Alaska Life

Mud, fires and bootlegging: What daily life looked like in the early years of Anchorage

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

On Nov. 23, 1920, area residents voted in favor of incorporation; it was the moment when Anchorage transitioned from a government-run railroad base into a self-governing town. In many ways, Anchorage’s birth occurred with incorporation in 1920 and not the founding in 1915. This article is the second of four celebrating the 100th anniversary of Anchorage incorporation.

[Read part one: How a young City of Anchorage took shape in the decades after incorporation in 1920]

Last week we looked at the history of local governments in the Anchorage Bowl. This week, we are diving into a little of what life was like in Anchorage around the time of incorporation.

The most important thing to know about Anchorage in 1920 is that much of the energy and hope of the original Anchorage boomtown were long gone. An August 1916, local census found 3,332 residents within the Anchorage townsite, excluding railroad workers or anyone else outside city limits. Conservative estimates suggested around 6,000 total area residents. By February 1917, the number of residents within city limits had ballooned to 5,209.

Then came World War I, disease outbreaks like the Spanish influenza, and decreasing federal support for the railroad project. The 1920 United States Census, conducted after the war and influenza, but shortly before the Alaska Engineering Commission abandoned Anchorage, found only 1,856 residents in Anchorage proper. The Anchorage district, including residents across the Knik Arm from town, totaled only 2,511 people.

Migrant laborers moved on to the next big project, mostly back to the Lower 48. Many of those who made their money off the workers followed them south. Some businesses closed or were sold to others with less grand ambitions. In short, there was easier money to be made elsewhere than in isolated Anchorage, which would not surpass its 1917 population until the early 1940s.

This rapid decline, while common to so many former gold rush towns in Alaska, in Anchorage fed a rapidly growing inferiority complex. An explicit theme in contemporary dialogues was a need to justify Anchorage’s existence. During the 1920s, the local newspaper frequently touted Anchorage’s suitability for families, for anyone considering the move north. A few years later, Fairbanks staged a winter carnival, inspiring Anchorage residents to start their own festival, which became Fur Rendezvous.

Anchorage residents from a century ago were not a different species from those here today. The problems came in different flavors, as did the benefits, but people are people. At their core, their motivations are familiar: money, sex, comfort, prestige and safety.

So, like today, early Anchorage residents complained when the government acted, as with the impersonal rejection of the people’s choice to christen the town as Alaska City. If Alaska City is somewhat generic, it is more rare than Anchorage. There are several American communities named Anchorage, including one in landlocked Kentucky. A century ago, residents also complained of red tape, taxes, sewer quality and the overall lack of democracy.

Like today, early Anchorage residents complained when the government did not act. They wanted more streetlights, a better post office and smoother roads. After overt criminal acts, they demanded an emphasis on public safety.

Amidst the complaints, the big difference between local government then and now? The original city council met on Wednesdays, while today’s assembly meets on Tuesdays.

And residents were also complicated. They complained about vice, but they openly supported the creation of a red-light district immediately outside town, with its government-built access road. In 1915, one woman “alleged to be of the underworld” was told to move to a “less prominent part of town.” She soon had a legion of men volunteering to help relocate her cabin.

Alaskans, those who were allowed, voted to ban alcohol sales in 1917, a prohibition that took effect on Jan. 1, 1918. In Anchorage, children were offered rewards to snitch on bootleggers and still locations. Shops advertised dry alternatives like Bevo, Aro Mate, ginger ale, and the new-for-1920 non-alcoholic version of Budweiser.

Yet, bootleggers prospered, and liquor was freely available. Anchorage was no less than the gateway into the Interior for smuggled liquor. Three modern Anchorage neighborhoods are named after bootleggers: Russian Jack, Spenard and, more obviously, Bootleggers Cove.

An essential aspect of life in early Anchorage not mentioned in other history books or articles you have read is the prevalence of mud. Settlers entered into the mud, worked in the mud and lived in the mud. Not only was the earth churned by horses, motor vehicles and construction, but much of the Anchorage Bowl was already a swamp.

In addition, residents often threw trash into the main streets, including nails, broken glass, open tin cans and other metal debris. This trash sank or was pressed into the mud by traffic, thus hiding it. Many of Anchorage’s earliest cars had their tires shredded by this hidden trash. On the other hand, these motorists were a hazard themselves, splashing pedestrians with mud and swerving onto the sidewalks. The well-informed local ducked inside businesses or hid behind pillars when a vehicle approached. In related history, Anchorage did not require driver’s licenses until 1925.

Getting splashed by a passing car then was not the same as being splashed today. There was the stench. Included in the muddy, brackish water was food refuse and bodily waste, both human and animal. These fetid pools dotted the Anchorage townsite, and the standing water only encouraged the already overwhelming mosquito population. Residents begged authorities to either drain the water or cover it with oil to curb mosquito breeding. However, the Alaska Engineering Commission typically lagged in its response, only worsening local conditions.

Fire was a more serious concern then than now due to rapidly constructed wood buildings, open heating sources and an under-resourced fire department. The first paid Anchorage fire chief came in 1927, 12 years after the town was established. One of the more tempting arguments in favor of incorporation was that residents would be able to maintain fire insurance.

There were several serious fires during those early years. The largest log building in 1916 was the Alaska Labor Union hall. It burned to the ground during the night of Oct. 15-16, 1916, almost certainly arson by local anti-union elements. On May 31, 1921, someone at the Sourdough Pool Room poured gasoline into an already lit heater. Ten businesses were destroyed with estimated damages of $50,000, about $685,000 today.

Five months after the fire at the Sourdough, an overheated smokestack ignited the roof of the railroad’s power plant building. The machinery was a loss, and city lived without electricity for a day. “Anchorage is experiencing the pioneer days of tallow dip candles, kerosene and gas lamps,” reported the Anchorage Daily Times. The following February, a chef used gasoline to clean an oven at the Royal Café. The resulting blaze leveled five buildings. Still, thanks more to luck than anything else, Anchorage has never had a city-wide fire like the 1906 Fairbanks conflagration that destroyed more than 70 buildings.

National and international news frequently dominated the front page of the Anchorage Daily Times. For example, there were regular updates on the Irish War of Independence and Poland’s perpetual troubles throughout 1920. The average literate Anchorage resident then was likely more conversant about international affairs than their modern equivalent. Despite the increased access to information, the average literate Anchorage resident today would be hard-pressed to describe comparable events, like the Oromo or Xinjiang conflicts.

At the national level, race riots, like the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, were guaranteed above-the-fold fodder. The ongoing investigation into the Chicago White Sox, accused of throwing the 1919 World Series, and the violent Palmer Raids against purported communists were popular stories in 1920.

Major stories in the Nov. 9, 1920, Anchorage Daily Times, a century ago, included election results, air travel safety and possible mines. Another article discussed disease control in schools. There was even a lengthy history feature. In other words, there were signs that history rhymes, if not exactly repeats.

Key sources:

Anchorage Daily Times coverage, 1916-1930.

Anchorage 1910-1940, Legends & Legacies. Cook Inlet Historical Society.

Tower, Elizabeth. Anchorage: From Its Humble Origins as a Railroad Construction Camp. Fairbanks: Epicenter Press, 1999.

Walter Todd Diaries, 1915-1918. University of Alaska Anchorage Archives and Special Collections.