Railroad births Anchorage

Miss White drove the first spike into the track for the Alaska Railroad in Anchorage on April 29, 1915.
Miss White drove the first spike into the track for the Alaska Railroad in Anchorage on April 29, 1915.

Unlike other settlements in Alaska’s past, Anchorage didn’t evolve as a result of gold, furs, fish or timber. As late as 1913, there was no town at the head of Cook Inlet. There was only a spot called Ship Creek, where small ships entered because the creek was deep enough.

But a couple of years later, the federal government needed coal for its Pacific fleet. In order to access massive coal fields in the Matanuska Valley, it started laying 470 miles of railroad track that would eventually connect Seward with Fairbanks. Anchorage, which was at the midpoint and had a protected anchorage that could be dredged, was chosen as headquarters for the project.

Hordes of job seekers poured off boats during spring 1915 and pitched tents all along Ship Creek. With no sewers, and Cook Inlet tides providing the only means of waste disposal, the Alaska Engineering Commission surgeon warned that water supply would become contaminated if settlement on the flats continued.

The AEC had its railroad engineers quickly lay out a town, and in July, the Land Office auctioned off 655 lots for a total of $148,000. Among those buying lots were Swedish-born Oscar Anderson, the town’s first butcher, and Della and Irving Kimball, who bought lots at the corner of West 5th Avenue and E Street and started a dry goods business.

The AEC gave the order that all tents had to be moved from the Ship Creek flats to the new town site by mid-August. While some lot owners moved their tents, others hastily chopped down trees and constructed frame buildings. The new town became a hodgepodge of dwellings.

During the mad dash to develop the town site, settlers also decided their new city needed a name. Monikers considered included Matanuska, Whitney, Terminal, New Knik, Alaska City, Ship Creek, Woodrow City, Gateway, Winalaska, Homestead, Lane – then Secretary of the Interior – and Brownsville – after one of the original settlers. It’s widely believed that Anchorage, submitted by Ray McDonald, won in an election held on Aug. 2, 1915.

However, according to records of the AEC, discovered by M. Diane Brenner, past archivist for the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, the vote went to Alaska City. The second-highest vote was for Lane. Anchorage came in third.

The settlers later learned that the U.S. Post Office already had arbitrarily named the new Alaska settlement Anchorage.

As the town boomed with the construction of the railroad, the Land Office continued to sell lots and lease business sites. By 1917, Anchorage had a population between 6,000-7,000 and boasted a hospital, a school, a telephone/telegraph/electric office, several churches, a Masonic temple, concrete sidewalks and graded streets.

Today, Anchorage is home to more than 300,000 and is Alaska’s largest city.

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