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'Andrew Christensen: Building a Government Town,' an excerpt from 'From the Shores of Ship Creek'

The third chapter of Charles Wohlforth's "From the Shores of Ship Creek" centers on Andrew Christensen, manager of the Land and Industrial Department for the Alaska Engineering Commission, and his battle with the conservation-minded Forest Service, which controlled Chugach National Forest. Established in 1907, the National Forest comprised 23 million acres including most of the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound area and surrounding the present municipality of Anchorage. The following excerpted passages are printed here with the permission of the author and the publisher.

The Chugach National Forest outraged (Andrew) Christensen and many Alaskans as a barrier to the territory's prosperous future. Alaska's congressional delegate, Wickersham, called for abolishing the Chugach entirely in 1911. When the Territorial Legislature convened for the first time in 1913, one of its initial actions was to pass a resolution demanding the Chugach be eliminated and its lands opened to development. The war between the developers at the Interior Department and the land conservationists at the Forest Service continued for years to come.

The front line of this war centered around Ship Creek, the future site of Anchorage, which lay entirely within the Chugach National Forest.

Smart observers could see that the Ship Creek area would be key to construction of a government railroad. The speed at which officials selected the site is evidence of that. President Wilson took office in March, 1913, and made the railroad a major priority in December. The railroad bill passed in March 1914, and less than three months later, in June, a party of five men with 20 horses and supplies of lumber and equipment arrived at Ship Creek aboard the steamship Dirigo to set up a headquarters for eleven survey parties assigned to pick the railroad's route.

The AEC delivered its survey report to the president February 22, 1915. It didn't recommend a route, but the intent to build the Western Route was obvious. Five days later, the commission sent the Secretary of the Interior a scope of work to construct the route and dredge the harbor at "Ship Creek Junction," and requested funds to get started. Lieutenant Frederick Mears, the commission member in charge of actual construction, went to Seattle to buy materials. When President Wilson formally announced his selection of the Western Route on April 10, Mears was ready and set sail eight days later with equipment to build a dock and storage yard at Ship Creek and supplies to begin clearing the route toward the Matanuska Valley.

When Mears arrived on April 26, he found a tent city already established on the flatlands around the creek. Anyone reading the newspapers had been able to see money would be made at Ship Creek, and money powered the churn of Alaska's itinerant population. The territory had been gold rushing for two decades. Its roaming workers, entrepreneurs, bootleggers and flim-flam men were experts at installing instant boomtowns.

Restaurants, clothiers, a billiard hall and many one-room brothels occupied canvas tents set up on the muddy ground near the creek. Mears hired as many men as he could for immediate work -- a crew of 100 at $3 for an eight-hour day -- but hundreds more disembarked with each ship, and within weeks 2,000 people were living in the tents and shacks, paying 5 cents a bucket for drinking water and going to the bathroom wherever they could find a spot.

This was not the orderly railroad town the engineers had contemplated, and it lay directly atop the ground Mears needed to build the yards and terminal. The commission's surgeon warned of water contamination due to the lack of sanitation. Moreover, railroad builders worried of riots and labor unrest. The men wanted work quickly and at higher pay than the railroad offered.

Christensen worried especially about many arrivals who were immigrants with limited English. Officials discussed bringing in troops to assure order. Christensen wrote a letter to the Forest Service demanding it evict everyone; this may have been a trap, as to attempt it would have been a disaster, and the forest supervisor wisely ignored the letter. Mears instead urged the land office to quickly carry out Christensen's plan to set up a proper town on the bluff south of Ship Creek.

The townspeople and AEC were impatient, but action came lightning fast by federal government standards. By May 6, Christensen had permission to lay out the town. Making decisions on the fly with Mears, he cleared paths through the wooded land on a plateau south of the creek, the area we know as downtown Anchorage, following the imaginary routes of wide, straight streets marked and named on a map with letters and numbers. The grid pattern made for steep grades up the bluff, so a curving road climbed from the creek bottom. It was named Christensen Drive.

Christensen believed in the wisdom of government, just as the Forest Service conservationists did. The rules governing the sale of lots in the new town, rapidly issued over President Wilson's signature, established a community in which the federal government retained management, responsibility and even control of private property. The lots would be sold at auction, but buyers wouldn't receive title for five years, and even then the deeds could only be issued to the original bidder, complicating land sales. If a buyer used the property for immoral purposes, such as drinking, gambling or prostitution, the government could take it back. Banks wouldn't lend based on the restrictions, taxes couldn't be levied, nor a local government established. The federal government would have to oversee every aspect of civic life.

The auction of lots on July 10, 1915, is often regarded as the event that founded the city. Christensen stood on a platform before a crowd of bidders in the tent city and gave a stirring speech about the future. When the bidding began, money flowed with abandon. Over the next month the creek bottom cleared. Residents and businessmen dragged their buildings and tents behind teams of horses up the bluff to their new lots.

The AEC and General Land Office ran everything. Townspeople constantly complained, but they wanted to keep this odd form of local government that gave services without taxes. The Chamber of Commerce asked the AEC to prevent private industry from setting up power and phone systems. The businessmen wanted the AEC to build and operate the utilities and schools as they had already done with the infirmary, fire department and roads. They expected government-owned utilities to charge lower rates than private, for-profit businesses.

Christensen ran the town first through the land office and then as head of the AEC's Land and Industrial Department. His most difficult early challenge was controlling vice and organized crime. Anchorage rocked and rolled like any gold rush boomtown, with high stakes gambling and wide-open drinking, although card rooms and saloons were theoretically outlawed. Scores of prostitutes worked from squalid tents and shacks called cribs, all controlled by pimps and a corrupt deputy U.S. Marshal.

According to Christensen's reports, the deputy owned the property where the most notorious gambling house stood and he lived, unmarried, with a woman bootlegger. Rather than clean things up, the deputy used his authority to skim gambling profits and control the prostitutes. He threatened the women with arrest or expulsion from Alaska if they didn't do as they were told, pay what was demanded of them, and stay in the area designated as the red light district.

The situation embarrassed the AEC, but Mears concentrated on building the railroad and would not get involved. Christensen did his best. The land law gave him the authority to seize property used for immoral purposes, but that process was long and complicated. To get around the corrupt police, he led his own raid on a pool hall called "The Bank" and swept up fourteen gamblers. But the deputy marshal managed to rig the trial jury and, despite overwhelming evidence, all were acquitted.

Authorities and community leaders believed prostitution was a necessity in a frontier community full of single working men to keep proper women safe. But the townsite rules gave Christensen no place to put them -- prostitutes were barred from even bidding at the government's land auctions. Ingeniously, he used the predicament to inflict pain on his enemy, the Forest Service.

Christensen waited until Forest Service deputy supervisor T.M. Hunt left town, shortly before the townsite auction, then quickly built a road to just beyond the AEC's boundary, where Chugach National Forest controlled the land and was establishing a campground for transient workers. With help from the deputy marshal, Christensen moved the women and their cribs to the site. The new red light district, at the southeast corner of Ninth Avenue and C Street, was nicknamed "Huntsville," after the forest supervisor.

Hunt got back to town in time to see the feverish haste of the prostitutes' move still in progress. He confronted Christensen, who admitted he had "caught him with the goods," but didn't offer any solution other than to send an AEC doctor to check the women periodically. Henry Solon Graves, the national head of the Forest Service, was already on his way to Anchorage. After so many calls to abolish the Chugach National Forest, he came to see the situation for himself.

Arriving in Anchorage on September 2, 1915 he was not impressed. "Mud was everywhere," he wrote in his diary. "The streets are being cleared after the houses put up for business. Great piles of refuse still in the streets. Quantities of men moving about through the streets, planning, looking at lots, speculating. There are enough merchant houses and restaurants for a town four times the size. "In afternoon we went over to look at the public camp ground. I made up my mind to put a stop to it."

But despite Graves' fury, Christensen refused to move the prostitutes. The war between the agencies continued. Christensen believed Anchorage was being stifled by the surrounding Chugach National Forest. In March 1916, he attended a meeting in Washington, D.C., to present his views on abolishing the national forest.

Graves dispatched a team of experts to rebut Christensen's report. Anticipating Congressional hearings and a political battle, he wrote to a lieutenant, "To my mind this is the most dangerous attack that has been made on the Forest Service for some time."

While that battle continued in Washington, Christensen outflanked the Forest Service in Anchorage. (At least, it is hard to think of who else was responsible for what happened next, although no trace of responsibility was left.) In July 1916, Christensen seemed to comply with Forest Service wishes by disbanding the red light district and campground, declaring that the land would be sold. The prostitutes were suddenly dispossessed and scattered. But the Chamber of Commerce responded on October 2 with a strongly worded resolution: prostitutes were overrunning the town and must be concentrated in one area. Businessmen didn't want prostitution shut down, as the women were excellent customers of their shops.

Without leaving fingerprints, Christensen established a new red light district, deeper within the national forest, along Chester Creek near the alignment of C Street. Prostitutes who had left the territory were called back. Lots were distributed by lottery without cost (and without legal ownership). Substantial buildings went up, a community well drilled, and an electronic signaling system into the town installed.

By the time the Forest Service knew what was happening, in November, a permanent red light district had been built on its land. Alaska district forester Charles Flory laid out the problem to his superiors in a confidential memo. He pointed out that the women couldn't be moved: the port was closed due to ice, and travel over land was considered impossible for women in the Alaska winter, as it required going by dogsled. Besides, ejecting them would cause an open fight and embarrassment. But it would be equally embarrassing to eliminate just the red light district from the forest: the reason would be obvious to all.

"The immediate elimination of this specific nuisance area alone would be decidedly undiplomatic," Flory wrote. "However, the Service could with entire propriety officially announce that it had no more interest in the general withdrawal, without in the least referring to the nuisance, or intimating that it existed."

The recommendation was adopted. When the official presidential order came out, in 1919, it excluded 300,000 acres from Chugach National Forest around Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula. The red light district remained on Chester Creek for decades, becoming a largely African American neighborhood known for music and all-night parties, until it was annexed into the city in the 1950s.

Prostitution was always illegal in Anchorage, but operated publicly until the Internet age, when police closed down the last of a collection of massage parlors in Spenard.

Christensen continued his energetic work. By the end of 1917, Anchorage had telephones and other utilities, a 65-bed hospital, and a three-story school building with day and night classes, 17 teachers and 500 students. His book-sized annual report with three appendices enumerated the town's 1,349 buildings, including the ten barber shops, six grocers, five plumbers and tinsmiths, three soft drink manufacturers, two undertakers, two architects and six dentists, among others.

The commission declared that Anchorage was essentially done: nothing but maintenance would be needed henceforth. Andrew Christensen soon moved on to a new job in another branch of the government, promoting agriculture. But, sadly, he seems to have ended life with disappointment in his great accomplishment.

In 1935, Christensen had ended up in Great Neck, New York, where he wrote a letter to Time magazine denouncing the dream of Alaska development with as much passion as he had once devoted to boosting it. The magazine had reported on a federal Depression-relief project to send farming colonists to the Matanuska Valley. It promoted their prospects with the kind of exaggeration once used by Christensen and the builders of the railroad. Now Christensen predicted the colony would fail.

Christensen now called Alaska, "the spoiled child of Uncle Sam," producer of unpalatable, watery potatoes, and, "a place of impossible conditions, where there are no resources to justify a permanent population."

And it was true, at least for Anchorage, that no real purpose had yet been found for the investment of building the railroad and the town. The town supported the railroad and the railroad supported the town.

Conservation had not been the problem, after all.

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