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Mystery solved: The surprising life of the man who founded Anchorage

Andrew Christensen founded Anchorage. He laid out the first streets and lots and he was the auctioneer in the famous photograph from our inaugural day, July 10, 1915. He started Wasilla too, with an auction held two years later. During Anchorage's first four years, he ran the region as the federal official responsible for just about everything, including building schools and utilities, recruiting farmers and keeping a lid on bootleggers and prostitutes.

But historians knew hardly anything about him personally until, well, right now.

Earlier this year, I published a book for the Anchorage centennial with a chapter about Christensen. The Municipality of Anchorage posted that chapter on its website. In Cincinnati, the chapter popped up in a Google search for a family doing genealogical research. Christensen's grandson, John Courter, sent me an email, followed by a bundle of material about Christensen's life, and then, best of all, we had a long conversation about the kindly old man he remembers well. Andrew Christensen didn't die until 1969, at 90.

People find their long-lost parents on the Internet. I guess a city can, too.

The story of Anchorage turned out completely differently than its founders expected. They thought our story would be about great, white men carving a new empire out of the wilderness. The Alaska Railroad would develop the Interior the way the transcontinental railroads brought farmers, ranchers and coal miners to the American West, pushing aside the indigenous people and pushing down minorities and recent immigrants.

That isn't what happened. With minor exceptions, the farms and coal mines aren't here. Instead, Anchorage is a government town, as we were from the start. University of Alaska economist Scott Goldsmith estimates half of Anchorage jobs rely directly or indirectly on government spending.

Our diversity would also surprise the city's founders. Anchorage isn't a post-racial paradise, but our schools are the most desegregated in the country. The pioneer self-image of our city now seems quaint and irrelevant.

But Andrew Christensen turns out to be more much interesting than his wrong predictions.

Christensen was born in 1879 to a farming family in Denmark, the 11th of 12 children. The family left for the United States after his father lost the farm due to a loan he cosigned for a neighbor who committed suicide. Andrew was 7. He grew up in a rented house in Grand Island, Nebraska, and in a sod cabin on the family's 160-acre homestead. As a young man, he worked his way up through the Railroad Mail Service to a senior position in Utah, where he met his wife. Transferred to Washington, D.C., he got a law degree and entered private practice.

Christensen joined the Department of the Interior in 1908 with a group of energetic, educated young men who cleaned up the notoriously corrupt General Land Office. The next year, a political war broke out between Interior and the Forest Service over Alaska development. In 1910, Interior sent Christensen to oversee Alaska. He was in the Anchorage area when President Woodrow Wilson called for building a railroad and a new town here in 1915.

No one wrote or spoke more forcefully for private development around Anchorage than Christensen. He said the Alaska Railroad would one day be as successful as the Union Pacific. He attacked conservationists who, even then, were the boogeymen of the boomers, and led a campaign to abolish the Chugach National Forest. At the time, the national forest took in the entire Anchorage area and almost all of the Kenai Peninsula.

The progressives of the era believed in government owning railroads and building towns. They also thought of racial segregation as a kind of hygiene.

The Anchorage Bowl belonged to the Dena'ina, but Christensen banned them from entering the new town. Eastern European railroad construction workers were concentrated in terrible housing. As the town developed, even Scandinavians felt like second-class citizens, excluded from clubs that were the core of social life and segregated into the eastern half of the town.

Christensen accepted the system. But he became disillusioned with Anchorage.

He left government service in 1919, and in 1921 he and his wife Isabel had their second child, John Courter's mother, in Brooklyn. They moved to Florida the same year, where Christensen had been hired to run a railroad, but months later his 10-year-old daughter died of an infection. According to the family, Isabel was a Christian Scientist and refused medical treatment for the girl.

John Courter's mother could never talk about the death without crying, although it happened when she was only six months old. The family quickly moved back to New York, to Great Neck, Long Island. Christensen finished his career as a lawyer with the Irving Trust Co.

Filmmaker Todd Hardesty unearthed Christensen's 1935 letter to Time magazine, sent from Great Neck, responding to news of the Mat-Su Colony project, a New Deal program to send Depression-era farmers north. Christensen said the project would be a fiasco, like the money-losing railroad. He had already tried developing agriculture in Alaska. The Alaska economy was tiny and stagnant (no oil or military in those days). Christensen called Alaska, "The spoiled child of Uncle Sam," a place of impossible conditions without resources to justify a permanent population.

Christensen greeted his grandson's birth in 1946 with a gift of a $1,000 savings bond, equivalent to more than $12,000 today. At each birthday John Courter would receive a telegram from his grandfather predicting that he one day would be president. Courter remembers Christensen driving his Cadillac to visit Cincinnati, charming Courter's friends with his quiet warmth and intelligence.

Courter has one memory in particular about something Christensen wanted him to know.

"My grandfather was a huge Brooklyn Dodgers fan," Courter said. "I think I was five or six years old, so that would have been 1951. He worked until he was 72 with the Irving Trust Company, and he had just retired. So we took the train from Great Neck to Grand Central Station, and then the subway from Grand Central, and I can remember all this, believe it or not. And he showed me his old office at the Irving Trust Company, and then he took me to a Brooklyn Dodgers game, because he wanted me to see Jackie Robinson. And I can remember vividly him telling me the story. That's where I first learned the story of Jackie Robinson. It's interesting. I don't remember much else from the age of 5 and 6, but I do remember that experience."

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Whatever he had felt about race back in Anchorage in 1915, the one thing Andrew Christensen wanted to impress on his single, treasured grandson in 1951 was that Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier. As the first African-American in major league baseball, Robinson became an important symbol for the civil rights movement that, eventually, found its expression all the way back in Anchorage.

Christensen is buried in Ogden, Utah, where his wife, Isabel was born.

Courter said his grandfather never talked about Alaska. The family knew little other than that Christensen auctioned off the land in Anchorage and had a street named for him (it runs down the hill from Third Avenue and H Street to the railroad depot). But after finding my book, they got excited. Now the Courter house is full of Anchorage centennial T-shirts and other souvenirs. A sixth-grade granddaughter is using the story for a social studies project. Alaska is the only state Courter hasn't visited and he hopes to come soon on a cruise.

After putting the pieces of Andrew Christensen's life together, I felt a bit like I knew him. Or, at least, I can recognize the shape of his life. A striving and overly certain young man. A middle-aged man broken by tragedy and disappointment. A thoughtful and generous old age, softened by the wisdom that comes with caring for others and knowing we're all equal.

Andrew Christensen got better with age. And so did the city he founded.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly. A lifelong Anchorage resident, he is the author of more than 10 books, including the Anchorage history, "From the Shores of Ship Creek." Email him: cwohlforth@alaskadispatch.com

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