Steve Haycox: Centennial celebrated despite hard times

Steve Haycox

The 145th anniversary of the Alaska Purchase passed quietly this year without much excitement either on Seward's Day, March 30, or Alaska Day, Oct. 18, the first commemorating agreement to the proposed treaty, the latter the official transfer of Alaska to the U.S. at Sitka. The centennial celebration nearly half a century ago was quite different.

Alaska was in dire economic straits as the centennial anniversary approached. Statehood had not brought the economic bonanza some optimists had projected. Instead, the pessimists' more dire predictions seemed to be borne out. Taxes funded only a meager state budget and necessary state services were kept solvent only through bonus payments for leases on gas prospects in Cook Inlet. Walter Hickel had defeated incumbent Bill Egan in a tight gubernatorial race in November 1966 on a platform of more imaginative economic planning and better relations with the oil industry, then concentrating its efforts on the Kenai Peninsula and in the Inlet. In the same election, Republican Howard Pollock defeated Democrat Ralph Rivers, who had been Alaska's lone congressman in the House since statehood.

Spending money to commemorate the centennial of the Alaska Purchase seemed irresponsible under the tight fiscal conditions. Moreover, the state could not expect any revenue from the sale or lease of state lands and resources, as had been anticipated in the statehood grant of 104 million acres of Alaska land to the new state. Lyndon Johnson's secretary of Interior, Stewart Udall, had taken steps that led to an effective freeze on transfer of land title to the state until such time as Native land claims should be settled. It looked rather like the Purchase Centennial would pass as quietly as the 145th anniversary did this year.

But then people began to realize that history could be made lucrative, under the right circumstances. For a variety of reasons, the argument could be made that the Alaska Purchase centennial was a matter not just for Alaskans but of national and even international significance. If enough people in Washington could be persuaded of that notion, there might be money to be had.

What were the reasons? Perhaps first and foremost, the Cold War being still fought by proxy in Vietnam and more than symbolically at the Berlin Wall, the prospect of a Russian Alaska gave people the willies. Then there was the idea of the last frontier, a much more viable image then than now in the era of instant, global communication. Alaska could still be thought of as remote and isolated in 1967, even though the reality was much less than the product of a vivid imagination.

At the same time, 1967 was at the height of the civil rights revolution, just a few years after the new Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. A case could be made, and was, that justice for Alaska Native people, particularly regarding their land claims, was a matter of both national and international concern. In 1967, the power of the new environmental movement was growing, coming just three years after passage of the Wilderness Act. Alaska was just entering broad national consciousness as America's environmental crown jewel.

Armed with these explanations, city and state officials assembled a package of projects that Congress and foundations might fund. The congressional delegation of Sens. Bob Bartlett and Ernest Gruening and Congressman Pollock went to work to give proper consideration to the concept, securing passage of an act authorizing "United States participation in the statewide 1967 centennial celebration, jointly with the State of Alaska."

Everyone knew what "participation" meant. Though a broad range of endeavors eventually were funded through a $4.6 million block grant to the Alaska Purchase Centennial Commission, substantial buildings in Alaska's cities and towns proved to be the most enduring legacy, most still in use. These include the Centennial Building in Ketchikan, and the state library and Centennial Hall in Juneau.

The Alaska State Library and the state Office of History and Archaeology understand that it's not too early to begin planning. Their historical and photographic publication, "The View from the Future -- 2017," will look back at the various building projects from 1967. It's time for the rest of us to get on board as well.

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

Steve Haycox