,000 by 1950. The war years irrevocably changed Alaska and, many believe, influenced the debate for statehood.

Attention in the national press increasingly raised awareness about Alaska’s situation. Richard L. Neuberger described the territory in Newsweek as a “feudal barony” where the absentee-owned mining and fishing corporations took out millions in natural resources and left next to nothing behind in the form of social and economic benefits. Alaska was a “looted land.” It became increasingly obvious that keeping territorial government and tax structures to a minimum benefitted Seattle-area interests such as the Alaska Steamship Company and the Northland Transportation Company, who enjoyed an effective monopoly on steamship travel and shipping and charged unusually high rates.

To be sure, some Alaskans benefitted from the situation too. Alaskan businessmen, such as Austin E. “Cap” Lathrop, a quintessential “capitalist” who owned the Suntrana Coal Mine in Healy and several businesses in Fairbanks, were able to benefit greatly from the minimal taxes and argued against statehood for fear that its’ stricter tax laws might diminish their position. Territorial status was not working for Alaska, but many Alaskans weren’t convinced statehood would fix anything. The anti-statehood faction had a powerful hold in the Territory, and might have quelled the issue were it not for two especially vigorous pro-statehood advocates, Ernest Gruening and E. L. “Bob” Bartlett.

Ernest Gruening, an Easterner with a history of progressive politics, had served as publicity director for Senator Robert M. LaFollette’s presidential candidacy in 1924 when LaFollette polled five million votes but lost the race. Gruening traveled and worked in Mexico and Europe before serving as editor of The Nation until he was appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 to run the fledgling Division of Territories and Island Possessions. In 1939, FDR appointed Gruening to the territorial governorship of Alaska.

Edward Lewis “Bob” Bartlett, with whom Gruening was to work closely for the next quarter-century, had served as secretary to Congressional delegate Anthony J. Dimond, remaining in Washington until 1934. Bartlett operated a placer gold mine for a while before President Roosevelt appointed him territorial secretary of Alaska in January 1939. In 1944, Bartlett ran for and won the position which Wickersham and Dimond had held–Territorial Delegate to Congress. Beginning in 1945, Delegate Bartlett acted as Alaska’s only representative in the halls of Congress.

These two men, their friendship and their association with progressives in Washington DC were what would propel Alaska toward statehood in the 1950s.

Posted December 28, 2013 by aurorawatcherak in Alaska

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