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Steve Haycox: Oil did more than gold, war or statehood to transform Alaska

  • Author: Steve Haycox
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published March 19, 2014

2014 is a major anniversary year for Alaska. March 24 marks 25 years since the Exxon Valdez tanker oil spill in Prince William Sound; March 27 will be 50 years since the great Alaska earthquake. 2014 also marks the 40th anniversary of the start of construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

As is widely recognized, the pipeline and subsequent tax revenue generated by oil production profoundly transformed Alaska, economically, politically and even socially.

Alaska had undergone previous transformations. As a result of immigrants flooding across Alaska subsequent to the Klondike gold rush at the turn of the 20th century, the non-Native population surged from around 5,000 to about 30,000, catching up with about the same number of Native inhabitants. Trapper/prospectors working mineral prospects, trap lines and trading posts in the Yukon basin were heard to complain that the "original" Alaska was being ruined.

Looking at new towns such as Fairbanks, Seward and Valdez, and later Cordova and Anchorage, and at the new territorial legislature meeting in Juneau and construction of the Alaska Railroad, they lamented what they saw as an Alaska changed forever from a pioneering land to a settled region of towns and citified people unwilling and unable to provide for themselves, who expected to get their food from a grocery store and light their homes with electricity.

That same lamentation was heard again as part of the impact of World War II. The non-Native population swelled from about 35,000 in 1940 to over 80,000 (with about 45,000 Natives) in 1945. One sourdough commented to a stateside journalist, Joseph Driscoll, who was collecting material for his 1943 book "War Discovers Alaska," that "the old Alaska is just about gone. People will never know now what it was like to live in a frontier land." Anchorage, for example, sported a few paved streets and several poured concrete buildings.

Edna Ferber writing later in her 1958 statehood novel, "Ice Palace," observed that World War II had brought Alaska into the modern world, once and for all.

Statehood advocates anticipated an economic boom with the creation of Alaska as a state, confident that an Alaska in control of its own affairs, freed from what they viewed as federal government constraints and interference, would generate massive new investment and increased immigration from Outside. That did not happen. Statehood did not change Alaska's systemic economic dependence on global market forces or economies of scale related to commercial supply and demand, and by 1962 the state looked forward to what economist George Rogers described as "dire economic circumstances."

Oil rescued Alaska from those circumstances, and nothing matches historically what should be described as Alaska's "great modern transformation," creating the Alaska the advocates had imagined would be generated by statehood itself. The built environment we now know so well, the population (now over 700,000) that swells Anchorage and the smaller towns, the transportation and communication networks we slavishly rely on, the commercial infrastructure that characterizes our daily life, the long list of amenities we take for granted - all this was facilitated and funded by development of the great Prudhoe Bay oil and associated deposits.

The oil transformation began modestly in 1969 with the $900 million North Slope lease sale. But it really became comprehensive only with the start-up of construction in the spring and summer of 1974, the delays brought by environmental lawsuits having been resolved by Congress withpassage of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act the previous fall.

It's sometimes hard to imagine now, but Anchorage was still a "small prairie town," as Lenny Wilkens referred to it when he brought the Portland Trailblazers to town for an exhibition game that year. Pavement on Northern Lights Boulevard ended at Boniface, and Tudor Road around to Muldoon was a dangerous two-lane adventure in a winter night snowstorm. There were no Project 80s venues; the first Shootout games were played on Ft. Richardson. "All Things Considered" came over the Armed Forces Radio Network; Johnny Carson came in a can, days late.

When we vote on the repeal of SB 21 in August, we'll have to decide how much we owe oil for the great modern transformation, and how much we expect oil to be a contributing partner.

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

Steve Haycox

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