With the transfer of power happening in Washington, D.C. last week, it seems fitting that we spotlight the history of Alaska’s political landscape back in the day. Turns out that this week, in 1959, Alaska’s first State Legislature convened at Juneau – but our very first elected legislature met in 1913 after Alaska became a territory.
And while many modern-day legislators complain about the difficulty in reaching the unique state capital, which is accessible only by air and sea, they have nothing on those trying to reach that first meeting of the territorial legislature in March 1913.
There was grumbling, then as now, about the difficulties of getting to Juneau. Although those grumblers complained of late-winter trips by dog team to an ice-free seaport to catch a ship south instead of via airplanes through inclement weather.
A few of them went above and beyond to make sure they were in attendance at that historic gathering. In fact, four successful candidates from Nome – Conrad Freeding, Frank Aldrich, J.C. Kennedy and Tom Gaffney – packed supplies in sleds, hitched up their dog teams and left Nome on January 7. They mushed about 300 miles, and then stopped for a rest at Ruby, where Ruby’s new legislator, Dan Sutherland, joined them.
The five men mushed on to Fairbanks, approximately 230 miles, where they again rested before pushing on to Valdez, more than 360 miles away. The last musher pulled into Valdez on February 13. The men then boarded the steamship Northwestern and traveled south to Juneau.
Two other men on that first ballot in November 1912, also from Nome, were so confident they would win that they headed south before the election was held! Charles D. Jones and Elwood Bruner left Nome for Juneau on the last southbound steamship of the season at the end of October. And they were right – they both won their bids to serve.
Eight senators and 15 of the 16 elected representatives from Nome, Ruby, Fairbanks, Seward, Valdez, Skagway, Douglas, Juneau, Sitka, Wrangell, Ketchikan, Fox, Knik, Iditarod, Candle and Katella made it to the newly proclaimed Alaska capital in time for the opening session. The missing sixteenth was a Fairbanks man, J.J. Mullaly, who had left Alaska before the November election returns were in; he failed to return to the territory to claim his seat.
The first law that our first legislators passed? A bill that enfranchised women. It took another six years before the nation adopted women’s right to vote.