|Much further than a stone's throw from
anywhere, Alaska has a history of access through the money found in deep
pockets. The first non-Native person to discover this area was Captain
James Cook in 1778, with the funding of the British Admiralty intent on
their search for the elusive Northwest Passage. Though Cook Inlet was not
what he hoped for, it impressed the explorer with one of the greatest
fluctuating tides in the world (39 feet); springtime bore tides with six
foot high walls of water moving at 10 knots or better. Also greeting Cook
and his crew were the Alaska Range (topped by Mt. McKinley, highest North
American peak) and the Chugach Range with its 13,000 foot vertical rise
bordering the east side of what was to become a metropolitan city.
After Captain Cook, it was Secretary of State William Seward who in 1867 "discovered" Alaska and prompted the United States Government to purchase the territory from the Russians for $7.2 million (about 2 cents per acre). It took 101 years and the first major oil discovery for "Seward's Folly" to be recognized as an asset. The Russian presence can still be seen in Anchorage's historic churches and throughout the surrounding area. St. Nicholas Church in the nearby town of Eklutna was built in the 1830s and is the oldest building within the Anchorage municipality. The Eklutna Historical Park offers a glimpse of a combined Russian Orthodox and Athabascan Indian settlement.
It took more government money to motivate the arrival of the first white pioneers in Anchorage, though once there they needed little encouragement to stay. Beginning in 1914-1915, and hot on the heels of President Woodrow Wilson's authorization of the first federally funded railroad, 2000 Americans flooded the Ship Creek valley looking for federal employment. This massive and undeveloped but resource-rich territory lacked transportation; legislation allocated funds to build a railroad 474 miles in length from Seward to Fairbanks, passing through Anchorage. The city was a coin's toss away from being named "Woodrow" or "Anchorage's Knik" before the 1915 decision of "Anchorage." The first land plots were sold in 1916 for $25 and the Pioneer School was built immediately. Businesses began spreading across the newly organized Fourth Avenue, where they remain today, and residents expanded north and south from the original tent city of Ship Creek.
A truly wilderness city in the beginning years, moose and bear regularly crossed through downtown streets, ignoring their new neighbors but appreciating the varied and accessible food sources of growing vegetables, compost piles and garbage heaps.
Among the founding fathers of the city who arrived in these early years was "Zack" Loussac, who came to Anchorage in 1916 and opened a drug store on Fourth and E downtown. He served three terms as mayor and created the Loussac Foundation, which quickly built the lovely three story Z. J. Loussac Library in midtown. His foundation went on to give grants to the Alaska Pacific University and the University of Alaska, Anchorage schools as well as the Anchorage Community Theatre.
Another founder and baseball fan William Mulcahy found employment as the Alaska Railroad's station auditor assistant and in his spare time helped to establish the Anchorage Baseball League in 1923. He also introduced Little League baseball in 1950, helped establish the city's YMCA and worked ceaselessly to help the Salvation Army. The Mulcahy Park stadium and ball field were named in his honor for his selfless and tireless promotion of recreational organizations and facilities for young people.
Aviation is a more common source of transportation here than anywhere in United States, with six times the average private pilot's licenses and 14 times as many private planes per capita. The Merrill Air Strip averages 800 takeoffs and landings of private planes each day during the summer and was named in honor of one of the city's aviation pioneers, Russel Merrill, who flew many heroic missions. One of these was to an outlying village for a lifesaving medical rescue in 1927. Returning to land in Anchorage at night and without runway lights, people in town edged the airfield, now known as The Delaney Park Strip, listening for the plane's engine. When the engine was heard in the distance, they lit bonfires, flares and old tires and turned on the headlights of their cars edging the runway to help Merrill navigate the landing. The school teacher he saved with this flight recovered from her gunshot wounds while Merrill, several years later at the age of 32, crashed in a mountain pass during a solo flight to Bethel; the pass was later named in his honor.
Since the first arrivals, adventurers and explorers have been drawn to this area more than 2400 driving miles north of Seattle, Washington. The 1400 mile Alaska/Canada highway (ALCAN), built in 1942 as a World War II emergency route, offered an easy, if rather long, access road to Alaska's largest city. From a population of 4229 in 1940 to 11,253 in 1950, the city slowly grew.
In 1954, with Alaska still a Territory, supporters of statehood traveled to Washington D.C. to pound their fists on President Eisenhower's desk and demand that his voiced encouragement of Alaskan statehood be brought to the House Floor, not just announced in private conferences. But the President desired his Republican majority more than he did the addition of this promising Territory with Democratic majority. Unable to sway the President, the route to statehood took a different turn. In 1958, some House and Senate members were persuaded to vote in favor of statehood after the persuaders acquired some information into their private affairs and generously offered to publicize the information broadly; this served to topple the scales at last and Alaska became a state in 1959.
Anchorage's first few years in the new state, remained relatively quiet from a business and resource development standpoint, then it was dealt a devastating blow. In 1964 North America's largest recorded earthquake, measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale, released 10 million times more energy than an atomic bomb and centered in Prince William Sound approximately 60 miles southeast of the city. Amazingly, Anchorage's damage included only nine lost lives although a school fell 30 feet, the Turnagain neighborhood dropped into the Inlet, the brand new downtown JC Penney's store lost a corner of its building, and streetside buildings toppled onto parked cars. Almost immediately after this earthquake, and in spite of the 65 million dollars of damage, the soon-to-be governor Walter Hickle built the Captain Cook Hotel to demonstrate the continued prosperity of Alaska's largest city, which then had a population around 30,000.
The real changes didn't occur until 1968 when the far north Prudhoe Bay began to develop its oil fields. Prudhoe Bay's first year earned $900 million in North Slope oil lease sales. Within two years Alaska's gross products doubled and after three years, the 800-mile Trans-Alaska pipeline was finished. Development projects around the state, including the oil fields in Cook Inlet and nearby Kenai Peninsula, added to the economy and population of Anchorage. The tremendous outpourings of the oil fields led to the formation of the Alaskan Dividend Fund in 1980, decreeing that a portion of the royalties earned by the oil companies is distributed equally among the residents. Beginning in 1983, the distribution of royalties among all residents was $1000 per person. Each year in the fall residents receive their check, which since 1997 has been for more than $1500.
Growing in leaps and bounds between 1970 and 1980 the population soared from 48,000 to 174,000 with rascals, adventurers and (fortunately) business people. Catering to the transient and cash rich, predominantly male population, the red-light district of Spenard flourished with massage parlors, brothels and streets littered with sparkling girls in skimpy outfits. Fortunately this decade also brought investors, serious about Alaska's future, who arrived with money for development. Though the Spenard District has been reformed and the genders are more equally represented, there is an old favorite saying of local women: the odds are good, but the goods are odd.
Anchorage has been the starting point for the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race since 1973. Watched via television and the Internet worldwide, the 1100 mile race travels across two mountain ranges and follows much of the trail used in 1925 to deliver 300,000 life-saving units of diptheria serum to epidemic-threatened Nome. Another major event, the Fur Rendezvous Festival, started as a fur trading event and "fixer of the winter blues," and has since been labeled the Alaskan Mardi Gras bringing in fans from many countries. One of the largest annual winter festivals in the United States, it began in 1936.
Now home to more than a quarter million residents, city planners continue to focus on Anchorage's natural beauty and accommodate its native wildlife. Immediately next to the city, and within the municipality boundary, is the 500,000-acre public access Chugach State Park wilderness area. Throughout the city you will find more than 190 parks, trails and gardens, and they continue to offer forested havens and access to wildlands and wildlife similar to that seen by the first pioneers. Even now, the moose still garden, the bears like to take out the trash, and lately, bald eagles and wolves are showing a fondness for small pets.