Historic Resource Study
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The new park made its debut in an Alaska that still considered itself an abused colony. From the northerners' viewpoint the limited powers of their territorial government put them at the mercy of competing bureaucracies in far-off Washington, D.C. The bureaucrats' conflicting controls stifled Alaska's development. Isolated by distance and high-latitude climate from the usual amenities and choices of economic pursuit, Alaskans depended almost exclusively on the raw products of land and sea: minerals, timber, fish, furs, and game. From these products they derived both sustenance and the cash income for imported necessities that their limited frontier economy could not produce. Yet these were the very resources, along with the land itself, controlled by the distant bureaucrats.

In an address before the Annual Meeting of the American Mining Congress in 1921, Falcon Joslin of Katalla, Alaska, described the lack of progress and the loss of population in Alaska. He attributed the decline in commerce and the ghost-town atmosphere of such cities as Fairbanks to misgovernment and the mismanagement of Alaska's resources. Critical was the lack of efficient access to freeholds on the federally owned landbase. Alaska's pioneers had to depend on leaseholds or permit titles, which could be and often enough were taken away by the agents of government. Under this uncertain regime the true pioneer lost hope, leaving the land to the rapacious. Thus did the federal government's misguided conservation policies lead to perverse result: the true conservator, the freeholder, gave way to the freebooter who cared only for quick fortune at whatever cost to the land and the animals he destroyed. The weak territorial legislature, excluded entirely from such crucial concerns as land and fish-and-game laws, could only plea and pass protest enactments against the veto powers vested in Washington. As Joslin saw it, on a foundation of laws and regulations born of hearsay and inaccurate reports from visiting firemen, the Washington bureaucrats fought amongst themselves to retain powers and jurisdictions. The shadow commissions and bureaus established by the territorial governor and legislature lacked authority to rectify and coordinate administration.

Joslin concluded his essay on Alaska's governance with these words: "Naturally, this form of government is sufficient to devastate a province. It is certainly returning the Territory to the bears." [1]

Joslin's remedy for this sad state of affairs was home rule. People involved and knowledgeable in Alaskan conditions and affairs could solve the problems of transportation, revive sagging industries, open new ones, and coordinate administration of land and resources. True representation by accountable agents of government would attract solid citizens and open Alaska to development and progress commensurate with its vast resources. [2]

Joslin's analysis and prescriptions were not without merit. And they certainly reflected the sentiments of most Alaskans. More than 30 years later Territorial Governor Ernest Gruening would say essentially the same things in his book, The State of Alaska (1954), whose title reflected an objective still 5 years from attainment.

But in the World War I and postwar periods Alaska was far from statehood. Its remoteness, its small population, and the fluctuating prices of extracted products—often more economically available elsewhere—held Alaska down. (Excepting such bonanzas as the Prudhoe Bay oil discovery, these factors still moderate Alaska's economy.) In addition, outside monied interests—the syndicates and trusts that controlled much of Alaska's extractive and transportation industry—found comfort and profit in playing off competing Congressional committees and government bureaus in Washington; they minded not at all a weak territorial government that lacked power and means to regulate their activities. Similarly, home-grown Alaskan boomers wanted the benefits of government assistance but not the controls that went with it.

Beginning in 1913 the Wilson Administration had spoken strongly to Alaska's concerns. The President himself urged a comprehensive development policy for Alaska. He wanted complete coastal surveys and charting to reduce ship losses on Alaska's long and dangerous coastline; such action would help reduce shipping rates, which had been inflated by exorbitant marine insurance. In support of this initiative Wilson's Secretary of Commerce remarked on the "peculiar habits of surveying up there . . . [whereby] we have found many rocks by running merchant ships upon them . . . ." [3]

In 1914 a friend of Alaska, Interior Secretary Franklin K. Lane, had analyzed the governance of the territory in words that foreshadowed Joslin's later remarks. Lane proposed consolidation of federal functions in Alaska under a development board that would streamline administration and give Alaskans a single governmental authority for conducting business. [4]

Pieces of the Wilson Administration program did get enacted: coal lands opened to limited entry; school lands made available; chartering of an Agricultural College and School of Mines (later the University of Alaska); and authorization and appropriation of $35 million for construction and operation of the Alaska Railroad, which would open coal and community development along the railbelt into the Interior. [5]

But then the war came. Federal energies and attention, both in the executive departments and in Congress, turned from Alaska to the national emergency. Alaska's population, depleted by the war effort, would decline from 64,000 in 1910 to 55,000 in 1920, including a significant reduction of one-third of the non-Native population. In 1920 Alaska had fewer people by 12 percent than in 1900; during the same decades the national population had grown by 38 percent. Except for a wartime surge of copper mining, Alaska's economy grew shakier, dependent largely on Outside money for its major export industries: fisheries and mining. At war's end depression and stagnation gripped the territory: lack of development, lack of jobs, lack of people. [6]

In the 1920s the U.S. Congress pursued conservation measures to protect Alaska's fish and wildlife. But continuing stagnation led to closure of many federal facilities, including mining and agricultural experiment stations and military installations (including Fort Gibbon at Tanana). Not until the Depression Era and its New Deal programs under President Franklin D. Roosevelt would Alaska feel fresh infusions from the Federal Government. [7]

Tanana and Fort Gibbon
Tanana and Fort Gibbon, at the junction of the Tanana and Yukon rivers, in 1919. Stephen Foster Collection, UAF

Fortunately for their health and survival, specific people in specific places resist the logic of trends and general conditions. Bottomless energy and optimism distinguished the pioneers of isolated Alaska. Those who penetrated the remote Denali region possessed surpluses of both. Despite a subsistence lifestyle focused on mining and trapping, sustained by hunting and gardening, these hardy folks maintained the vision of a bountiful future. They continued their clamor for transportation relief. Access to the mineral wealth of the region—coal, gold, and other metals—would spur development, bringing progress and new communities. As water brought the rose's bloom to the desert, so would roads, trails, and rails bring "industrial advancement" to this new land. [8]

Books, petitions, tracts, and screeds of all sorts carried this theme across the country to the halls of Congress. The history of the new park and its surrounding region would largely be determined by development of a federally funded transportation system comprising the railroad and the roads and trails it spawned.

By the summer of 1922, when the first tourists came to Mount McKinley National Park, the railroad from Seward to Fairbanks lacked only one link, the bridge across the Tanana River at Nenana. A ferry in summer and rails over river ice in winter made temporary connection pending the bridge's completion in early 1923. It was now possible to make the Horseshoe Tour of Interior Alaska from the port city of Seward to the park and on to Fairbanks by rail; then by automobile on the Military Highway from Fairbanks to the ports of Valdez or Cordova. [9]

auto ferry
Early automobile ferry, probably the Big Delta Ferry crossing the Tanana River. Fanny Quigley Collection, UAF.

Sternwheeler pushing a barge at Nenana, 1918. Stephen Foster Collection, UAF.

With variations as the road net proliferated and connected with the coastal city of Anchorage, this tour system based on the arterial railroad would last for 50 years. With few exceptions throughout that period people arrived at the park by railroad. There they would be met by the park's concessioner and conveyed into the park. Not until the summer of 1972 would the new state highway from Anchorage to Fairbanks allow automobile visitors to reach the park in significant numbers. This controlled railroad and concessioner access—at peak numbering only a few hundred visitors per day—would in turn control the park's planning, development, and operations.

As feared by park managers and planners alike, beginning in the 1960s as plans for the state highway matured, the rather cozy, old-style railroad park with its 1920s-30s facilities would be vaulted headlong into the mass mobility of the late 20th Century. The stories of resultant stresses and strains upon the old facilities, especially the pressures upon the designedly primitive park road (completed in 1938); the frustrations of visitors and park people alike; and the tug-of-war between resource (especially wildlife) protection and catch-up development schemes (both within the park and on its borders) properly belong in later chapters. But because the railroad-park syndrome and the radical changes wrought by the state highway have had such structuring effect upon the park's history—from the beginning to today—this foreshadowing provides a course setting for much that follows.

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Last Updated: 04-Jan-2004