You can learn a lot about Alaska by looking at the view from Washington, D.C., a century ago

Alaska in the Progressive Age: A Political History 1896 to 1916

Thomas Alton, University of Alaska Press, 296 pages, 2019. $24.95

Alaska in the Progressive Age: A Political History 1896 to 1916

The job of the historian, Thomas Alton tells us in his introduction to “Alaska in the Progressive Age,” is to offer fresh interpretations of the past drawn from the historical records and to understand the present by reading the past on its own terms. To use an example detailed in this book, if you wish to know why the state of Alaska owns a railroad, you need to know why that railroad was built in the first place.

Much of the material Alton gathers together to explain this and more is widely available elsewhere, but what Alton has done is to bring together the formative events in Alaska’s transition from faraway possession to territorial status and place them in the context of national debates. This is why the 1896 Yukon gold strike that launched the mad dash of thousands northward and that is generally considered the starting point for the pioneer era doesn’t occur until page 49. First we need to learn why gold was so important in the middle of the last decade of the 19th century.

Thus Alton walks readers through the first half of that decade, when the nation’s politics were gripped by a furious battle over whether U.S. currency should remain tied to the gold standard or be expanded to include silver. It was the time of Prairie Populism and the rise of William Jennings Bryan, and it’s familiar to any reasonably knowledgeable student of American history. But in most accounts of the Gold Rush, it’s barely mentioned, if it’s mentioned at all.

Supporters of the gold standard won the battle with the 1896 election of William McKinley as president. This maintained a premium value on gold itself during a time of severe economic recession. So when word escaped that potentially endless veins of the metal could be had for the taking in a previously unknown region of Canada abutting the Alaskan border, the rush was on.

For most historians of the Gold Rush, this is the starting point. The real story is found on the Chilkoot Pass and along the rivers and streams near Dawson and in the salons and brothels of that town that briefly boomed where the Yukon meets the Klondike. There’s plenty of excitement to be had in that story, which is why so many books have been written about it. But for Alton, the more important tale is the national political debates that fueled it.

This Gold Rush is over and done within two chapters, but Alton’s national focus continues through to the end, and it’s what sets his book apart from so many other histories of the era. Alaska, he wants us to remember, went through its early development during the peak years of the Progressive Age — which fully took hold when Theodore Roosevelt ascended to the presidency after McKinley’s assassination — and lasted for a decade and a half. It was a time when many Americans decided that growth of the nation could only be accomplished equitably if the government was heavily involved, working to maintain a level playing field for all citizens (or, at least, white male citizens), and ready to step in and do things previously carried out by private industry.

Thus, the reason Alaska has a publicly owned railroad, Alton details, is because businesses either couldn’t or wouldn’t build one, and bipartisan majorities in Congress saw its construction as the government’s job.

Alton has written a rarity. This is a book about Alaska that takes place mostly in Washington, D.C. What we are learning here is not what Alaskans thought of Washington (although this topic does recur), but what Washington thought of Alaska, and what decisions flowed from this.

Alaska in 1896 was not yet a territory and was largely terra incognita for Americans, but the Gold Rush changed all that, especially when it jumped the border from Canada to the Tanana Valley and Nome. Towns sprang up wherever there was gold, and some of them persisted.

As people moved north, the need for government and services suddenly arose, even as businesses struggled to fill the void. Alaskans were not helped much by the Alaska Syndicate, the closest thing to a villain in this book and the focus of ire for many Alaskans. Formed by the powerful New York-based JP Morgan and Guggenheim trusts, it sought to corner the resources, transportation and economic destiny of Alaska.

The Syndicate ran headlong into the trust-busting era launched by Roosevelt, when government sought not to replace private enterprise, but to facilitate it by preventing massive corporations from gobbling up entire sectors of the economy. This led to an activist government that had to decide what to do with Alaska. The three primary concerns of settlers and local businesses were establishing a territorial legislature so residents would have a voice in their affairs, sorting out resource rights, and developing transportation. This brings us to the Alaska Railroad. The Alaska Trust, which wanted to control both the coal fields and transportation, had successfully prevented any other entity from laying rails. Something had to give, and that something was Congress.

Central to this book is Judge James Wickersham, the titanic figure of Alaska during the first three decades of the 20th century. Elected as Alaska’s nonvoting delegate to Congress, he lobbied endlessly for a progressive approach to resolving Alaska’s needs, but with an emphasis on self-reliance. Build a railroad, he pledged, and millions will prosper alongside it.

Or so he promised. We all know Alaska grew slowly and the population remains small, but this book reminds us that big dreams were once had for the Last Frontier. And so it was during the Progressive Era that Alaska’s still fraught relationship with a federal government Alaskans both resent and depend upon was born. As Alton writes in this highly informative account, “Alaskans could be heard to complain loudly about government neglect and with equal force about excessive government intrusion.”

The past, it turns out, was not so very different from the present.

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David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer. He can be reached at