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Anchorage

Now it can be told: 100-year-old ledger sheds new light on Anchorage in 1915

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published June 14, 2015

In July 1915, the public had its first chance to buy land in what would become the city of Anchorage. Men and women congregated in a muddy, buggy open space, peered at maps of the wilderness 100 yards up the hill from them, counted their dollars, made calculations and vied to get a piece of Alaska straight from the federal government.

The details of who bought what and how much they paid are contained in a 100-year-old ledger book now in the hands of Merle Akers, a former Alaska Railroad employee. Flipping through the brittle, aging pages is like taking a time machine back to the day when the tent city on Ship Creek turned into a town.

On the first day of the sales, July 10, L.O. Nyberg put $275 down on a lot at the future Fourth Avenue and C Street, today the parking lot for Big Ray's/Army Navy Surplus. The total purchase price was $825, one of the more expensive purchases made that day. The government had assessed the lot at $400.

Leopold David, who would become the first mayor of Anchorage, paid $575 for a lot at Fifth and C. Oscar Anderson bid $700 for a lot at Fourth and D. H.W. Nagley bought two lots at Fifth and B for $395 and $245 respectively.

The July 10 event was the first of a succession of sales that ran through the week. Others followed in August and November 1915, in 1916 and 1917. They include the Original Townsite lots, the core of downtown, plus the South Addition, East Addition and Third Addition properties. The last dated entries in the book are from July 27, 1922, when blocks were transferred to the newly organized City of Anchorage for government use, parks and "aeroplane purposes."

The bureaucratic title of the ledger reads: "RECORD, SALE OF LOTS, Townsite of ANCHORAGE ALASKA, Original Townsite, South Addition, East Addition."

It might more accurately be called the Anchorage's Domesday Book, after the census William the Conqueror took of England in 1086, a roll-call of the city's founding fathers and mothers.

A number of the buyers were women. The first name in the book, though not the first lot sold, is Sadie Maples. Alice Jamison bought 10 of the more expensive lots in the vicinity of Fifth Avenue, and H. Mary Morrison paid $280 for a lot at Third, and H. Della Watson paid $25 each for two lots way out on Ninth Avenue at L Street.

Land tended to be more valuable the closer it was to the railroad yards and Ship Creek. H.H. McCutcheon's lot at 7th and C, cost him just $75. The new landowners faced the reality of hauling water. Jack and Nellie Brown would put the first pump well on the high ground on their lot just north of Fourth and L.

Flat ground was also a plus.The Browns paid $85 for sloping land. A block away, near Fifth, Y. Tasaki paid $350 for a more level property.

A number of names of Japanese, Slavic and Scandinavian origin suggest that Anchorage was a fairly cosmopolitan settlement from the start. Buyers addresses were generally given as "Anchorage, Alaska," but there were also speculators from Sunrise, Susitna, Seward, Matanuska, Ketchikan, Knik, Washington state and other places. Fr. J. Vander Pol of Valdez enlisted A.J. Wendler as his agent for the purchase of two lots on Block 54, near the current location of Holy Family Cathedral on July 13. A few days later Wendler, future president of the Anchorage School Board, bought property where the Hotel Captain Cook now stands.

Anderson, David, Jamison, Nyberg, Laura M. Goldfinch and Irving L. Kimball are among the names that appear over and over again. They seem to have shown up at every sale they could and often bought multiple properties.

The book is organized neither by alphabetized names or dates of sale but in order of block numbers, with two facing pages containing the information for each block. Most blocks had 12 lots. The entry lines associated with each lot include the name of the buyer, total price, the amount put down, whether a $10 "clearing fee" was assessed and contractual details.

Defaults, and there are many, are written in red ink. Transfers and sales are generally noted in green or black. Most of the entries showing that a patent was granted -- after full payment was made and other terms fulfilled -- are in pencil.

As many as half of the properties appear to have reverted to the U.S. by 1922. That made for some terrific deals. In July, 1915, Alger Fowler bought a lot at Second and D for a price of $250, on which he made an initial payment of $83.50. After he forfeited, Jacob B. Gottstein got it on June 16, 1922. The green ink shows Gottstein paid $6.88.

The best bargains may have gone to Henry C. Hall, J.N. McCain, Fred Ruhl and Edward Whitwell, each of whom bought entire blocks in the South Addition, 8.3 acres, for $25 apiece. But this land, in the vicinity of 13th and N, was way out in the boondocks. There is no 14th Avenue on the plat map made at the time and now on display at the Anchorage Museum's "City Limits" exhibition. A 1934 map, also at the exhibit, shows the city limits running down the middle of 11th.

Whether Akers' ledger itself was physically present at any of the sales is a matter of conjecture. The information is recorded in different hands; several names in a row are written in a similar script with similar ink, switching to block print and a different pen halfway down the page. The lists could have been copied into the book by various individuals working at different times in an office shortly after the sales were concluded.

The record of the Third Addition is on different colored paper and includes information for property sold in 1917 in typed form along with sales made in 1922 written in by hand. To fit in a typewriter, the pages had to be separate sheets of paper. This is surely a transcription, at least in part, added to the ledger after the typing was done.

Akers, who moved to Anchorage in 1944, knew about the book when he was the real estate and contract officer for the Alaska Railroad, where he worked from 1964 until his retirement in 1987. "We kept it in an old safe," he said.

When the state took over ownership of the railroad from the federal government in the mid-'80s, a lot of things were misplaced or lost, Akers said. He gave examples of oil paintings from the railroad-owned Healy Hotel and offices and giant, meticulously drawn maps on canvas of the entire railroad route as items whose whereabouts he's been unable to track down. (The large map of the Ship Creek rail yards in the "City Limits" show appears to be a survivor.)

Much went into the garbage, Akers said. "The state people took over and decided they didn't want this old stuff anymore. They kept the up-to-date stuff and threw the rest out."

Akers said he found the ledger in the trash. He pulled it out and took it home.

Last year, anticipating the 2015 Anchorage Centennial, he had the pages rebound. He built a stand so that it could be displayed. But he hasn't been able to find a way to show the book to the public. "I can't even find out who to talk to," he said.

He's still hopeful that the ledger can go on exhibit at some suitable venue in time for the 100th anniversary of the first land sale. If nothing else, it may inspire others to check out their closets and boxes and see what they have.

"There's all kinds of this stuff around town," he said.

IMAGINING ANCHORAGE, a symposium in conjunction with the city's centennial celebration, will take place June 18-21. Those planning to attend are advised to make reservations now at cookinlethistory.org. The cost for the event is $85 for members of the Cook Inlet Historical Society, $95 for non-members. All events take place at the Anchorage Museum except for the cemetery tour. The schedule, in brief, is as follows:

Thursday, June 18

6 p.m. A reception for Heather Coughlan, Mayor of Whitby, England, Anchorage's sister city, often cited as Cook's home town. Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan will host the event and Mayor-elect Ethan Berkowitz will also be in attendance.

7:30 p.m. "James Cook from Whitby," Sophie Forgan, Chairman of the Trustees of the Captain Cook Museum in Whitby

Friday, June 19

9 a.m. and following, lectures on James Cook and his voyage to Alaska by experts from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Smithsonian and elsewhere.

Saturday, June 20

9 a.m. and following, lectures on Anchorage's past by residents, historians, archivists and political figures.

Sunday, June 21

7 p.m. 21st Annual Summer Solstice Tour at Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery, with presentations on 10 Anchorage pioneers buried in the graveyard. Enter at the John Bagoy Gate, Cordova Street and Seventh Avenue. This event is free and open to the public.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@alaskadispatch.com or 257-4332.

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