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Happy birthday, Anchorage. Where's the cake?

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published July 10, 2015

One hundred years ago today, the first lots in what would become Anchorage were auctioned off. As Charles Wohlforth writes in "From the Shores of Ship Creek," the sale is "often regarded as the event that founded the city."

Anchorage is observing the big day by going about its business. The calendar of official centennial events at anchoragecentennial.org lists nothing on July 10. No bonfire. No dedication of statues. No public slicing of a ceremonial birthday cake with 100 candles at City Hall.

There are other events on other days. Many have a connection to the city's centennial that can only be called nominal. The Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon on June 20, the Fourth of July Celebration on the Delaney Park Strip and the Salmon Daze Festival in August had the word "centennial" slapped onto them without any significant connection to the 100th anniversary itself. These events were all going to happen anyway.

Likewise, the Nike Site Summit visits and popular "Stories at the Cemetery" tours have been tagged with the "centennial" brand. There was the Anchorage Centennial Powerlifting Meet on June 27. The Alaska Association of Harbormasters and Port Administrators 36th Annual Conference in October is an official centennial event.

Such things have degrees of historical, nautical or athletic importance, but what about them is specifically "centennial?"

The Official Anchorage Centennial Citywide Celebration on June 27 consisted of the same amusement rides and carnival vendors we've seen at previous summer flings at Cuddy Family Midtown Park. That it was combined with Polynesian Culture Flag Day, another official centennial event, added interest (loved the coconut leaf basket-making contest), but if any of the events had something to do with Anchorage turning 100, I missed it.

The change of city administrations has contributed to the confusion. One member of the Centennial Celebration committee said he thought his position ended when the new mayor took office.

The new mayor's communications director, Myer Hutchinson, responded: "I know for sure that the Centennial Commission is not disappearing. We just don't know what the makeup will be or how it proceeds from here. We're still working our way with a lot of things, evaluating where we're going."

Some events on the official list do prominently honor the founding of the city in a direct way. The Alaska Botanical Garden's Heritage Garden, dedicated on June 25, is a clear and well thought out tribute to Anchorage's founding generation. The Anchorage Symphony Orchestra's screening of "The Cheechakos," filmed here in 1923, likely would not have come about without the centennial hook.

There has been a centennial documentary film and a couple of books about it: Wohlforth's formal timeline and a collection of memories by locals, "Anchorage Remembers," which will debut at a museum event on July 23, but is not included in the calendar.

Antiquarians have luxuriated in scholarly talks that put the town's remarkable growth and colorful past in perspective. Eminent historian Preston Jones spoke this week and cake was served by the Cook Inlet Historical Society. A two-day symposium titled "Imagine Anchorage" took place last month, though only one day was devoted to Anchorage in the past 100 years. The first day was occupied by lectures about Capt. James Cook; they were excellent, yet I couldn't help but think that two separate events were mashed into one for the sake of convenience. Cook's voyage, 135 years before the land auction, is tangential to the centennial.

The Anchorage Museum has done much, providing a venue for the above talks and installing the "City Limits" exhibit detailing the expansion of the town. A collection of photos recounting the city's history will go on display in November. How those photos differ from what is regularly exhibited at the museum remains to be seen.

In two weeks, the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce will hold the Anchorage Chamber Tent City Festival on the Park Strip, coinciding with the chamber's 100th birthday. Event coordinator Magen James said the lineup includes bouncy houses, performers on three stages, oil and gas related displays, scale airplane models from the Alaska Aviation Museum and a military working dog demonstration courtesy of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson along with "lots of pieces of military equipment."

She said the chamber was working on a re-enactment of the tent city lease sale tentatively announced on the Centennial Celebration website. An artist will be painting a decommissioned police car and there will be displays by mining, railroad, sledding and classic car groups, the Polynesian Association of Alaska and, at last count, 45 vendors.

But something major is happening today: the Eagle River Bear Paw Festival!

Yes, Eagle River is technically part of Anchorage. Now. But it wasn't before 1975. The Bear Paw frolic is nonetheless included on the list of centennial celebrations, even though its slogan, "30 Years of Fun!" falls seven decades short of a century.

Today's revels include a chainsaw carving demonstration, the Teddy Bear Parade and Rotten Sneaker Contest. It winds up with the I-Did-A-Duck race on Sunday. A mob will be on hand throughout the weekend. Shuttles have been set up to deal with the anticipated crowds.

But no one will be there with Anchorage's 100th birthday in mind. In fact the bearpawfestival.org website does not use the word "centennial" at all and I found "Anchorage" mentioned only once, as a business name in the listing of vendors.

Are Anchorage folk too busy to care about the centennial? Maybe. A lot of us are working today.

Or is the idea of the town still too new, with most of the 300,000 residents coming from somewhere else? Perhaps we're still not sure the place will stick around and don't want to get too emotionally invested.

Or are we just preoccupied with having fun each in our own way? Anchorage is a heck of a fine place to be and most of us want to live here for our own reasons.

But when you attend town celebrations in other Alaska places -- like Eagle River -- you get the impression that, in comparison, Anchorage's sense of community runs a little thin.

Does it matter? I dunno. I don't recall any big deal being made for the city's 50th anniversary in 1965. For the Alaska Purchase Centennial in 1967 Fairbanks got Alaskaland, now Pioneer Park; Anchorage got what? A wildland park in a place that was already wildland, plus an opera that nobody's ever heard of. And can anyone remember what we did for the 50th anniversary of statehood just six years ago?

The Tent City Festival will undoubtedly be a fine party, the kind of leisurely summer field day Alaskans flock to in good weather. But it's a stretch to call any of this the party of the century. No fountains of beer. No citywide standstill as bells toll. No 21-gun salutes. No fireworks, for crying out loud.

At least not today.

Happy Birthday, Anchorage. Now get back to whatever you were doing.

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