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New history provides valuable insight into Anchorage’s development

  • Author: Steve Haycox
    | Opinion
  • Updated: February 16
  • Published February 16

A man and his dog walk on the edge of the ice along Knik Arm with downtown Anchorage and the Chugach Mountains in the background on Tuesday, April 11, 2017. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Anchorage readers are in for a real treat. It’s a handsome, finely edited and richly illustrated new history of the city, produced by the Cook Inlet Historical Society and published by University of Alaska Press. Titled “Imagining Anchorage: The Making of America’s Northernmost Metropolis,” it’s edited by independent historian James Barnett and University of Alaska Anchorage historian Ian Hartman. With 22 essays on various aspects of the city’s evolution by scholars and local observers, as well as more than 140 historic and contemporary photographs, the book is a tour de force, a trove of new information on how Anchorage developed and what it has become. It grew out of the two-year centennial commemoration of the city in 2015. There is simply nothing like it in print to explain the origins, rise and maturation of this megalopolis on the edge of the Alaska wild.

Barnett and Hartman sagely divide their collection of material into four sections, each with a thoughtful, concluding essay. Perhaps the most important and welcome contribution in the volume is the first part, which explores the life and resilience of the region’s first people, whose name for Cook Inlet is Tikahtnu, meaning “ocean river,” and in a sense whose guests we all are. Aron Crowell, director of the Smithsonian Institution Arctic Studies Center in the Anchorage Museum, explains the movement of indigenous people into the region and the various sites from which anthropologists have gathered the evidence of their cultures and livelihood. The gorgeous photographs accompanying his story suggest the effective technologies the Dena’ina utilized to harvest the abundant resources of the region. James Fall, who probably knows more than any other student of the Dena’ina, recounts the work of Shem Pete, the elder who shared his vast knowledge of his people’s traditions. Fall’s work invites contemporary Anchorage residents to do far more than we have to recognize and educate ourselves about Anchorage’s first people and the challenges they have overcome. The section concludes with reflections by Willie Hensley and Gloria O’Neill on Native life in Alaska and Anchorage.

In the second section, Barnett and others not only reconstruct the penetration of the Russians into Dena’ina country and the voyage of James Cook into Tikahtnu, and his act of possession on the point still named for it, but also the work of George Vancouver, whose men may have been the first non-Natives to map your back yard, if you live above Turnagain Arm. I.S. Maclaren discusses the relationship between Cook and the lost Franklin expedition, while Robin Inglis looks at the expedition artists John Webber and William Ellis, who gave the world some of the first images of the area. The images as striking now as they were then.

The third part will be of considerable interest to aficionados of politics. James Blasingame recounts in detail the authorization, construction and growth of the “government railroad,” the backbone of Anchorage’s economy and population before World War II. Gail Phillips shows how significant aviation became. Victor Fischer remembers statehood and the Great Alaska Earthquake, while Jane Angvik reconstructs the unification of the city and borough. Judy Bittner walks readers through mayoral administrations from Jack Roderick through Dan Sullivan, and Tim Bradner surveys the arrival of “big oil.” Katie Ringsmuth remembers Alaska baseball in an informative and entertaining account.

The final section includes essays on the city’s relationship to the nation, its role in extending American empire, its reliance on federal spending, the touching story of “Jorgy Jorgenson,” including his part in the anti-segregation protests with Alberta Schenck at the Nome theater. Hartman explores Anchorage’s checkered racialized past, including the career of real estate mogul Zula Swanson, and UAA’s Chad Farrell shows just how diverse the city has become (full disclosure: I have an essay in this section). Yereth Rosen concludes with an important discussion of climate change in Anchorage.

Complete as it is, the editors acknowledge there is more work to do, and to that end, archivist Bruce Parham contributes an extensive bibliography on virtually every aspect of the city’s past.

Scholars, students, history buffs, politicos, residents – everyone will profit from this useful and remarkable book.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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