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Regional History
Southcentral Alaska

In this section you will learn about:

  • Tourism
  • Agricultural development
  • World War II impact
  • Post-war defense spending
  • Kenai Peninsula petroleum development
  • Overland and maritime transportation patterns
  • 1964 earthquake impact
  • Fisheries decline

Recreation industry grows

After the Alaska Railroad was completed its management encouraged tourism. Adventuresome tourists could take steamship passage from Seattle to Skagway, catch the White Pass and Yukon Railway to the Yukon River headwaters, journey by stern wheeler down the Yukon and Tanana rivers to Fairbanks, and ride the Alaska Railroad to Seward to catch a ship for home. Once the railroad was built Mount McKinley National Park, which had been established in 1917, was more easily accessible. Expecting a rush of tourists, one enterprising man opened a tent camp 12 miles from the Mount McKinley station. The rush" amounted to 34 guests the first season.

Tent camping in Mount McKinley National Park was less popular than lodging at the Curry Hotel, 100 miles south on the railroad, which opened in 1923. Trains stopped there overnight on the two-day journey from Fairbanks to Anchorage. The hotel provided guests with a swimming pool, golf course, and tennis courts.

The First Ascents

The four Fairbanks miners who were the first to reach the north summit of Mount McKinley munched on doughnuts as they climbed the last 10, 000 feet on April 3, 1910. When they reached North Peak-850 feet lower than the true summit-they planted a 14-foot spruce pole and raised a flag. No one believed their tale, however, until the Hudson Stuck party reached the 20,320-foot South Summit in 1913 and saw the pole.

The Stuck party's success capped ten years of attempts to reach the summit of North America's highest mountain. Fairbanks judge dames Wickersham and three friends had climbed to the 8,000-foot level in 1903. The climbers soon found that the Hanna Glacier they had hoped would lead them to the summit ended in vertical walls and abysses.

In the years after Wickersham's climb, polar explorer Dr. Frederick Cook tried twice to reach the summit. Once he followed a route near the judge's western approach, and once he climbed from the south side. In the fall of 1906, he made a 12-day ascent, accompanied by only a packer. Cook brought back photographs that he claimed to have taken from the summit. It seemed unlikely that he could have journeyed the almost 200 miles of trackless wilderness from Cook Inlet, climbed Mount McKinley, and returned in the space of two weeks. While the controversy over his claim still continues, it is generally accepted that the summit photographs were taken on a southeast ridge at an altitude of 5,300 feet.

The climb of 1910 took place in February. The miners were Pete Anderson, Billy Taylor, Charles McGonagall, and Thomas Lloyd. They had expected that the flag they raised on North Peak could be seen from Fairbanks 150 miles away, but it was not. In 1912 artist Belmore Brown followed their route, but bad weather forced a hasty descent within a hundred vertical yards of the summit. A second party attempted the ascent that season, but got no higher than 8,000 feet.

After the Stuck party's successful climb in 1913, the mountain was left alone for nearly 20 years. Even trekking to the base of Mount McKinley was difficult. When the Alaska Railroad was completed in 1923 getting to the national park was much easier. In 1932 a party that included two park rangers climbed both the south and north peaks the first time one party had conquered both summits. The same season the mountain claimed its first victims when two members of an expedition sent to measure cosmic rays at high altitudes died in falls.

Not until the 1960s did the number of climbers multiply. The airplane revolutionized Mount McKinley climbs. Planes that could land on glaciers outside the park gave access to the shorter, safer West Buttress route. The West Buttress route was pioneered by scientist Bradford Washburn, whose wife, Barbara, was the first woman to reach the summit. Washburn's detailed mapping of the mountain helped other parties in their climbs. At the same time, mountaineering equipment became better and lighter, and enthusiasm for wilderness experiences grew. Today many climbers have reached the top of Mount McKinley although almost every year some die in the attempt.

Federal government subsidizes agricultural colony

In addition to encouraging tourism the railroad also directly and indirectly supported permanent settlement, but the population of Southcentral Alaska only gradually increased. The area was still thought to be a good place for agriculture although in 1923 only 90 farms averaging about 15 acres in size each were in operation in the Anchorage, Matanuska, and Fairbanks areas. The railroad made it easier for the scattered farmers to get supplies and to market their crops.

In 1929 the Alaska Railroad opened an office in Chicago and published a pamphlet, "Alaska the Newest Homeland," that was distributed through Midwest farmlands. Steamship lines and other railroads offered special rates to prospective homesteaders. This campaign brought perhaps 110 settlers. Then the federal government stepped in and arranged a mass migration of settlers.In the early 1930s drought and economic depression struck the Midwest. Farmland dried up. Mortgages were foreclosed. The federal government thought Alaska was a place where the farmers could resettle. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration began planning an agricultural colony in the Matanuska Valley.

Supporters of the program thought the agricultural colony would be beneficial in two ways. It would help farm families who had been displaced by the Midwest catastrophe to become self-sufficient again. Also, such a colony would develop the agricultural potential of the Matanuska River valley. Critics of the proposed colony pointed out that for the same amount of money that it would take to bring a settler to Alaska the government could buy a good working farm in Iowa instead. The government went ahead with the plan, however, and 200 families traveled north in 1935.

The Matanuska colony continued to generate controversy. One report noted that crop-land put into production by the new settlers "could have been equaled in the corner of one county of a midwestern state." The experiment was as costly as critics had predicted. Some called it an expensive success. Others saw it as an expensive failure.

The Mail Goes Through

During the 1930s a freight war broke out between a Cook Inlet shipper and the federally-owned Alaska Railroad. The results were good for Southcentral Alaska residents.

The shipper was German-born Heinie Berger, who arrived in Seward in the early 1920s to operate a gas boat. He became convinced that the charges for hauling supplies from Seattle to Southcentral Alaska were unnecessarily high. Berger bought a freighter he named the Discoverer and hauled his first shipload of freight into Cook Inlet in 1929. The trip was a disaster. The Discoverer sank while attempting to land supplies at the mouth of the Kasilof River. Passengers and crew reached shore safely, but ship and supplies were lost.

That might have marked the end of Berger's shipping venture, but it did not. That year he won $12,000 in the Nenana Ice Pool. Bergen used his prize money to build a new vessel, the Kasilof.

Over the next decade the Kasilof, captained by Jack Wilkinson, made dozens of voyages in and around Cook Inlet. The ship carried passengers, mail, horses, machinery, groceries-anything that customers wanted. Bergen launched a second Discoverer in 1932 for the Seattle-Cook Inlet run. Both ships were diesel-powered, and their keels and bows were plated with iron to withstand the inlet's ice. They operated from April to November.

In Anchorage, William A. "Lucky" Baldwin had opened a small grocery store. Baldwin realized that Berger's low shipping rates were an opportunity to lower the prices in his store. Berger brought canned goods, butter, and fresh produce to Anchorage at record low prices. He charged half what the Alaska Railroad charged for hauling goods from Seattle.

Otto Ohlson, the Alaska Railroad manager, bitterly resented Berger's low rates and tried to force him out of business. In one such attempt he rolled his railroad cars across the only road leading from the city dock into Anchorage. Bergen's freight included perishable fruits and vegetables, but the train would not budge. Bergen outwitted Ohlson. Besides the wilting lettuce, his ship's hold contained sacks of mail. Bergen tossed the mail in his truck along with the produce. He informed Ohlson that his train was preventing delivery of the U.S. mail. The road was opened and the precious food delivered to market.

Military build-up increases population

Military build-up just before World War II caused a significant increase in Southcentral Alaska's population. The most important army base in Southcentral Alaska was Fort Richardson just outside Anchorage. The first contingent of 800 men arrived at the new base in June of 1940. The military and civilian populations continued to grow in the months that followed.

An airstrip was built at Cordova (one of a series that marked the coast from Seattle to Cold Bay), and another at Gulkana. Troops were stationed at Valdez to protect and operate the port. More than $4.5 million was spent on coastal artillery emplacements at Seward.

As a security measure, the government built a railroad spur between what became Whittler on Prince William Sound and Portage on Turnagain Arm. The track could be used to keep supplies flowing north if enemy forces attacked Seward. Constructing the 14 miles of track was a difficult job. The army tunneled through the mountains between Turnagain Arm and Prince William Sound. The workers opened the tunnel from both ends. Engineer Anton Anderson's calculations were so accurate that when the time came to connect the two sections of tunnel, the drills broke through the intervening wall only a few inches apart. At Whittler engineers built all facilities needed to make the port a major freight terminal.

New highways link Alaskans

Another war-related project in Southcentral Alaska was the 190-mile Glenn Highway from Anchorage east to the Richardson Highway. This gave Anchorage residents road access to Valdez and Fairbanks for the first time. When the newly-completed Alaska-Canada highway was opened to public use after the end of World War II, it became possible to drive all the way from Anchorage to the Pacific Northwest states.

Several years passed, however, before Kenai Peninsula residents were connected with the new network of highways. The Sterling Highway to Homer opened in the fall of 1950, intersecting a highway from Seward to Hope. A year later, the last section of the Seward Highway, connecting Anchorage and Seward, was completed along Turnagain Arm.

Defense dollars cause boom

In the period between World War II and statehood in 1959, Southcentral Alaska's biggest single industry was defense. The boom in defense spending brought more newcomers. Many of them were servicemen and women who had been stationed in Alaska during the war.

As the population of the Southcentral Alaska region increased so did the need for goods and services. New airfields were built. Commercial airlines started serving the Kenai Peninsula. Anchorage International Airport opened in 1951 to relieve the over taxed facilities of Merrill Field. The Alaska Railroad hauled more and more freight. Between 1940 and 1950 the railroad's earnings rose from slightly more than $2 million annually to more than $15 million annually.

All of this bustle affected Southcentral Alaska's economy. Military construction projects brought thousands of workers to the region. The market for locally-grown agricultural products grew. This gave a boost to the Matanuska colony farms. Better roads made it easier to get crops to market, too.

Oil boom recalls gold rush

Interest in Southcentral Alaska's oil fields resumed after World War II as more sophisticated methods of finding oil were developed. Phillips Petroleum opened the first oil company office in Anchorage in 1954. Others followed. Seismic explorations led Richfield Oil Corporation to the Swanson River area of the Kenai Peninsula. On July 23, 1957 the company struck oil from an 11,170-foot test well on a plot of ground called Swanson River Unit 1. News reports did not miss the significance of the discovery. The departure of [the] first tanker from Kenai loaded with about 100,000 barrels of oil from the Richmond Refinery in California could be considered the modern equivalent in Alaskan news of the Portland's voyage in 1897 with its ton of gold.

Two refineries were built following the 1957 discovery. Cook Inlet oil provided Alaskans with gasoline, diesel fuel, heating oil, jet fuel, and asphalt. A pipeline carried natural gas from the Kenai Peninsula beneath Turnagain Arm to heat Anchorage homes and businesses.

The development of oil wells was clearly beneficial to the economy of the Kenai Peninsula. There was some concern about the development's effect on the wildlife. An executive order had created the 3,000-square mile Kenai Moose Range in 1941. Area conservation groups pushed for the reservation. Although it was originally part of Chugach National Forest, they wanted to insure that the herd, which numbered several thousand, would continue to have the habitat it needed.

As it happened, road construction opened new forage and migration routes. Better browse brought an increase in the moose population. Some also feared that Cook Inlet fisheries would be harmed by offshore drilling activities. Some wells were drilled in middle Cook Inlet, but fishermen in Kachemak Bay successfully fought proposed oil leasing in their area. They contended that oil spills could destroy the growing crab industry.

Transportation networks develop

On Prince William Sound, fishing and transportation continued to provide the majority of jobs for residents of coastal towns. Freighters unloaded their cargoes onto the docks at Valdez and Seward. From Seward freight was carried north on the Alaska Railroad. Valdez developed as a center for the trucking industry.

The Richardson Highway had been a year-round route from tidewater to the Interior for years. In the period before World War II, Alaska Railroad managers saw freight hauled by truck from Valdez as a threat to their operations. A toll was charged at the Tanana River crossing to encourage shippers to use the railroad instead. After World War II, the highway from Valdez to Fairbanks was paved. The Richardson Highway was the major automobile route from Southcentral Alaska to the Interior until the Parks Highway was completed up the Susitna River drainage 20 years later.

Earthquake devastates Southcentral Alaska

While the Parks Highway was still in the planning stages, shock waves from one of history's most violent earthquakes terrorized Southcentral Alaska residents in 1964. Shaking ground that collapsed buildings and fractured the earth's surface caused some deaths, but tsunamis that followed the earthquake claimed most of the 114 victims. Walls of water smashed communities around Prince William Sound where the earthquake centered. A huge wave destroyed the Chugach Eskimo village of Chenega. Of the 90 residents, 23 perished.

Valdez had the highest death toll. The freighter Chena was unloading at the city dock when the earthquake began. Within seconds of the first tremors the dock broke in two. Warehouses flipped forward and vanished into the turbulent sea. Men, women, and children struggled to get off the dock or find something to hold onto. The dock disappeared in an underwater landslide, carrying 30 persons to their deaths.

At Seward a fully-loaded freight train was destroyed and two giant cranes, each five stories high, crashed from railroad docks into Resurrection Bay. A tsunami wave ruptured banks at the harbor's petroleum tank farms. A volcano-like swirl of smoke and flame capped the waves with burning oil. "It seemed like a preview of hell itself," one observer said.

Although fewer lives were lost in Anchorage, the city suffered the most property damage. Nine people were killed and 2,000 left homeless. Damage throughout Southcentral Alaska totaled more than $311 million dollars. Federal officials declared the stricken region a disaster area and provided hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up and rebuild.

Reconstruction strengthened Anchorage's role as a transportation center. After the earthquake, the distribution center for oil and gas switched from Seward to the Port of Anchorage, which had escaped major damage. By the time a new Seward dock was completed there was no longer much need for it.

Fisheries decline

At the same time efforts were being made to rebuild after the earthquake, salmon fisheries in Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound declined. A decrease in catch was partly offset by an increase in the price of salmon. This helped fishermen and canneries stay in business.

Although fishermen's nets caught fewer and fewer fish, biologists learned more and more about salmon migration and spawning habits. With this information they drew up better management plans. The state established new fishery regulations. The type of gear permitted was restricted. The number of commercial fishing licenses was limited.

Other fisheries in Southcentral Alaska showed promising development. Halibut landings doubled in the 20-year period following World War II . Cook Inlet developed as major dungeness crab fisheries. King crabs were harvested in the Gulf of Alaska. Many clam beds in Prince William Sound were destroyed by the earthquake. In addition, a red tide, a poison that periodically affects shellfish on the West Coast, stopped most commercial clam production in the Cordova area. Recreational clamming continued to be popular on Cook Inlet beaches, such as Clam Gulch, that were certified safe.

Tourism becomes important

The recreation and tourism industries in Southcentral Alaska grew in the 1960s and 1970s. A new interest in wilderness developed. At Mount McKinley National Park backcountry use doubled and then tripled. In the Chugach National Forest, Forest Service cabins had to be reserved months in advance. State ferries linked Seward, Whittler, Valdez, and Cordova with Kodiak, Homer, and Seldovia and were popular with tourists.

Summary questions

  1. Why did people fear for Alaska during World War II?
  2. What facilities were built in Southcentral Alaska during World War II?
  3. What is the importance of the Glenn Highway?
  4. Why did a rise in salmon prices come at the same time as a decline in the amount caught?
  5. List some ways that federal dollars have supported Southcentral Alaska.

Inquiry questions

  1. Make a chart showing the development and improvement of transportation in Southcentral Alaska.
  2. Interview people who actually experienced the 1964 earthquake.
  3. Research the importance of tourism to one or more parts of Southcentral Alaska.

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