1910-1940

Alaska's Past - Regional Perspectives

In this section you will learn about:

  • The start of the Alaska Railroad
  • Fur boom and decline
  • Reservations versus homesteads for Athapaskans
  • Early aviation in Interior Alaska
  • Large-scale gold operations

Interior Alaska gets a railroad

Although railroads had once been proposed from tidewater to Iditarod, as glory faded so did the proposals. Interior Alaskans had energetically lobbied for a railroad. They saw a railroad as the solution to moving freight and supplies to isolated mining districts. Interior residents believed only a railroad could bring about homesteading and agricultural growth. These would lead to jobs and prosperity. The Second Organic Act passed in 1912 enabled the president to appoint a commission to recommend the best routes to Interior Alaska from the sea coast. On March 12,1914, bells and fire alarms rang out through Fairbanks to signal passage of the Alaska railroad bill. The legislation provided full government funding to construct a railroad from Seward to Fairbanks.

The chiefs oppose a reservation

In 1915 eight Athapaskan chiefs from the Tanana river valley met with Delegate to Congress Wickersham and federal officials. Construction of the Alaska Railroad was underway. Its completion was expected to bring homesteaders to settle Interior Alaska. Wickersham advised the chiefs that settlers would take up all the best land. The government wanted to give the Natives the first chance at land ownership before the settlers arrived. He offered them a choice between a reservation system or 160-acre homesteads.

Thomas Riggs, Jr., of the Alaska Engineering Commission agreed with Wickersham. He warned the Natives that the country would soon be

overrun with white people who would kill off your game, your moose, your caribou and your sheep. They will run them all out of the country and they will have so many fish wheels on the river that the Indian will not get as many fish.

Chief Charley of Minto responded. If the white people are coming in here like the slush ice to cover all the villages, we expect your people to protect us from them." The chief asked that Natives be notified in writing of laws that affected them. "There are times when we cannot reach you people, the government of this United States," he said, "and there is no way we can learn what laws have been made for us." Chief Evan of Cos Jacket echoed this view. "We have never had a chance to see the government officials and tell them what we wanted."

What they wanted was not reservation life, but "to remain perfectly free, just as we are now." They opposed homesteads for the same reason. Homesteads would not reflect their traditional way of life or their communal use of the land. They did favor a proposal by Wickersham to establish schools in the Tanana Valley. Too often, the chiefs said, army contracts for wood or fish went to non-Native contractors because they could read and write. They learned of the contracts before the Natives did. Wickersham felt that reservations would benefit the Indians, but he agreed to report the chiefs' opposition when he returned to Washington, D.C.

The Tanana chiefs conference, as it has come to be called, was very significant. It was the first instance in Alaska of Native leaders from different groups gathering to discuss land use with non-Natives. Also, the rejection of reservations by most Alaskan Natives made Native-non-Native relations in Alaska much different than they had been on other American frontiers.

The fur trade booms again

During the two preceding decades Interior Natives' had been affected by rises and declines in gold mining. Jobs and cash had been plentiful during the height of the Klondike gold rush. As many as 100 wood-burning steamers had plied the Yukon River annually. As the rush ended and overland transportation developed, river trade suffered. This meant the loss of a major source of income for some Native families whose members had been employed in wood yards or on the boats. Indians had also sold smoke-tanned moccasins, shoe pacs, fur caps, hide gloves, and mittens to the stampeders. Their market dwindled as miners left Interior Alaska.

A new fur boom accompanied World War I and partially filled the income gap. The war shifted the world fur market center from Europe to America. A mania for furs obsessed the clothing industry. Dyeing processes were perfected.

Higher prices for furs encouraged more trapping. To conserve popular fur bearers the federal government issued regulations to control the industry. The regulations licensed trappers, limited the number of animals that could be taken, and prescribed the trapping methods that would be permitted. Natives, however, were not required to have trapping licenses or to keep records of their take. The new boom in furs was followed by another decline in the early 1920s and a boom again in the late 1920s. Despite the new regulations, the number of fur-bearing animals decreased. Not until the late 1930s did the fur catch return to the levels of earlier years. One of the changes in the traditional fur trade was the advent of aviation which made it possible for furs to be shipped out and supplies shipped in during winter. Trappers could now reach formerly inaccessible areas.

Trapping

For trappers in Interior Alaska during the first half of the twentieth century, life followed a yearly cycle of activities. In the fall, before freeze-up, they moved to cabins on rivers or streams, taking a winter's grubstake with them. They hurried to cut wood for the winter and to get in a supply of fresh meat before the snow began to fall.

Work began in earnest after the first hard freeze. Then the traps and snares were set, and the trappers began their winter routine of checking the trapline, returning to the cabin with the catch, skinning the animals, stretching the furs, and starting out once more to check and re-set the traps. The only interruption came during the holiday season. Many families traveled by dog team to nearby villages to visit friends and celebrate Christmas, and to trade furs for store goods. The trappers remained at their winter sites until spring break-up, when they could return to the villages by boat. Summers were spent at fish camps, catching and drying enough fish for winter use and for dog food.

The pelts could be taken to Alaska Commercial Company stores and exchanged for merchandise, cash, or credit. Furs could also be sold to individual buyers who sledded or flew into the Interior and paid cash for the pelts. Or furs could be sent to dealers such as the Seattle Fur Exchange for auctioning. In some years, the family breadwinner might find employment on a construction project, but such jobs usually lasted only a short time. Even though fur prices varied from year to year, trapping was the consistent income source.

For families with school-age children, the demands of the trapping cycle presented some hard choices. The children could be sent to boarding school. One parent could remain in the village while the children attended the village school, while the other parent spent the winter on the trapline. Or, children could study at home by correspondence course.

During the latter half of the century, the use of snow-machines and airplanes meant that trap-lines could be run much more quickly and over greater distances, enabling families to live in villages year-round. The new equipment, however, was expensive to acquire and needed oil and gas to operate. This fuel-unlike the fish used to feed the dogs-had to be bought with cash. As a result the number of trappers, both Native and non-Native, dwindled.

Today, modern trappers still check their sets and snares for marten, lynx, fox, wolf, wolverine, muskrat, and beaver. They are more apt to spend the summer in wage-earning jobs than in fish camps. The money they earn helps them return to their trap-lines in winter. In years when fur prices are high, the season may be profitable.

Regardless of the financial return, trapping is of primary importance to a large segment of Alaskans. Established trappers go to great lengths to maintain their skills and their traditional trapping territories. They like to depend on the land for their livelihood. They want to keep their ties with a way of life they have identified with all their lives.

The air age starts in Alaska

James Martin made the first flight in Alaskan skies during a Fourth of July celebration in Fairbanks in 1913. Subsequent flights by others showed that air travel could help solve the continuing problems of access and supply in the remote Interior.

Soon after the Alaska Railroad was dedicated in 1923, a disassembled airplane was taken by rail to Fairbanks. School teacher Carl Ben Eielson put the plane together over the next winter and began the first commercial airmail delivery in Alaska. The route between Fairbanks and McGrath, a trip that took mail drivers 20 days to complete by dog team, could be flown in four hours. That same year, 1924, businessman Jimmy Aodenbaugh organized the Alaska Transportation Company. He hired two pilots, Arthur Sampson and Noel Wien, and paid them each $300 a month.

Other bush pilots soon joined these pioneers and airplanes began to replace overland freight and mail carriers. Mail, food, medical supplies, mining equipment, and passengers were delivered to remote camps and river bars. Although landing strips were primitive and navigation aides were nearly nonexistent, air transportation was quickly accepted. The airplane brought great change to Interior Alaska. Inhabitants were no longer totally dependent upon natural transportation routes take there places that were otherwise inaccessible at certain times of the year.

The Davidson Ditch

In 1930 residents of Interior Alaska were impressed by an engineering wonder called the Davidson Ditch, named for games M. Davidson, the engineer who laid it out. This 72-mile system carried water needed for the gold dredges and hydraulic mining equipment of Fairbanks gold fields.

Lack of water to run hydraulic equipment and thaw the frozen earth had limited earlier mining operations in the area. Construction of the ditch was not possible until a series of related events occurred in the early 1920s. First, the Alaska Railroad was completed, making it feasible to transport heavy mining machinery to the Interior. Second, the Nenana coal fields were opened, providing a ready source of fuel to generate the electricity needed to pump water to the mining sites. Third, the Fairbanks Exploration Company acquired large tracts of land suitable for placer mining.

In 1928, the Fairbanks Exploration Company began constructing the 12-foot-wide Davidson Ditch from the Chatanika River to the Fairbanks gold fields. Construction workers built a series of siphons, branches, water ways, and tunnels on a constant grade of 2.1 feet per mile. The finished waterworks could deliver 81 million gallons of water per day to the five giant dredges that the company was operating by 1930.

By the late 1950s, the increased costs of labor and machinery had made gold dredging and hydraulic operations impractical. The ditch was sold to the Chatanika Power Company and used to generate electricity. When the 1967 Fairbanks flood damaged part of the structure, the power company gave up the operation, too. Although some segments have collapsed from repeated freezing and thawing, the ditch is still in good condition from Mile 32 of the Steese Highway to Faith Creek. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the State Division of Parks have proposed that this section be preserved as a historic site.

Bright spots light Interior Alaska

The growth of aviation was only one of several bright spots in the economy of Interior Alaska between world wars I and II. Gold mining continued to provide jobs and profits. This was especially true in large-scale operations run by firms which could afford heavy equipment. The Fairbanks Exploration Company was formed in 1924. The company put eight dredges in operation in the Fairbanks area and hired nearly 500 men.

In other parts of Interior Alaska mining groups were buying up individual claims. Modern machinery could work ground that had been unprofitable for small miners with gold pans and sluice boxes. Gold recovery was steady in the Fortymile area. Communities at Chicken, Franklin, Jack Wade, and Steele Creek grew into service and supply centers for area miners.

The Fairbanks economy got another boost in 1922 when an agricultural college and school of mines opened six miles northwest of the city center. The school later became the University of Alaska. The faculty helped develop better methods for farming and mineral exploration and recovery. A cooperative extension service was formed in 1930 to help farmers learn the best way to raise and market their crops. The college also took over the Tanana Valley agricultural experiment station.

Summary questions

  1. Why did Interior Alaska Natives at the 1915 Tanana chiefs conference reject the idea of homesteads or reservations?
  2. What impact did world war I have on Interior Alaska's economy?
  3. What changes did the introduction of air travel bring to Interior Alaska?
  4. How did the territorial agricultural college and school of mines help Interior Alaska's economy?

Inquiry question

  1. Gold mining has been done in most parts of Alaska. If this is true for your area, what methods were used?

THE YUKON RIVER AND ITS PEOPLE
1800-1869 THE RUSSIANS AND ENGLISH MEET
1869-1896 STARS AND STRIPES UP THE RIVER
1896-1910 CHANGING LIFESTYLES, DIFFERENT VALUES
1910-1940
1940-1980 CONSTRUCTION BOOM
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