Steve Haycox: Feds have played a vital role in Alaska since the purchase

CommentOctober 3, 2013 

The shutdown of the federal government this week presents an opportunity for attention to Alaska's historic dependence on the feds. There are two articles of faith in Alaska's popular culture that contradict that dependence, of course. The first is that the people who built Alaska did so on their own, not only without help but in spite of misunderstanding and obstruction by the federal government. The second, corollary to the first, is that Alaskans would have built a better, freer society if the federal government had simply left Alaska alone, left it to the good people who had the courage, adventuresome spirit and risk-taking capacity to migrate here. Neither of these popular propositions is true; neither is consistent with Alaska's real history.

We can begin with Alaska's natural resources. It was not sourdough prospectors combing the landscape for remunerative mineral prospects who initially identified Alaska's gold, silver, zinc, lead, oil and molybdenum deposits; it was, first, the U.S. Army exploration teams, and then painstaking work by the U.S. Geological Survey. Early in the 20th century the survey published several hundred professional papers describing the resources of every geologic province of Alaska. When they went prospecting, most sourdoughs carried in their packs not only a collection of USGS professional papers, but also George Costigan's compendium of U.S. mining law, partly to help prevent the chaos resulting from conflicting claims.

Federal services for Alaska Native people began early also. From 1885, the Alaska Native Service, originally lodged in the U.S. Bureau of Education and moved to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1931, first provided day schools, then later several boarding schools and orphanages, then subsequently a medical and dental division, and also government monitored cooperative stores, and, further, a marketing service for Native arts and crafts, to prevent abuse by usurious private traders. As Dr. Robert Fortuine explained in his superb study "Must We All Die," it was the government's concerted program, anchored by the Native Service Hospital in Anchorage, that finally conquered tuberculosis, which had been an endemic plague among Alaska Natives from before contact. Today's Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, funded by the federal government and administered by a Native health consortium, is the legacy of that campaign.

The sourdough image of the independent Alaskan is rooted in the Klondike and subsequent Alaska gold rush era, from 1896 to 1917 (gold rush production peaked in 1906). But the gold rush rested on a foundation of services provided by the federal government. First, the U.S. Army established posts along the Interior river system to provide emergency food and health care for prospectors and to maintain order. The U.S. Army Signal Corps built a telegraph line and connection to Seattle to put Alaska miners in touch with the country and the world. Congress provided a legal (civil and criminal) code for the territory and appointed judges to adjudicate law. James Wickersham established his reputation among Alaskans by providing judicial stability in the Interior mining camps. The federal government established a wagon road, the Richardson Highway, to facilitate the movement of goods into Alaska, and then the federal government built and operated the Alaska Railroad from Seward to Fairbanks, the only federally owned and operated railway in the history of the frontier. The government provided countless other services in the era, all of which were demanded by the prospectors and townspeople who looked to the federal government for support and aid.

During the Great Depression, Alaska was kept afloat by the various federal services established by the New Deal Congress and brought to Alaska through the assiduous work of Alaska's delegate to Congress, Democrat Anthony Dimond. Anchorage's first city hall and its first paved streets were funded by generous New Deal federal grants.

During World War II and the Cold War, the bulk of Alaska's economy consisted of federal spending. Today, the one-third of Alaska's economy that is federal spending comes in four principal areas: conservation unit management, Native services, military, and basic infrastructure, such as highways, ports and airports.

There's been no time in Alaska history that its people did not benefit from federal largesse and the stability it provided, perhaps for us a powerful lesson of today's political debacle.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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