THE American people have been led to believe that the purchase of Alaska from Russia was a great business bargain. Writers who make this assertion are in the habit of quoting the original purchase price of $7,200,000, without mentioning the fact that the Government since that time has expended some $200,000,000 on the Territory, including about $70,000,000 upon a railroad as an aid to the development of its resources. An Alaskan enthusiast, speaking before a committee of Congress, declared the Territory to be the richest possession under the American flag and the cheapest piece of real estate ever purchased in the history of the world since a certain mythical transaction in Biblical times.
According to this speaker, Alaska ‘has paid for itself in actual wealth 672 times what it cost the taxpayers of the United States.’ Since Alaska has in fact yielded in the market value of its products something more than one and one-quarter billion dollars, a simple operation in arithmetic will disclose the value of such a statement.
After sixty years of ownership, assertions about the Territory should be supported by a substantial showing of developed resources, wealth, and population. But the predicted inrushing of people following the construction of the railroad, the fast-growing cities, the population running into seven figures, have not come true. It is interesting to compare the Alaska purchase with other territories acquired by the United States at various periods of her growth, using for the purpose only the original cost of the purchase.
The total area of Alaska is approximately 586,400 square miles. Its population, estimated liberally, is 60,000, of whom about 30,000 are whites, and the other half natives who were in the Territory at the time of purchase, sixty years ago.
The Louisiana purchase amounted to something over $27,000,000, including the original $15,000,000, plus the payment of certain French spoliation claims with accrued interest. Its total area is more than one million square miles. From this area, about one and four-fifths times the area of Alaska and embracing most of the region west of the Mississippi to the Continental Divide, eleven great states with parts of two others have been carved. Their total population is approximately 21,000,000 and their estimated wealth more than $60,000,000,000. True, we have had Alaska only half as long as the Louisiana territory, but divide the present population and wealth of the latter by two or even three or four, and the results will compare all too favorably with the best that can be said for Alaska. In 1920 the little state of Iowa alone produced, in the value of her farm products, more than the total output of Alaska from all sources from the date of its purchase up to that time, while the state of Louisiana produced furs last year, according to statistics given to the public press, worth five times the value of the furs exported from Alaska in the same year.
Florida, acquired by treaty in 1819, cost the United States $5,000,000, not as a direct payment, but in settlement of claims of our citizens against Spain. Its area is one tenth that of Alaska. Its population is 1,250,000 and its estimated wealth about $2,500,000,000. Figures equally illuminating could be adduced in connection with practically all the other accessions of territory since the birth of the Republic. But the information is available in the Census Bureau and in encyclopædias to anyone who wishes to pursue the subject.
It is not my intention, by comparisons unfavorable to Alaska, to deny or obscure its real value. My purpose is only to call attention to what I believe to be harmful propaganda. Alaska has actually been injured by exaggerated statements concerning its wealth and opportunities. Assertions of this character played an important part in procuring the passage in 1914 of the railroad bill for Alaska. The proponents of the railroad — and they were numerous and well organized — also produced more concrete evidence in the form of samples of minerals and agricultural products, and Congress, unfamiliar with the facts, forgot apparently, for the time being, that one swallow does not make a spring.
I did not oppose the passage of the bill by appearing before any committee or by publishing any views upon the subject, but gave it as my opinion, when asked, that I did not consider it a wise measure on the part of the Government to undertake the construction and operation of a railroad in Alaska: first, because I believed the Government would find itself involved in a very large initial investment with continuing expenditures for a long time thereafter, before any returns would come; second, because I believed, and still believe, that a small percentage of that amount could be expended more advantageously for Alaska in other ways, especially in the building of roads and trails.
The Territory, as described briefly in a report of the Alaska Road Commission, is broken and rugged in many portions; buried under deep snows for a great portion of the year, with the ground thawing in the summer only a short depth below the surface; covered with a blanket of moss and sometimes dense and tangled underbrush throughout the valleys, and intersected by many swift and dangerous streams fed by the ice-cold waters of melting glaciers and snows of the mountains. Travel through the country without some prepared roadway or trail has accordingly been extremely difficult and dangerous always, even for pack animals and for persons on foot, and practically impossible for wheeled vehicles.
The evidence I possessed could not establish a final presumption against the railroad, or determine what it might accomplish in the future. I was forced, therefore, simply to hope that the project might prove of some ultimate benefit if carried out with economy and good judgment. In face of all the arguments adduced in support of the bill and the general enthusiasm created in its favor, and with the approval of the President, Congress could hardly do otherwise than pass the measure and cannot be justly criticized for such action. The same may not be said of the way in which the project Was carried out.
The guiding spirit behind the railroad scheme was the then Secretary of the Interior, whose integrity is not here questioned, but who apparently had little practical knowledge of construction projects.
Of the three persons selected by him to constitute the Alaska Engineering Commission, two had never been in Alaska, and were therefore unfamiliar with the physical conditions in the Territory and unacquainted with its existing stage of development. They entered enthusiastically upon the work of constructing a railroad in this northern region, but they were without adequate knowledge of the factors involved, and whatever idea of economy they possessed, or of the real purpose of the bill as passed by the Congress, remained far in the background. One member of the Commission, the one most familiar with Alaskan conditions, continued a member only during the earlier stages of the work.
The purposes and objects of the railroad, according to the original act, were to provide a supply of coal for the use of the Navy; to provide for the transportation of materials and munitions of war (a remote contingency); and ‘to aid in the development of the agricultural and mineral or other resources of Alaska and the settlement of the public lands therein.’ An open port on the Pacific Coast was to be selected as the first step toward accomplishing these purposes. But the Navy was not consulted as to a suitable place for the delivery of coal, nor was the value of coal which might become available determined in advance. The Army corps of engineers, generally admitted to have expert knowledge of harbor conditions, never was consulted, so far as I know, as to a suitable harbor for military ends. The Commission selected Anchorage, far up Cook Inlet, where the tide has a range of more than fifty feet. The harbor is partially blocked with ice for three or four months of the year and is being rapidly filled up with hundreds of thousands of tons of silt poured into it annually by the Susitna River and other streams.
On shore, however, was an attractive town site, promising ground for a future city. The land was laid out and lots were sold at auction by an agent of the United States Land Office. Many a credulous and hopeful citizen paid at boom prices all or most of his substance for a lot which had only a fictitious and speculative value then and has had practically no value since. The harbor is now virtually abandoned.
The Government purchased a piece of defunct railroad between Anchorage and Seward, on Resurrection Bay, completed the construction of this section, and Seward has now become the terminus of the road. No considerable tonnage can be handled over the rails of this section in their present condition, on account of adverse grades and difficult curves.
The road has cost about twice as much as was contemplated in the original bill, with little more than half the mileage constructed. There has been no charge of graft or misapplication of funds. The excessive cost was due to a lack of understanding of the physical conditions of the country, to an expensive organization, high salaries, and unnecessary construction. War conditions were responsible for a part of the increase over the estimated cost, but by no means all or even the major part of it. After the war there remained only one member of the original Commission, who completed the road with as little further expenditure, perhaps, as possible. He was not in a position of control in the beginning and therefore could not be held entirely responsible for the initial excesses.
More detailed comment or criticism can now serve no useful purpose. We have the road, and it is unthinkable that it should be abandoned, but how to make it pay and at least approach fulfillment of the purposes for which its construction was authorized constitutes the real problem of Alaska. The road is costing the Government, if we may consider the interest on the money invested, approximately $4,000,000 a year to maintain and operate.
Popular assertion has run hand in hand with its appropriate slogan, ‘Develop Alaska.’ Assertion and slogan both were born and have been nourished in the city of Seattle. We heard no such clamor from without in connection with Texas, California, or territories of the Middle West. Why so much about Alaska? A little analysis may suggest that ‘Develop Seattle’ is the true inwardness and meaning of the phrase.
Alaska is considered by Seattle as her own particular protégé and she wants the Territory developed. Money spent by the general Government toward this development or in large construction work there adds to the prosperity of Seattle. There is no crime in this, if the expenditures are made with judgment and in a way to bring substantial results.
The present Secretary of the Interior, who inherited the problem of the railroad from his predecessors, naturally desires the road to accomplish the purpose for which it was authorized and built. Doubtless he is exerting his best efforts to that end, as indicated by a comparison in a recent report of the conditions existing three years ago with those at the present time. He was, nevertheless, constrained to say that the road had not ‘accomplished this purpose; that the expected rush of settlers along the right of way had not occurred, nor had the claim been made good that, with adequate transportation facilities, new mines in the interior would be opened and flourish, resulting in heavy shipments of ore, etc.’ This mild, perfectly fair, and accurate statement provoked, however, a vigorous protest from the Northwest in the form of an open letter to the Secretary, charging him with not being fair, together with several editorials of like tenor.
A possible justification for the prompt defense of the railroad may, however, exist. It is conceivable that Congress might decide to curtail or even suspend appropriations — a most unfortunate decision though it would be at this stage of the development of Alaska. But the best way, in my judgment, to avert such a catastrophe to the railroad would be to lay the cards on the table, accept the facts as they exist, admit the errors of judgment where such have been made, and put the further fight upon unimpeachable grounds. Upon no other basis can success be attained in the end.
The Alaska Bureau of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce is active in gathering statistics and information concerning the Territory and distributing it throughout the United Slates. Most of the information so distributed is accurate and dependable and presented in a form to make the best argument in favor of the Territory. All this, of course, is entirely right and proper. But many persons, even of eminent ability, who devote their energies to the gathering of detailed facts and statistics are unable to draw sound conclusions therefrom. Comparative temperatures in different parts of the country, for example, do not in themselves always furnish a safe index of agricultural production or even comfort of living; and a comparison with other regions somewhat similarly situated may be misleading. The Scandinavian countries, for example, lying within practically the same parallels of latitude, — such as Norway, Sweden, and Finland, — have a combined population of more than 12,000,000 people, but this population has grown and these countries’ resources have been developed, under pressure of necessity, through centuries, beginning far back in primitive history.
There is also sufficient difference in climatic conditions, although the difference in recorded temperatures is not great, materially to affect agricultural production and timber growth. The ‘North Cape Stream,’ a branch of the Gulf Stream, flows entirely around the Scandinavian peninsula, past North Cape, down to the Murman Coast, and then turns northeastward and is lost in the Arctic basin. No ice ever forms at North Cape, whereas Point Barrow, Alaska, in the same latitude, is closed by ice ten months of the year. Portions of this Scandinavian peninsula are mountainous, but there is no continuous range of high mountains along the western coast of Europe to shut off the tempering influence of the Gulf Stream, which extends with diminishing effect far to the interior. The result is an absence of the deep snowfall found along parts of the coast of Alaska, and a somewhat milder and more moist climate in the interior. These differences, slight as they may appear, make for rather better agricultural conditions and produce splendid forests of pine and fir, instead of ‘woodland,’ which properly describes the growth throughout most of the interior of Alaska.
The Alaska Bureau will be alert to defend the Territory against unfavorable comparisons, but facts in the end prove wholesome fare. It may be said that the ‘Japan Current’ does flow through the Bering Sea and that the ice found there in winter north of the Pribilof Islands is merely down on a visit from the Arctic Ocean. Anyhow, the ice is there.
Alaska, after all, is not in need of defense. Her people are not concerned with the question whether the purchase was the best bargain ever made by the United States, or the worst. They know that her resources are ample and varied and they arc concerned in the effort to help develop these resources and to make homes and a living for their families.
The natural resources of Alaska are listed by the Alaska Bureau in the following order: fisheries, minerals, timber, furs, agriculture, reindeer, water power, scenery. I should change the order somewhat if it is intended to represent, which is possibly not the case, the ultimate relative value of these resources, and place scenery first. This is the one imperishable asset of Alaska in the ordinary human estimate of duration, although it is not capable of being measured at the present time in terms of money value. With this beauty of scenery is found a climate wonderfully invigorating and healthful, rigorous at times, yet free from most of the diseases common to warmer, and especially tropical, regions. Many persons prefer a climate of this character. Transportation by sea is good, considering that the country is new, and tonnage and passenger charges along the coast are reasonable. The land transportation facilities are being steadily bettered with improvement and extension of roads and trails. Communication by cable, telegraph, and radio with all settled parts of the Territory is possible, and airplane service has been inaugurated.
The question arises, therefore, and has frequently been put to me, ‘Why has Alaska not gone forward faster?' Mr. Roosevelt in the latter part of his administration had occasion to put some inquiries to me concerning Alaska, and made the statement that he hoped the rich placer deposits of gold, which were then producing many millions yearly, would last long enough for a population to become fixed and other industries established. This seemed to be in a fair way of fulfillment. Rich copper deposits were being opened, large coal areas had been located, and oil discovered of high quality but not in large quantity. The timber of southeast Alaska was known to be abundant and of excellent quality for wood pulp. Mr. Taft, then Secretary of War and recently returned from the Philippines, where he had done much to advance the development of those islands, had become interested in Alaska and was giving hearty support to the work of the Army there. Military posts had been built and garrisoned along the coast and on the Yukon, not so much for military purposes as to help the general progress of Alaska; cable and telegraph communication had been established, under direction of General Greely, Chief Signal Officer of the Army, connecting these posts and the principal towns. Work had begun upon a system of roads and trails throughout the Territory under an act of Congress. (Most of the garrisons have been withdrawn in later years, but the operation of the military cable and telegraph system and the construction and extension of roads and trails continue with marked efficiency under the War Department.) Capital seeking investment was turning its eyes toward Alaska.
Exaggerated stories presently began to be circulated concerning the great wealth of the Territory, especially in its coal deposits. But about this time a blow to its further development was dealt by the withdrawal from entry within a short period of years of its coal, oil, and timber lands. There followed, after Mr. Taft became President, a widespread propaganda under the name of conservation of Alaska’s resources, especially the coal, which became political in its aspect and in its obvious purpose. It was a period of muckraking against corporations and ‘predatory wealth.’ The public mind became excited and confused in its ideas on the subject, not discerning the difference between ‘conservation’ and ‘development’ in Alaska, and accepting the former term apparently as synonymous with ‘trust-busting.’ Large numbers of people throughout the United States were led to believe that they possessed a substantial and definite money interest, payable upon demand, in the coal lands of Alaska, of which they were about to be robbed; also that the country was rapidly approaching a time when the inhabitants would all freeze to death, unless this coal of Alaska was protected for future generations. The arguments in support of this belief were about as sound as those advanced in support of the Malthusian theory of overpopulation.
Investigation followed and it was brought out that two fifths of one per cent of the coal in the United States had been used up at that time. The amount of coal involved in Alaska was about one thirtieth of one per cent of the coal areas already located in that territory. And nobody was trying to steal it! Yet it became almost worth one’s reputation to express an opinion contrary to this prevailing conviction. The field of investigation was in far-away Alaska, then but little known, and the public was easily deluded.
The writer believes in the conservation of our natural resources as he understands the right use of the term, and had no interest in the controversy beyond a natural concern for fair play and a desire to see Alaska go forward; but he had knowledge of the facts and did not hesitate to condemn the whole procedure. It is now almost a forgotten episode, except in Alaska, where the greatest injury was done. Development suddenly began to lag, then threatened to stop. It was the vain hope that the building of the railroad would help to correct this, but capital had become indifferent and sought other fields.
Recently a corporation has gone into the Fairbanks district with plans now well under way for extensive golddredging operations, giving a hopeful outlook in that district for the near future. Some of the proponents and defenders of the railroad claim that this would not have happened except for the construction of the road, and that this fact alone justifies the government expenditure on the project — $70,000,000, with more to come, to enable one corporation to take out its own millions. What a change in point of view!
Alaska needs capital to develop industries and support a population, and the cry that the Government is trying to give Alaska away, which once went up whenever any mention of concession or encouragement to capital was made, is no longer popular. In fact the Government could do nothing better with Alaska, so far as its development is concerned, than to ‘give it away ’ — that is, to grant liberal concessions and encouragement to citizens who are willing to go there, make homes, and develop the resources of the country as the settlers in the great Middle West did. Only such restrictions and reservations as would protect the general interests of the Government, and not measures chimcrically intended to protect future generations from freezing to death, should control the progress of the Territory.
Congress and the departments, apparently under threat and fear of public sentiment, seemed unable for several years to frame laws and regulations under which capital was willing to work. In fairness it must be said that conditions have gradually changed. Oil-leasing regulations became acceptable, and several companies, including the Standard, have expended large sums of money exploring for oil, so far without marked success. The coal has become of little interest except for local uses. Two large contracts for timber for the manufacture of wood pulp have been recently let in southeast Alaska by the Forestry Bureau, and this forecasts a valuable and permanent industry, with much added prosperity to that section of the Territory.
This Bureau was originally much criticized in Alaska. To some extent it is still subject to disapproval in those reserved areas which have little timber of value. But through the courtesy and efficiency of its agents, through the money expended in road improvement in the forest area, and through the present happy outlook for the woodpulp industry, the Bureau has become very popular in southeast Alaska. The development of a wood-pulp industry within the forest reserve of this section of the Territory is of course local and will have no effect upon the railroad or upon general development elsewhere.
Each year, from the Governor’s report and from other sources, come statements of small advances and improvements, with predictions of steady and greater advances in the near future, but these predictions seem slow to materialize.
The question, ‘Why does not Alaska advance more rapidly?’ still seeks its answer.
Considerable ink has been expended in the public press charging that Alaska does not go forward because of the large number of interlocking bureaus and the lack of coördination between them. Some ineffective efforts have been made to change the situation. As a matter of fact, this has very little to do with the state of the Territory. The bureaus function with efficiency and in pretty much the same way in Alaska as in the United States and in the Hawaiian Islands.
I have observed that Secretaries are generally willing to coördinate to the extent of taking over new activities, but are not enthusiastic about giving up any. This is only human nature, coupled with a reasonable pride in the operations of one’s own department. The same sentiment has been observed in the effort for the past three or four years to bring about a general reorganization of the various departments of the government. In Alaska the reorganization of the bureaus might serve to smooth down friction in cases where activities overlap, and perhaps result in some small economies, but can have no material effect upon the development of resources.
Far more effective would be the provision of a single commissioner invested with broad powers, with limitations fixed by Congress, and directly under the President, subject to his final veto; or the investment of the Governor with such powers, backed and supported by enlarged powers in the hands of the territorial legislature. But such a departure in policy lies probably in the realm of the impossible. Washington, speaking generically, would never give up. A solution must be sought, therefore, in paths more familiar in the history of our Government.
It must be apparent that Alaskan affairs have been muddled; too much experimenting and long-range control, not always in competent hands, form the gist of the matter and explain why this adopted child of the Republic has been needlessly backward.
What is the remedy?
Home Rule! I quote from an editorial appearing in the New York Herald of July 5, 1923, entitled ‘Conservation in Alaska’: —
Alaska will never be satisfied until it gets ‘the American chance.’ Some day the Federal Government must take the risk that Alaskans will know how to run Alaska and dispose of its resources. It is better that men grow through self-government than that things should be saved for their descendants through the holding power of a paternalistic government.
Just what changes or modifications might be made in the present territorial form of government in Alaska, I am not prepared here to say, leaving that subject to Alaska’s representative in Congress and to other members of that body, more experienced in political organization and the science of government than I. But I offer my opinion that the local legislature should be relieved of vexatious and obstructive limitations, and given a free hand in Alaskan affairs. The men composing this body know the problems facing them and there is no occasion to keep them in leading strings. They will not see the country looted.
Much has been accomplished during the past three years in the way of reorganization, stabilization, and economy of operation of the railroad. (Report on Alaska Railroad, ‘Then 1923 — Now 1926.’) But no considerable or permanent increase in traffic has occurred. The Secretary of the Interior states that ‘the general manager, located at the railroad’s headquarters in Anchorage, Alaska, has supreme authority over the railroad’s affairs,’ and that ‘the railroad is being managed in the same manner as privately owned railroads in the States.’ A privately owned railroad usually has a board of directors and an executive committee who outline a policy for the road and are responsible for its expenditures. It would seem that such a body might very properly be organized to do this in the case of the Alaska railroad, leaving to the general manager the work of carrying out the general policy and superintending operations.
It would become one of the duties of this board to organize a definite plan of colonization with an office centrally located and agents in different parts of the country. This office or agency should collect and condense all available information concerning Alaska, verify its accuracy, and distribute it in communities where it might be expected to bear fruit. Areas contiguous to the railroad should receive most attention, of course, and especially the Tanana Valley and the region around Fairbanks. It is beyond dispute that the road can never succeed financially or fulfill the purpose for which it was authorized until this valley and the country surrounding and tributary to the interior terminal are populated by a permanent citizenry many times greater than is the case at the present time. The population of this region has declined since the beginning of the railroad construction.
Every inducement should be offered to intending settlers in the way of free railroad transportation of persons, household effects, implements, and animals; some sort of bonus, even, might be given to get them started. The cost of clearing land is high in most cases, as is also the expense of transporting products to market. The cost of transportation will improve with the extension of roads, while the growing towns of the coast engaged in fishing, mining, and other industries will furnish increasing market demands. The United States Land Office at Anchorage has this to say on the subject: —
We do not advise settlers entering upon these lands with the idea of getting their living entirely from the soil while improving their property. Unless the settler has sufficient money to carry him over that period, he must work elsewhere to provide these necessities, not obtainable on the farm. Alaska can absorb the number of settlers each year consistent with the developing of other industries in the vicinity of agricultural districts. With the expansion of these industries market facilities will be increased and the farmer properly supported. This advice is not given for the purpose of discouraging settlement, but to inform the prospective settler correctly as to the present situation.
The last of these sentences should be the guide to all information sent out concerning the Territory.
The present homestead laws appear to be liberal enough, but they should be further liberalized, if it is found advisable, not following necessarily the experiences of the past in other and more favored sections, but seeking what will bring the best results in Alaska.
It would be well if the present United States immigration laws could he amended to permit a larger percentage of immigrants from the Scandinavian countries to move directly to Alaska, and if an agent could be sent to Scandinavia to superintend the business. Immigrants from those countries make excellent citizens and are familiar with the climatic conditions that prevail in Alaska.
With the formation of a board of directors of the railroad and a definite policy agreed upon, Congress might be asked to authorize an issue of bonds upon the railroad in an amount, say, of $30,000,000 to run for thirty years, interest guaranteed by the Government; but only so much of the authorized total to be issued each year, and upon the approval of the President, as might be necessary to carry out the policy of the board of directors and to meet any deficiency in operating expenses. This would obviate the necessity of going before Congress each year for appropriations and would permit sufficient time to determine the value and future usefulness of the road.
It might not become necessary to issue bonds to the total amount authorized, and the traffic of the road might be developed in the meanwhile to a point where its earnings would pay the bond interest. If this could not be accomplished by the end of the appointed period, with the Government then involved to the extent of more than $100,000,000, it might be in order to consider the saving of further expense by disposing of the road for whatever it might bring.
For the present it is essential to save the railroad to Alaska, now that we have it, and to provide for the accomplishment of the purpose for which it was constructed. The proposal to establish a different coast terminal from Seward, bringing the road out at Portage Bay, has been discussed since construction of the road was first begun. The suggestion will probably bring forth expressions of opposition, but no harm can come from the determination of the matter finally on its merits, all the factors involved being faithfully considered.
From the earliest discoveries in this far province of the North through the period of our own possession, the stories of fur, of giant moose, great Kodiak bear, vast herds of caribou, the beautiful inland waterway of southeast Alaska, the fur seal, the salmon, the glaciers, towering Mount McKinley, the broad Yukon, the rich discoveries of placer gold deep under the frost, have gripped the public mind with a romantic interest which is not readily displaced by talk of material development. This sentiment is of substantial value and may be utilized for the benefit of Alaska, and for the pleasure and happiness of great numbers of people.
Let Alaska be offered to the traveling, touring, scenery-loving public. Let the expenditures already made in Alaska, or further required, for the maintenance of the railroad and for the extension of roads and trails be accepted as contributing to this end, just as expenditures are accepted in the States for improvement of parks and highways. Let the plan of Yellowstone Park be followed in a large way without applying its restrictions to the whole Territory. Alaska will then truly become a possession of the American people. It may be used to preserve and protect big game and the countless forms of wild animal and bird life. As the Alaska Bureau states, ‘The last stand of the big game in the dominion of the United States is in Alaska.’ Practically every variety of fur-bearing animal and wild fowl known to the North American continent, all still in great numbers, is to be found there, as well as some varieties not to be found elsewhere.
A policy formed upon such grounds as I have suggested might well supplant the ends enshrined in the traditional ‘Develop Alaska.’ Indeed, development may be well forgotten for the time being, except the development which may take place spontaneously and unaided. Progress of this type should be encouraged wherever it may be found profitable. But the traditional slogan and the new policy are not incompatible. They may be worked together, and the limited territorial government may become a true partner of the general government. When this happy consummation is brought about, ‘paternalism’ will have lost its rancor.