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Alaska Life

1920 was the year Anchorage voted to become a self-governing town. Not everyone was happy about it.

  • Author: David Reamer
    | Histories of Anchorage
  • Updated: November 16, 2020
  • Published November 15, 2020

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, Alaska District Court Judge Fred Brown certified the results of an earlier election and declared the creation of the City of Anchorage as an incorporated community. Brown’s order 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 third of four celebrating 100 years since Anchorage’s incorporation. Last week we looked at what life was like in Anchorage a century ago. This week, we are diving into the incorporation itself.

According to most residents — and noted scholar Wikipedia — Anchorage was established in 1915. That was the year honored in 1990 when Anchorage enjoyed a 10-day Tent City Festival, 75 years after the original tent city along Ship Creek. And the Anchorage Centennial was accordingly celebrated in 2015.

A1970 medallion commemorates Anchorage's first 50 years. (Photos by David Reamer)

However, Anchorage’s Golden Anniversary Celebration, so ordered by Mayor George Sullivan, came in 1970, 50 years after 1920. That November, there were contests, races, a play, anniversary displays in stores, and a “50th birthday party” banquet featuring past mayors. There were even commemorative tokens minted, marked with the Nov. 23, 1920, birthdate. By comparison, 1965 passed with minimal notice given to the 1915 establishment of Anchorage 50 years prior.

Identifying a city’s birth year can be surprisingly complicated. Take, for example, Portland, Oregon. There were settlers in the area as far back as the early 1840s, but the city’s official birthdate is Feb. 8, 1851, when Portland was incorporated. As for Anchorage, a 1915 birth year only acknowledges the creation of a federally controlled railroad base. There are other contenders with arguments. The Alaska Railroad Act of 1914 was a pivotal moment that led directly to the creation of Anchorage. Thus, Anchorage could, from a certain point of view, be considered as born in 1914. And there were settlers in the Anchorage area for several years before 1914, including Thomas Jeter, for whom Lake Spenard was previously named.

Of course, any arguments in favor of 1914, 1915 and 1920 conveniently ignore the Anchorage area’s far lengthier Alaska Native history. Dgheyay Leht, the Dena’ina fishing camp at the mouth of Dgheyaytnu, predated the tent city opportunists by centuries. Dgheyaytnu translates as Stickleback Creek and was renamed by settlers as Ship Creek.

Still, there is not a democratic, independent and home-ruled Anchorage until 1920. Incorporation changed the path of Anchorage history, and the process was as predictably contentious as any other major decision in local history.

During the summer of 1915, the Alaska Engineering Commission, empowered to construct and operate the Alaska Railroad, oversaw the auctioning of lots for what is now downtown Anchorage. The patents for these lots required the AEC to provide essential public services and municipal oversight. That requirement expired in 1920.

By the summer of 1920, AEC leadership had made it clear they would withdraw from city oversight. After five years of continuous resident complaints, some AEC members enjoyed the opportunity to hoist locals by their own petard. At one public meeting, an AEC official allegedly declared that a failure to create a new government “would mark the population of Alaska as being political hypocrites.”

To create a self-governing Anchorage, residents would have to incorporate the town. In short, incorporation establishes the legal authority of its elected officials to govern. The first step was a petition of at least 60 residents to the appropriate district court judge, which was submitted on July 13. As noted in the petition, “the maintenance of an organized municipal government . . . should be of material and continuing benefit to the community.”

Sixty-two residents signed the incorporation petition, a not-insignificant percentage of the town’s roughly 2,000-strong population. Some of the names on the petition have lingered in town, like Loussac and Bragaw. Oscar Anderson, of the Oscar Anderson House Museum, was another signatory.

That September, Judge Brown traveled from Valdez to Anchorage to personally listen to resident arguments for and against incorporation. The next day, he approved the petition and ordered a Nov. 2 election to determine whether Anchorage would incorporate.

With the election a month and a half away, and seemingly little else to do, residents established a new Anchorage tradition of political strife before visiting the polls. The Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, the most powerful civic organization, passed on making a recommendation. Some leaders begged the AEC for more time, to delay the election for several months. Anonymous letters circulated encouraging residents, especially the more blue-collar laborers, to vote against incorporation.

Concrete planning for Anchorage’s future mostly fell by the wayside amid the constant debates. An Anchorage Daily Times editorial declared, “Anchorage has been advised of the change and has had ample time to prepare. The government has been more than fair in the way of civic improvements. There is no parallel to the case. Yet we are practically groping in the dark and getting nowhere.” By comparison, Sitka was also incorporated in 1920 with little fuss and by a comfortable 134 to 7 margin.

If Anchorage residents declined incorporation, there would have been no fire department, street maintenance, sewer repair, guaranteed electricity or local law enforcement. Without a fire department, residents would have been unable to purchase fire insurance, a crucial need in a town prone to major fires. As for the state of local law enforcement, the city was already the crime capital of Southcentral Alaska. After incorporation, the first and third Anchorage police chiefs were killed in the line of duty.

Some of the most vociferous objections to incorporation came from those with land at the distant edges of town. The Anchorage Daily Times summarized their complaints as a “disinclination to pay for what they characterized as improvements in the business section of the city while outlying sections ... did not enjoy these advantages.” The language used in 1920 is quite similar to modern complaints from some of the municipality’s more far-flung neighborhoods. But in 1920, the distant edges of town meant what is now Gambell Street, and their argument that they could not enjoy improvements to the rest of Anchorage was unconvincing.

There was no compelling argument made against incorporation other than personal desires to avoid taxes. Incorporation empowered a town to levy taxes, and on that point alone was a controversial choice. Frederick Mears, the AEC’s chief engineer, wrote a lightly critical letter on the subject published in the newspaper shortly before the election. Said Mears, “Are we to say to the United States government: ‘Do not start anything in Alaska unless you expect to keep it going for our benefit out of the national treasury indefinitely?’”

To pass, two-thirds of voters had to approve incorporation. Despite the local drama, the measure indeed passed, 328 in favor and 130 opposed. The same election also chose the seven-member city council, who subsequently selected attorney Leopold David from their midst as Anchorage’s first mayor. Some discrepancies in the count delayed the final result, until approved by Judge Brown on Nov. 23, finalizing the incorporation process.

Despite repeated claims, then and throughout the years since, of frontier individualism and sturdy pioneers, Anchorage was dependent upon federal support. Incorporation did not significantly alter this reality. Though the federal government, via the Alaska Engineering Commission, no longer dominated Anchorage’s development, they remained a crucial bulwark for the city. Notably, the federally operated Commission Hospital on Third Avenue remained the city’s only hospital until the original, downtown Providence opened in 1937.

In those early Anchorage years, no railroad would have meant no town. Before Anchorage was established, the town of Knik across the Knik Arm was the population and economic center of the upper Cook Inlet. But Knik faded into oblivion after being bypassed by the Alaska Railroad. That would have been Anchorage’s fate if not for the federal government, to be another abandoned Alaska boomtown, like Amalga, Long, Sulzer, Sunrise, Tofty and many others.

Key sources:

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

Anchorage Daily Times.

Anchorage Daily News.

Kari, James, James A. Fall, and Shem Pete. Shem Pete’s Alaska: “The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena’ina,” revised second edition. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 2016.

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

Wangsness, Paul H. “A History of the Unification of the City of Anchorage and the Greater Anchorage Area Borough.” Anchorage: Anchorage Urban Observatory, 1977.