Alaska: Our Deep Freeze



HISTORIANS, looking for the modicum of good accompanying the tragedy of war, may well have cause to consider what is happening to the Territory of Alaska. This northern province, extending from a point 700 miles north of Seattle to within sight of Siberia, has entered increasingly into our national consciousness as the war has progressed — first as the objective of Japanese aggression, next as an important take-off point for attacking Japan, and finally as a haven for war veterans.

Alaska contains, roughly, the physical equivalent of the Scandinavian countries — which support 13 million people. Here, then, may be the frontier for the lack of which (as economists told us in 1933) depressions occur. But Alaska has been part of our economy since 1867; and if, in the urgency of 1933, Alaska did not assume the role of frontier, is there any reason to believe she will serve any better in postwar years? Alaska is one-fifth the size of continental United States; yet her present population (excluding armed forces) is about 80,000. For many years it wavered around 60,000, one-half this number being natives.

The story of Alaskan frustration goes back to the time of our purchase of the region from Russia in 1867. Of the $7,200,000 paid for Alaska, $5,800,000 went for Russia’s naval demonstration in American waters. This was during the Civil War, and England favored the Confederacy. As a scare to keep the British away, Russia was induced to send her navy to our East Coast. The Union was grateful for Russia’s help. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a song of appreciation to the nation “Who was our friend when the world was our foe.” But the fact that Alaska had been purchased for the paltry sum of $1,400,000 was not generally known then, and the purchase was unpopular. “Seward’s folly” became a stock joke.

“Let us pay the sum of $7,200,000 to any respectable European, Asiatic, or African power,” proposed Representative Ferriss of New York, in 1869, “which will accept a cession of the territory.” His colleague, Chanler, a Democrat, chimed in with the suggestion that Alaska would make a good penal colony; while Broomall, a Pennsylvania Republican, wisecracked: “Would not that make the territory Democratic?”

Eventually, of course, the truth began to appear. In 1871 a quiet rush started into the Cassiar district in British Columbia, which is reached through southeastern Alaska. Some 30,000 prospectors went up the Stikine River in the next ten years; and by 1883, $5,000,000 in Cassiar gold had been taken out. By 1896, on the eve of the yet unsuspected Klondike find, the entire financial return from Alaska to its new owners was close to $100,000,000. Gold production had approached a total of $15,000,000; furs, still the leading resource, had brought $35,000,000; and fishermen had begun to haul from the sea a greater source of wealth than gold: salmon.

Congressmen could afford to wisecrack about Alaska in 1869; but in 1896, cold statistics no longer permitted them to do so; and finally, in 1897, the Klondike forever disposed of the notion that the purchase of Alaska was “folly.”

With the destruction of the myth of worthlessness, however, another myth arose. The steamer Portland arrived in Puget Sound on July 17, 1897, “with a ton of gold”; and Alaska at once became the national enthusiasm. Scrubwomen and bankers, from New York to San Francisco, dropped what they were doing and caught passage for the Far North. It is estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 people invested in some way in the Klondike. Some 60,000 of them literally stampeded for the gold ground itself.

Alexander MacDonald, “King of the Klondike,” came out with $5,000,000, the largest single Klondike fortune. Hundreds of others struck it rich, too; and the subsequent hoop-la of dance halls, roadhouses, and fancy girls has echoed down through the years. The thousands who tasted bitter failure were soon forgotten. After the Klondike was worked out and the shouting had subsided, however, accountants soberly balanced total Klondike investments against total production and found a net loss. You can’t mine gold without “an outfit,” grub, and transportation to the gold ground. This investment is a total loss if you fail to find gold. Jack London was a Klondiker who never dug any gold. Rex Beach did a little better at Nome: he was said to be the only college man able to pay his way home.

But the romance panned out enormously well. The Yukon (where life is unbearable in summer without a mosquito net) was found to have a “spell.”Hollywood is still mining that lode. And where Jack London, Rex Beach, and Robert Service left off, Barrett Willoughby and Father Hubbard began. It seemed that the truth about Alaska would never be known. Whereas popular novels and travelogues sold by the million, authoritative works by men like Vilhjalmur Stefansson and Aleš Hrdlička sold a few thousands.

The gold rushes did accomplish something: they put Alaska into the national consciousness, even if in distortion. They brought a population and spread it widely. Those who caught the gold fever did not lose it readily. Thousands who stayed got a deep faith in the country. Up and down the creeks they prowled with their gold pans and mosquito netting and sourdough batter. There was plenty of game. Once you learned to be a Daniel Boone you liked it. They were finding gold here and there — enough to renew their grubstakes yearly. And they found more: along the coasts was abundant timber; outcroppings of coal were extensive; in the valleys lay rich soil. They thought they saw the makings of a northern economy.

The usual distortions filtered back to civilization. After the miracles of the Klondike and Nome the public must not be disillusioned; and Alaskans did not hesitate to make Paul Bunyan stories out of the truth. But they had no government, no adequate laws. No one was quite sure whether he owned the land he claimed. At Nome a corrupt judge and his cohorts had bilked thousands of people. “Government by injunction” became a term of derision.

Petitions were circulated and sent to Washington. They demanded representation in the national legislature and local government at home. But Washington paid no attention. On March 3, 1905, at Valdez, where the overland trail set out for Fairbanks, the citizens held a mass meeting and sent the following telegram to President Theodore Roosevelt on the eve of his second term: —

On behalf of 60,000 American citizens in Alaska who are denied the right of representation in any form, we demand, in mass meeting assembled, that Alaska be annexed to Canada.

The Valdez telegram alluded to the fact that the Yukon Territory in Canada already had elected a member in the Canadian parliament at Ottawa, on a platform demanding that the Yukon legislature, then half elective, should become entirely so. Alaskans of 1905 were keenly aware of Canadian affairs, for the Klondike, tied closely to Alaska socially and economically, is in Canadian territory. At once newspapers all over the United States editorialized in sympathy with Alaska as “the neglected dependency.” In his fifth annual message to Congress, President Roosevelt stressed “the one recommendation of giving to Alaska someone authorized to speak for it.” When it came to fashioning a government to fit the territory, however, there was little agreement — and least of all in Alaska.

The Alaskans got together, not in Alaska but in Seattle, in November, 1905, at a meeting which a Seattle newspaper reporter dubbed a “convulsion.” The modest miner and the homesteader were not in evidence so much as were the mining promoters and would-be politicians who thought they saw a good thing. Bona fide delegates were few; the majority were “Alaskans” by reason of absentee claim to mining property in Alaska. For eight days pandemonium reigned.

Instead of writing a platform for Alaska and sending a delegation to Washington with definite instructions, the convention wound up by selecting three delegates and sending them with no instructions. They were: a promoter of small transportation companies from Nome, who favored a commission form of government; a Seattle ship captain who had never seen the interior of Alaska; and a former governor of Alaska who was an ardent supporter of home rule. The three delegates went to Washington, talked to President Roosevelt, and testified before Congressional committees; but each delegate had a different plan. The net effect of the three was only confusion.


INDUSTRY in the United States in the first decade of this century was based largely on coal. Oil and hydroelectricity had yet to come into their own. Owners of coal lands in the States, therefore, had a good thing; and they intended to keep it. They were completely taken in by the stories of Alaska’s fabulous coal deposits. Louis Glavis, an investigator for the Department of the Interior, stated the popular belief when he said that “practically the future coal supply of the United States” lay in Alaska. No one bothered to ascertain that Alaska coal was inferior, or to consider how it could be transported to the States except at a loss. The flat “ fact ” that Alaska coal threatened the mines of Pennsylvania and West Virginia was enough. Today it seems ridiculous; but in those days it was a deadly serious matter. As far as the Eastern coal interests were concerned, this threat had to be removed.

The country was in a current enthusiasm for conservation of natural resources. “Someone discovered,” says Jack Hellenthal, a Juneau attorney, “ that there was just enough coal to last the world for 6000 years. After that the situation would be truly alarming.” Therefore Alaskan coal must be conserved. No one stopped to think, Hellenthal has pointed out, that you can’t conserve an ounce of coal by keeping it in the ground. There is just so much coal in the world, and when it is used up it will be gone. The number of coal mines has nothing whatever to do with the rate of consumption. That depends on the number and kind of coal furnaces.

The enemies of Alaskan development felt they must work fast. Congress had passed the Delegate Bill in 1906, giving Alaska one representative in Congress, with voice but without vote. Private capitalists not connected with the Eastern coal group were undertaking three different railroad lines from the coast into interior Alaska. Copper and tin had been added to the list of Alaska’s riches. Seattle, the gateway port, anticipated a boom and in 1909 was putting on the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Alaska truly seemed to be going places. She must be stopped.

Gifford Pinchot, Chief Forester under President Theodore Roosevelt and President Taft, was not only an Eastern coal baron but also a spark plug for the conservationist movement. Pinchot took the lead as a self-righteous crusader and had, furthermore, built up a powerful propaganda organization. His first act in the Alaskan melodrama was to create forest reserves, which had the effect of locking up the most valuable and extensive Alaskan coal deposits. Alaska was stopped — almost.

Pinchot had not acted quickly enough to prevent nearly 1000 claims from being staked on Alaskan coal lands under existing laws. Applications for patents on 600 of these had been filed. They were already on their way through the Department of the Interior. To nullify them, there was only one course: the claimants must be shown to have filed fraudulently. They were so charged. Patenting was held up. Richard Ballinger, Secretary of the Interior, here entered the scene. Ballinger was from Seattle and he found it difficult to believe that all 600 Alaskans were crooks. He sought facts and found little basis for the fraud charges.

When it became apparent that Ballinger was about to pass favorably on the patent applications, the hounds were set on his trail too. Charges of dishonesty and corruption were hurled at him from all sides. The Pinchot propaganda organization went to work on him in earnest. Ballinger was tried and found innocent; he was investigated by the Senate and cleared; but so effective was the smearing by the conservationists that he was utterly condemned in the court of public opinion. He resigned in 1911. Only in 1940, eighteen years after his death, was Ballinger exonerated. Secretary Ickes had the files ransacked and declared Ballinger’s complete innocence.

Ballinger was replaced with a Chicago politician named Fisher, who promptly denied all the patent applications but two. Thus 598 Alaskans out of 600 were branded dishonest. There were repercussions. When Canadian coal was shipped into Cordova in 1911, the outraged citizens dumped it into the bay. The “Cordova coal party” aroused the sympathy of the press but accomplished nothing. The forest reserves remained. Alaska and her vast riches were to be held in reserve until Eastern capital was ready to open them up. The railroad ventures were dropped. Some 20,000 Alaskans left the territory.

Those who stayed in Alaska after “the great exodus” were those who happened to have paying gold mines; those who were too broke to pay their way out; those who had “gold fever” and saw only one hill separating them from another Klondike; those who had sought refuge from justice in Alaska (of whom there were a considerable number); and those who were selling something to the rest of the residents. They were a pretty hopeless lot; yet the hopefuls among them kept up a desultory fire at Washington. In 1912 the Cordova city council wired President Taft: “We are already bankrupt waiting legislation. Must we migrate?”


IN THE same year Congress passed the home-rule act at last, providing Alaskans with self-government. Alaska thus became an incorporated territory, which means she is marked for statehood. (Hawaii has the same status.) A territorial legislature was elected, but the legislators knew that any act they might pass would be subject to Congressional review. Their first one was enfranchisement of Alaskan women. There were not many women in Alaska, and if they could do any better for Alaska than the men, they were welcome to try.

“Pinchotism,” as the Alaskans dubbed conservationism, had not laid its curse on minerals, fish, or agriculture. Alaska’s lopsided economy began to work itself out. In 1911 the Guggenheims completed a railroad from Cordova to Kennecott, where they opened a rich copper deposit. Originally there was to have been a smelter at Cordova, fueled with Alaskan coal; when this became impossible the smelter was abandoned, but enough high-grade copper ore was found to make shipment to Tacoma profitable.

The Guggenheims set up their own transportation system — the Alaska Steamship Company — to haul the ore and, incidentally, to monopolize shipping to Alaska while charging Alaskans exorbitant freight rates. “Guggenheimism” was added to “Pinchotism” to thwart Alaska.

World War I brought a flurry of activity to Alaska — over and above the usual salmon canning and gold mining — chiefly in the production of airplane spruce and chrome ore. To facilitate matters at this time (1916) a leasing system for coal, oil, and timber lands was inaugurated; but Alaskans saw the joker: an unfriendly administration could play hob with those leases. By this time, anyhow, the country was changing to oil for fuel, Alaska coal had been tested and found inferior, and hydroelectric power had begun to supplement both oil and coal.

Early in his administration President Wilson appointed a commission to study a proposed government railroad from tidewater to the interior. In 1923 this line, the Alaska Railroad, running 470 miles from Seward, farthest-north ice-free port, to Fairbanks, was finished. Rolling stock from the Panama Railroad (abandoned after the Canal was completed) was brought up for use in Alaska; and President Harding drove the golden spike, dedicating the line to the development of interior Alaska. Alaskans crossed their fingers and waited for the worst.

It was not long in coming: Congress laid down the policy that the railroad must pay its own way. The transcontinental railroads had been enriched for all time by gifts of alternate mile sections of land — they had, however, brought in the settlers for little or nothing, had even given them seeds for first plantings. No wonder the West got started quickly. But Alaskans had to pay their way, not only for 1800 miles of high Alaska Steamship Company rates, but 470 more by rail to Fairbanks.

Finally, in 1940, t hanks to the war boom, the railroad showed a profit. Colonel Otto F. Ohlson, hard-bitten Washington emissary whose sky-high freight rates did the trick, has become the most hated man in interior Alaska. An effort was made to use the Richardson Highway, later constructed from Valdez roughly parallel to the railroad to Fairbanks; but this was no sooner started than tolls were put on the highway to prevent its taking business from the railroad. Fortunately, the tolls wore abolished when the Tanana Bridge replaced the ferry.


ALASKANS did not realize it, but they were beginning to knock themselves out with their own whoppers. They believed them, now; but the rest of the country did not. The hilarity of Valdez in 1905 and Cordova in 1911 came to be replaced with an obstinate truculence, persisting to the present. But in recent times, more truth than hysteria has been coming out of Alaska. In 1910 a Seattle promoter could talk of the Yukon and Kuskokwim valleys as future Mississippi and Missouri basins; but the Seattle promoter had not been there. The late Aleš Hrdlička, after spending several seasons in those regions, said (in 1930): —

The first inevitable conclusion, brought home again and again, is that this is not yet a white man’s country. The river is truly one of the greatest and finest in the world; there are aside of the large affluents many small clear streams that provide excellent water; there are many nooks and banks and raised flats where habitations up to small towns could be established and where sufficient ground could be cultivated; the salmon and greyling, the wild fowl, and a little game, would help much in providing needed food; yet the region is not fit for any material white settlements.

In 1910 the Arctic regions of Alaska were considered worthless except for whaling; but in 1921 it was the opinion of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who had lived in the Arctic for several years, that here was one of the most valuable meat-producing regions in the world, where reindeer, caribou, and ovibos (musk oxen) could be pastured in vast herds. In the latter 1920’s an attempt was made to popularize Alaskan reindeer meat in the States. The venture was successful until violent opposition arose from the cattlemen of the Northwest.

Vital contrasts between the West’s development and Alaska’s stagnation appear as one gropes his way through Alaskan history: the West was understood, Alaska was not; transportation to and from the West was cheap, transportation to and from Alaska was costly; legislation favored development of resources of the West, legislation locked up Alaska’s resources; the West controlled its economy, Alaska has been controlled by bureaus 5000 miles away.

Statehood obviously would solve many of Alaska’s problems; yet when Senator Langer of North Dakota arose April 2, 1943, to introduce, for himself and Senator MeCarran of Nevada, S.951, a bill to provide for the admission of Alaska to the Union, Alaskans made few moves in support of it. Alaska’s Delegate, Anthony J. Dimond, it is true, introduced a companion bill in the House. But he got, in the way of support from home, only a handful of Chamber of Commerce resolutions.

Alaska, according to thirty-five precedents, should be ready for statehood if her people want it. She has served seventy-seven years’ apprenticeship (New Mexico, longest a territory among the present states, remained so for only sixty-one years); and Alaska’s population (72,524 by the 1940 census) has long been greater than that of several states at the times of their admission, as the following table shows: —

Nevada 6,857
Colorado 50,000
Oregon 52,288
Illinois 55,211
Wyoming 62,549
Missouri 66,586

But statehood today is not so easily achieved as in the roaring days of the Wild West. Hawaii, long a clamorer for statehood (and with 423,330 population), has got only as far as the holding of Congressional hearings in the Islands in 1935 and a plebiscite in 1940, resulting in a two to one vote for statehood. Alaska, without showing a fraction of Hawaii’s determination, can hardly hope to get to first base.

Alaskan merchants see in statehood the specter of competition. The salmon packers, Big Business of Alaska, who collectively maintain a strong lobby in the Territorial legislature, have until the present opposed statehood; they know it will bring higher taxes on their $50,000,000 annual pack, which accounts for more than half of Alaska’s yearly wealth.

The most recent session of the Alaska legislature was conducted in true frontier style. The Senate meetings, especially, were a continuous brawl, with name-calling and fist fights; and at the last there were not enough members present for a quorum, so the session was adjourned. There will have to be a special session, because the lawmakers passed appropriations with great abandon, but did not levy taxes to cover them. They did manage to pass some forty bills — a referendum on statehood and an anti-racial-discrimination bill among them.

The attitude of present-day Alaskans —the old, dispirited leftovers from gold-rush days — is unimportant. Hope for Alaska lies with the Alaskans of tomorrow, who may be arriving soon.


Thousands of soldiers, sailors, and construction workers have had a rare opportunity to become acquainted with the Territory. Most of them, fretting at their enforced presence, have acquired a violent dislike for Alaska; but a considerable number have been able to transcend their personal dislocation and to see in Alaska a land of the future. They believe, like Vilhjalmur Stefansson, that “if you would pioneer in the Abraham Lincoln style, the cost would be practically nothing. You’d arrive with an axe and a few tools. You’d hunt and fish, make a clearing, build a cabin, then till some ground. If you’re willing to do that the only cost is your work. There is an abundance of game and fish. You could get along just as the New England colonists did.”

If Alaska again becomes a land of pioneers, her people — the new ones — may again get pioneer determination to have a hand in their own affairs. The important thing, of course, is first to get the pioneers. There are splendid possibilities in Alaska for small enterprises that can be started on a moderate cash outlay. An oar factory started by one man in Ketchikan today is doing a land-office business. Furniture, which is almost prohibitive in price in Alaska because of high freight rates, can be manufactured easily in Alaska from local timber; yet there is no furniture factory in Alaska. Boats are used by the thousands in Alaska, and there is an abundance of suitable timber for boatbuilding; yet only a few boats are built in the Territory. No doubt there are many other lines in which a pioneer spirit would be richly rewarded.

LET us suppose that — as seems probable — thousands of new residents will come to Alaska after the war. If they are to stay, certain fundamental conditions now lacking must be provided.

Most important of all is cheap transportation. Alaska’s present high-cost transportation system must be modified, enlarged, controlled. Its transformation should include: (1) a ceiling on freight and passenger rates over water routes, similar in regulation to that enforced by the Interstate Commerce Commission in the United States; (2) a subsidy for the Alaska Railroad, thus removing the necessity for high freight rates; (3) removal of all highway tolls; (4) construction of a 150-mile highway link from the upper end of the Inside Passage across to the Alaska Highway, thus combining the useful part of the Highway with cheap water transportation (most of the Highway being doomed to abandonment anyhow); (5) extension of feeder roads from existing highway systems; and (6) inclusion of Alaska in Federal highway fund allocations.

There is now strong agitation for construction of a highway from Prince George, B.C., to Whitehorse, Y.T., which would connect Seattle with the Alaska Highway. This is desirable but expensive, and probably would not accomplish so much as the 150-mile link.

Post-war plans should not overlook, either, the huge investment in harbors, docks, cold-storage facilities, and radio stations in Alaska, which can be turned to good account. A survey of all wartime construction in Alaska, with a view to converting it to peacetime use where military consideration does not interfere, would be a godsend to the development of the Territory.

For a good example, look at the Aleutian Islands. This area, shunned for years as one of the most dangerous to shipping in the world, is now fitted with war-necessitated navigational aids, such as the radiobeacon stations and accurate charts common to regular shipping lanes. Weather in the Aleutian Islands (and elsewhere in Alaska) is not the worst in the world, despite the hysteria of some war correspondents who have gone there for a few weeks and returned as “experts.” Shipping can now be carried on in this, one of the finest fishing grounds in the world, thanks to the war’s donations.

Any housewife can recall seeing Japanese crabmeat on her grocer’s shelves before the war. It came from these waters. Bering Sea halibut and cod banks have hardly been touched. Sheep thrive on the Aleutian Islands and their wool is of superior quality.

The traditional urge in Alaska, generated through years of economic frustration, has been to “make your stake and then get out.” If present conditions continue, this urge will remain. Nothing could be more antipathetic to expansion, for no commonwealth has yet been built by a population that wants to go somewhere else. There is much significance in the sourdough aphorism: “There are three sides to Alaska — inside, outside, and Morningside.” Morningside is the home for Alaskan insane, in Portland, Oregon.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, after his 1944 trip through the Aleutian Islands and down the Alaskan coast, declared he would inaugurate a study of Alaska as a place in which war veterans might settle. With this aim there should be no quarrel. With its execution, however, there should go great care. Settlement in Alaska should not be a tour de force. The Matanuska colony, scooping its settlers willynilly from relief rolls of the Middle West, has proved how expensive the forced kind of settlement can be.

It will be better to make Alaska attractive to those determined spirits who have been there and would like to return. For this kind of settlement there are certain broad requisites. One of these — widespread realization of what Alaska really is like — is being accomplished by the war. Three more broad, important steps remain, which fall naturally into an order of urgency: (1) cheap transportation; (2) revised Federal regulation; and (3) statehood. Given these conditions, a present-day Horace Greeley might well advise: “Go North, young man!”