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Anchorage, Alaska

Located in Southcentral Alaska on the shores of Cook Inlet, the Municipality of Anchorage is a unique urban environment situated in the heart of the wilderness. By the time of first contact with European cultures in 1756, the Eskimo people who had originally settled the area had been displaced by the Athabaskan Dena’ina people. This displacement has been estimated as early as 500 AD and as late as 1650 AD. It is estimated that more than 5,000 Dena’ina inhabited the Southcentral area at first contact with Europeans.



Russian explorers had established themselves in southern Alaska by 1784, but the English explorer Captain James Cook is credited with first exploring and describing the Anchorage area in 1778 during his third voyage of discovery. Mistaking one of the arms of the inlet for a river, Cook named it “River Turnagain”, later renamed Turnagain Arm by a subsequent British explorer, George Vancouver. During the next hundred years Russian trading activity increased in the Inlet, and Russian cultural influence increased. Then in 1867 problems at home forced the sale of Russian America to the United States for a sum of $7,200,000. Beginning in 1868 the Alaska Commercial Company began operating dozens of stations along Cook Inlet, and constituted the strongest organizational entity in the area. Until the advent of the Alaska Railroad, gold-mining activity throughout the Turnagain Arm and Kenai Peninsula promoted a steady influx of new inhabitants to Southcentral Alaska.



In 1915 President Woodrow Wilson authorized funds for  the construction of the Alaska Railroad. Ship Creek Landing was selected as the headquarters of this effort, coordinated by the fledgling Alaskan Engineering Commission. A “Tent City” sprang up in the wilderness at the mouth of Ship Creek, and soon swelled to a population of over 2,000. On July 9, 1915, the Anchorage townsite auction was held, and over 600 lots in a fixed grid were sold for approximately $150,000. Although the area had been known by various names, in this same year the U.S. Post Office Department formalized the use of the name “Anchorage,” and despite some protests the  name stuck.



The most significant event in the twenties was certainly the completion of the Alaska Railroad in 1923, which culminated in the first visit by a President to the Alaska Territory. On July 15, 1923, President Warren G. Harding drove the ceremonial golden spike to commemorate the completion. Throughout the twenties the railroad continued to be the mainstay of Anchorage’s economy. 



During the thirties Anchorage rebounded from the loss of population and industry it had suffered during World War I. Air transportation became increasingly important to the welfare of the community. The original “Park Strip” landing field was replaced in 1930 by a new facility, Merrill Field, which had a beacon and a landing tower. In a few short years, Merrill Field became one of the busiest centers of civilian aircraft activity in the United States, a distinction which it still merits today. The local economy was also given a temporary boost by the influx of “colonists” sent to the Matanuska Valley by the Federal Relief Administration. Anchorage, as the base city for the  Matanuska Valley, profited from the resources which were funneled through it in order to develop the colony.

The arrival of troops to Anchorage in 1940 marked a decade of growth based on military expansion for Anchorage. During the beginning of the decade, military construction doubled the population of the town and provided a boost to the local economy. By the outbreak of World War II the threat of Japanese invasion prompted continued expansion of military personnel and aircraft, and after World War II the pressures of the Cold War between the United States and  the Soviet Union ensured a continued heavy military investment in the Anchorage area.

The influx of defense spending during the 1950’s had a beneficial effect on both Anchorage’s population and business community. Between 1940 and 1951, Anchorage’s population expanded exponentially from 3,000 to 47,000, and so did the cost of living. The “Boom Town” of Anchorage also experienced a unfortunate rise in crime during this tumultuous growth period, a problem the city would fight for decades. The long-awaited completion of the road between Seward and Anchorage along the Turnagain Arm was completed in the early 1950’s by the Alaska Road Commission, opening the Kenai Peninsula to motor vehicle traffic.

The decade of the 1960’s began on the high note of Alaska’s attaining statehood in 1959. However,another less propitious event dominated Anchorage’s energy during these years. On March 27th, 1964, a natural disaster  of incredible proportions struck Anchorage and Southcentral Alaska: the Good Friday earthquake. This earthquake measured 8.6 on the Richter scale, the largest ever recorded in North America and, because Anchorage lay only 80 miles from the epicenter damage to structures ran to the hundreds of millions of dollars. This disaster printed itself indelibly on an entire generation of Anchorage residents, who still vividly remember the tribulations and loss of life brought on by what is simply known as “The Big One.” Anchorage’s remarkable recovery from the ravages of this disaster dominated life in the latter half of the 1960’s.

The development of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields in northern Alaska and the building of the trans-Alaska pipeline system during the 1970’s proved a great boon to the Anchorage economy. Since Anchorage had already benefited from the 1957 discovery of oil at the Swanson River field in the Kenai Peninsula, it was a natural choice for the corporate headquarters of the large oil concerns involved in operating North Slope fields and the TAPS system. The oil industry contributed to Anchorage’s growth in the seventies and eighties both economically, by providing skilled employment opportunities for thousands, and culturally, by helping to fund many civic and cultural endeavors.

On September 26-27, 1971, a particularly unique moment in history occurred at Elmendorf Air Force Base, when then President Richard Nixon met with Emperor Hirohito of Japan. This remarkable meeting marked the first time in Japan’s 2,000 year old history that their reigning monarch set foot on foreign soil. Today a monument on the site commemorates the event. In 1973, the first modern Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was held, and today the image of the race start from downtown Anchorage is televised annually throughout the world.

The decade of the eighties was also a time of growth for Anchorage, especially for its infrastructure and quality of life. Thanks to a flood of North Slope oil revenue into the state treasury, between 1980 and 1987 nearly a billion dollars worth of capital projects were constructed in Anchorage. These included a new library, civic center, sports arena and performing arts center. An aggressive beautification program combined with far-sighted community planning helped add to the large number of parks already established in the area, bringing the total to over 180. An unparalleled system of trails was created, culminating in the Coastal Trail which made the Anchorage coastline available to runners, skiers and bikers from Ship Creek to Point Campbell. By the beginning of the 1990’s Anchorage could boast of 259 miles of maintained trails. Hilltop Ski Area was established in 1984, which along with the Alyeska Ski Resort in Girdwood and Alpenglow Ski Area gave residents three fully operational skiing areas. Tourism and recreational activities were fast becoming a mainstay of the modern Anchorage economy, which has continued to the present day.

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last updated:  15.04.2008