Anchorage: History

Native American Trade Center Transformed by Discovery of Gold

The Anchorage area was settled more than 6,000 years ago as a summer fishing camp for the Tanaina tribe. Until the seventeenth century it was under the dominance of the Pacific Eskimos; then in 1650 the Eskimos were defeated in battle by the Tanaina where Point Woronzof is now located on the shore of Knik Arm. By 1700 the area had become a major trade center for Native Americans, Eskimos, and Aleuts.

The first European to explore the territory around the inlet was the British explorer Captain James Cook, who claimed the land for England in 1778 and after whom Cook Inlet was named. Russian settlers moved onto Upper Cook Inlet in the late 1890s, establishing settlements inhabited by traders and missionaries. With the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867, Russia turned over its holdings on Cook Inlet to the Alaska Commercial Company of San Francisco. In 1882 gold was discovered in streams along Turnagain Arm, causing a population explosion as steamships from Seattle brought prospectors who settled in the Matanuska and Sustina Valleys to pan for gold.

City Becomes Major Railroad, Aviation, Military Center

Another growth spurt occurred in 1915 when Ship Creek was chosen as the mid-point construction headquarters for the government-owned Alaska Railroad that was to be built from Seward to Fairbanks. A town site was soon established at Ship Creek, land was auctioned off, and the new town was called Anchorage. By 1920, the year of its incorporation, Anchorage had developed into a major city. The Alaska Railroad was completed in 1923; that same year Anchorage's first airfield was built, initiating the aviation industry that within a decade became a vital part of the city's economy. Anchorage established its own airline in 1926 and in 1935 Merrill Field was opened. In 1935 the city also experienced another population boom with the migration of dust bowl farmers from the Midwest into the Matanuska Valley.

The foundation of another important element of Anchor-age's economy, the military defense complex, was formed with the military buildup in Alaska during the late 1930s. Fort Richardson and Elmendorf Field Air Force Base were established near the city; the Alaska Highway, the American military supply line to northern defense headquarters and a link between Anchorage and other parts of the country, was completed in 1942. Through World War II and into the early 1950s the city expanded, the population increasing to 43,314 in 1950 at a rate of more than 600 percent in a decade. In 1951 International Airport opened, making Anchorage a primary connection for transpolar air traffic between Europe and Asia.

City Devastated by Earthquake; Oil Discovered

Anchorage suffered a severe setback in 1964 when it was struck by a devastating earthquake, one of the most serious ever recorded in North America. Damage was extensive, but within two years the city had recovered and was moving into another phase of prosperity resulting from the discovery of oil on Cook Inlet. The city and borough governments merged in 1975 to form the municipality of Anchorage, and in 1978 "Project 80s" was initiated. A development plan of major proportions, Project 80s involved the construction of the George M. Sullivan Arena, the William A. Egan Convention and Civic Center, and the Anchorage Center for the Performing Arts; the final stage of the project, the Center for the Performing Arts, was completed in 1988. A collapse in world crude oil prices brought statewide recession in 1986, causing high unemployment rates and a population decrease in Anchorage.

Oil Spilled in Prince William Sound

Anchorage made international headlines on Good Friday, March 24, 1989, when the grounded oil tanker Exxon Valdez spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into nearby Prince William Sound, forming a slick that eventually reached into the Gulf of Alaska and beyond. Anchorage served as the command post for cleanup efforts costing more than $2.5 billion. Only a small amount of oil remained by the mid-1990s, and seals, whales, and bald eagles had returned to the region. U.S. government biologists and scientists for the Exxon Corporation continued to disagree over the issue of damage to animals, with Exxon contending that the damage was less than what government scientists claimed. In 1994 an Anchorage jury ordered Exxon Corp. to pay more than $5 billion to fishermen and others who could show that they had been financially hurt by the oil spill.

A Time of Growth

In the 1990s Anchorage began to experience record economic growth that continues today. The Anchorage Economic Development Corporation predicts an increase of 2,100 jobs in Anchorage for 2005, an increase of 1.5 percent over 2004. If that prediction holds true, the year will mark Anchorage's 17th straight year of job growth.

Alaska has become increasingly attractive as a tourist destination. Seventeen of the nation's twenty highest peaks reside in the state; six mountain ranges can be seen from Anchorage alone. In 2002, Anchorage was one of ten cities to receive the 2002 All-America City Award, an award designated by the National Civic League. The city's favorable business climate, commitment to education, thriving cultural life, and stunning natural beauty combine to make today's Anchorage a strong and growing city.

Historical Information: Anchorage Museum of History and Art Archives, 121 West Seventh Avenue, Anchorage, AK 99501; telephone (907)343-6189