As clichés go, the station wagon with "Alaska or bust" painted on the door being driven north by some Midwesterner with more dreams than sense is probably the most tired of all. (I write this to disparage no one, for a decade and a half ago I was precisely such a down-states rube in a late-model sedan, though without any sign announcing my intended destination.)
The mother of all "Alaska or bust" stories happened in spring 1959 when 21 Detroit families set out on a 4,500-mile road trip with the intent of homesteading on the Kenai Peninsula. They called themselves the Detroit 59ers and for a few weeks in the spring of that year, they captured the imagination of Michiganders and, somewhat surprisingly, Alaskans too.
The caravan, consisting of 17 cars, six camper-trailers, and a large cargo van they named "The Monstrosity," assembled on March 5, 1959, in the parking lot of a drive-in theater in west-central Detroit. The 59ers were mostly young, blue-collar families struggling in a stagnant Detroit economy where the unemployment rate had reached double digits. The prospect of free land in Alaska —homesteading claims could be obtained then for a filing fee of just a few dollars — convinced them to sell their homes and head north.
"We are pooling all we know how to do in this cooperative venture that probably none could do alone," said 59er spokesman Ronald Jacobowitz. The group included carpenters, machinists, mechanics, welders, bricklayers, and other tradesmen able to contribute to the communal nature of the endeavor. "Everything we are doing," said Jacobowitz, "every plan made and carried out has been done by the vote and consent of all."
The 59ers became instant celebrities in Detroit. Several hundred people turned out on the chilly morning the caravan left to cheer and wave good-bye, many thrusting gifts of food and money upon the grateful travelers. More than a few onlookers expressed admiration and even envy for the group's courage. The Detroit News assigned a reporter to travel with the group all the way to Alaska. Life magazine sent a photographer.
That the 59ers received so much attention back home is in no way surprising. The romantic notion of venturing into the wilderness of Alaska continues to launch a thousand trips north every year and elicits the wide-eyed admiration of those left behind — in a way moving to Des Moines never does.
Accordingly, the Detroit newspapers played up every stereotype about Alaska before, during, and after the journey. "A cold expanse of snow and ice lies ahead," one paper reported. Alaska was surely a "wild country that will separate the men from the boys." The trip was "a gamble" and "a test of men against virgin soil." Snowshoes, log cabins, and grizzly bears all received prominent mention in news reports of the expedition. When nine families dropped out before even reaching Alaska, it spoke not of failure but only confirmed the tremendous risk of the undertaking for the hardy souls that remained. What newspaper in Detroit wouldn't put that on the front page?
But if folks in the Lower 48 were awestruck by the whole affair, surely Alaskans remained immune to the hyperbole, didn't they? No one here was going to be impressed, right?
"Anchorage Hosts 59ers Today" announced the headline of the Anchorage Daily Times on March 28. The state troopers escorted the caravan all the way from Palmer to a
raucous celebration on Fourth Avenue that was crowded with well-wishers. The 59ers were feted in grand style with music, dancing, free moose burgers, and speeches from local dignitaries.
"It's great to be in Alaska," remarked Jacobowitz.
Why the red-carpet reception? Aren't sourdoughs supposed to look down their noses at cheechakos?
The timing of the 59ers could not have been more perfect. They arrived in Alaska just a few months after statehood when the air buzzed with the promise of economic prosperity. Any pioneer with an axe, a shovel, and a dream to open the country was welcome.
"We need people," stated Senator Ernest Gruening. Anchorage mayor Hewitt Lounsbury chimed in, "You are the first pioneers of the new state." Many compared the 59ers to the Matanuska Colony, a New Deal program that brought hundreds of families from the upper Midwest to Alaska in the 1930s.
Bob Atwood, editor and publisher of the Anchorage Daily Times, had long supported any and every form of development in Alaska. He was fond of saying he hoped to see the state achieve a population of 1 million someday.
"Success of these people is important to every Alaskan," he wrote in an editorial welcoming the newcomers. "They are symbolic of the thousands of others who want to come here and make a home."
Other Alaskans cut through the rhetoric, however, and took a more cautious tone. Merrill Weir, head of the Alaska Employment Bureau, sent releases to newspapers in the Lower 48 advising prospective emigrants to stay home.
Unemployment in Alaska was pushing 20 percent, according to Weir, and only a few skilled professions, such as dentistry and court reporting, were lacking for applicants. Senator Bob Bartlett, his office deluged with requests for information about homesteading opportunities, replied to every letter with a warning about the years of backbreaking work required to clear a homestead.
The 59ers encountered such hardships quickly after settling in Alaska. Most returned to Michigan after the first summer.
A few toughed it out for a couple years before heading back south. Of the twenty-one families that originally started out, only four successfully obtained a homestead patent by clearing, improving, and living on the land for five years.
"Growing up there was one of the best things that ever happened to me," Nicholas Rubino told the Detroit News four decades later. "Everyone pitched in to help each other build their houses. If your car broke down, you used someone else's. It was like being part of one big family."
Bill Orzechowski, another 59er who never gave up, lived in a small Quonset on his homestead near Trapper Creek. "My heart is in Alaska," he responded when asked why he toughed it out all those years. Orzechowski, the last of the 59ers in Alaska, died on March 6, 1984 — one day after the 25th anniversary of his departure from Detroit in the "Alaska or bust" caravan.
Ross Coen is an instructor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and the author of The Long View: Dispatches on Alaska History, now available from Ester Republic Press, as well as Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil, the story of the historic voyage of the SS Manhattan, an ice breaking oil tanker which successfully navigated the Northwest Passage in 1969.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.