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Historic Alaska newsreels spotlight Last Frontier during territorial days

Laurel Andrews

From Alaska's grizzly bears to the 1953 eruption of Mount Spurr that blanketed the city of Anchorage in ash, newly-released videos of Alaska during its territorial days offer a glimpse of what the world saw of the Last Frontier during the first half of the 20th century. The videos are part of a massive collection maintained by archival company British Pathé, which uploaded the entirety of its historical films -- all 85,000 of them -- to YouTube last week.

British Pathé was once a major player in Britain’s cinema newsreels, news shorts that were played before a feature film. The company reported on events across the world, from the sinking of the Titanic and the destruction of the Hindenburg to the oddities of the era, with archives ranging from 1896 to 1976.

On April 17, the company announced it had uploaded its entire collection of historic films to its YouTube channel in high definition, estimated to contain 3,500 hours of footage. General manager Alastair White said that uploading the archives will help ensure that the films are never forgotten. “Our hope is that everyone, everywhere who has a computer will see these films and enjoy them,” White said.

The Alaska films span mostly from the 1940s to 1950s, heavily focusing on the then-U.S. territory's role in World War II. Several films show footage of work on the Alaska Highway in the 1940s, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plowed through hundreds of miles of Alaska and Canadian wilderness to connect the Last Frontier to the mainland U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the road constructed out of fear that the invading Japanese would occupy the territory if Alaska weren’t connected to the rest of the nation.

One film from 1943 shows the U.S. military stationed in the “lonely land” of Alaska, wearing seal-skin parkas and training in temperatures of 50 below zero. The narrator of the film calls the footage “a familiar army scene in a strange setting” and says Alaska is “not easy country for white men to live in.”

Another video set to dramatic music shows Mount Spurr erupting and Anchorage darkened by a cloud of ash that fell over the city, choking residents with more than 10,000 tons of volcanic ash.

One film is even older. A 1932 silent film titled “The Giant Grizzlies of Alaska” shows footage of grizzly bears catching salmon on Admiralty Island in Southeast Alaska, as seagulls swarm around them. More films -- which show gold miners, aerial footage and scenes of Alaska wilderness -- are available on YouTube.

History buffs can find even more Alaska videos at Alaska's Digital Archives, which offers a vast collection of historical films from state, university and local collections.