Alaska must be described in terms of absolutes and superlatives. When it was admitted to the Union in 1959, it became the first state outside the forty-eight contiguous states. It is the northernmost state, and remarkably, it is also the westernmost and easternmost state, extending from 130 degrees west longitude, across the 180 degree meridian, to 172 degrees east longitude.

History of Alaska

Alaska must be described in terms of absolutes and superlatives. When it was admitted to the Union in 1959, it became the first state outside the forty-eight contiguous states. It is the northernmost state, and remarkably, it is also the westernmost and easternmost state, extending from 130 degrees west longitude, across the 180 degree meridian, to 172 degrees east longitude. Its latitude runs from Barrow in the Arctic at 72 degrees north to the southernmost point in the Aleutian Islands, where its latitude is 52 degrees north, giving it a greater latitude span than the entire forty-eight contiguous states and almost as much longitude. Alaska lies geographically in four time zones, although, for practical purposes, two official time zones have been established.

Alaska is the only state that borders the Arctic Ocean and extends into the Arctic Circle. It lies closest to Asia of any of the states, its western extreme on Little Diomede Island being just two miles from the Russian island of Big Diomede. On the east and north, its border with Canada is the longest of any state. The shortest air routes between the United States and Asia are directly over Alaska, which has the largest oil and natural gas reserves in the United States. With a land mass of 570,374 square miles, it is the largest state, more than twice the size of Texas. Alaska has the largest glaciers and the most volcanoes of any U.S. state. With 1.1 persons per square mile, it has the lowest population density in the United States. Alaska’s Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet, is the highest point in the North American continent.

Early History

Alaska’s earliest inhabitants were the Tingit-Haidas and members of the Athabascan Tribes. The Aleuts and Eskimos, or Inuits, crossed the Bering Strait from Russia more than four thousand years ago and settled along the coast, surviving largely by fishing and hunting. These migrants were likely Asians who came to the region when what is now Alaska was linked to mainland Asia by a land bridge. By 1750, some seventy thousand native Inuits lived in Alaska (that number has not significantly changed). Aleuts were driven from the Aleutian Islands by the Russians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and by the American military forces during World War II.

The earliest incursions by westerners occurred in 1741, when Vitus Bering, a Dane supported in his ventures by Russia, sailed to Alaska and established the first settlement on Kodiak Island in 1784. The fur business, important and lucrative in early Alaska, thrived with the establishment in 1799 of the Russian-American Company. It controlled the fur trade from its headquarters in Archangel, present-day Sitka.

Russia owned Alaska until 1867, when President Andrew Johnson’s secretary of state, William H. Seward, negotiated its purchase by the United States for $7.2 million. Although the U.S. Senate approved this purchase enthusiastically, buying this little-known area, which most people considered a frozen wasteland, the action was unpopular and known as “Seward’s Folly.” This “folly” paid off handsomely when a major gold strike was made near Juneau in 1880, unleashing a gold rush to the region and stimulating the exploration of Alaska for its mineral wealth.

In 1896 gold was discovered in Canada’s Klondike, and, in 1898, at Fairbanks, causing another gold rush. Fish canneries built in the southeastern part of the area in the 1880’s and 1890’s imported workers from the United States. American traders moving to Alaska in search of riches established a route along the Yukon, the fourth longest river in the northern hemisphere.

Steps Toward Statehood

As Alaska became more viable economically, Congress viewed it with increased interest. In 1884, Alaska was made a judicial district, with Sitka as its capital. In 1906, it was permitted one elected delegate in the United States House of Representatives. The region was granted territorial status in 1912, and Juneau was declared its capital. Its political powers, however, were limited. Statehood was first proposed in Congress in 1916 but was rejected. In 1946, however, Alaskans, in a state referendum, approved statehood. Ten years later, a state constitution was adopted. On January 3, 1959, Alaska was admitted to the Union as the forty-ninth state.

When statehood was first proposed for Alaska in 1916, the state was extremely isolated from the rest of the country. Many U.S. citizens had gone there to work during last half of the nineteenth century, but communication and transportation were limited. With the advent of radios and telephones, these problems began to fade, although it was many years before telephone communication with the “lower 48” (the United States mainland) was perfected. Almost simultaneously with better telephone communication came the development of air transportation, which had evolved rapidly during World War I and was, by the 1920’s, becoming a major factor in transportation worldwide.

Alaska’s enormous spaces made it an ideal venue for private aircraft. During the late 1920’s and the 1930’s, many Alaskans owned private planes, shrinking perceptibly the time they needed to cover the state’s huge expanses. Commercial aircraft began to serve Alaska’s major cities, and Anchorage became a refueling stop for planes flying from the United States and Canada to Asia.

These factors eliminated some of the earlier objections to statehood. Also, because the Japanese attacked and eventually occupied some of the Aleutian Islands during World War II, Americans became increasingly aware of Alaska’s defensive importance.

Alaska’s Economy

From its earliest days, Alaska had a stable economy. While mainland America struggled economically during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Alaska was undergoing an economic rebirth brought on largely by gold mining. Alaska had thriving copper mines as well. As revenues increased, the territorial government built much-needed roads, whose construction employed thousands of workers, many of whom came to Alaska and remained there as permanent residents.

World War II had a profound effect on the Alaskan economy. With Japan’s invasion of the Aleutian Islands in 1942, the United States deployed about 200,000 military personnel to Alaska, where major military installations were built at Adak, Anchorage, Fairbanks, Kodiak, and Sitka. The Alcan highway was completed, creating a road link among Alaska’s major cities.

Throughout the 1950’s, military construction in Alaska continued at a brisk pace. This activity brought both construction workers and military personnel to the area in large numbers. Many, impressed by Alaska’s grandeur and economic opportunities, remained there when the work that originally brought them to Alaska was completed.

In 1957 huge oil deposits were discovered in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, and shortly thereafter other vast fields were found at Prudhoe Bay. Despite the harsh climate and great distances involved, the eight hundred-mile-long Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline was completed in 1977. Alaska became so oil rich that it was able to finance a giant expansion and still give each of its citizens more than one thousand dollars a year as a cash bonus for several years. It had no need for a state income tax.

The oil boom waned during the 1980’s and by the mid-1980’s was virtually over. The state by this time had attracted many new residents who viewed Alaska as the land of opportunity. Its population increased by 36.9 percent between 1980 and 1990, reaching just over 550,000 in 1990. The 1997 population registered a more than 10 percent increase, having grown to almost 610,000.

Following the oil boom, Alaska struggled to attract tourist dollars. It also began establishing trade with such Asian countries as South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, although the slowing of the Asian economy in 1998 and 1999 temporarily stalled some of these efforts. Alaska’s abundance of many resources that Asia does not have makes trade enviable. Natural gas development also became vigorously pursued within the state, which is also did a great deal to increase the amount of metal mining done within it boundaries. Alaska has deposits of every known mineral except bauxite.

The Threat of Oil Spills

Environmentalists were concerned about the building of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline because portions of it were laid in areas with geological faults. However, the pipelines have been fashioned to resist the earthquakes that are common in fault areas. A severe earthquake in 1964, followed by a tsunami, a huge tidal wave, devastated much of coastal Alaska, doing considerable damage in Anchorage, Kodiak, Seward, and Valdez. At this time, there was no pipeline that might rupture. The potential for destruction of the pipeline is slight, but still a cause for concern.

In 1989 a huge supertanker, the Exxon Valdez, foundered in Prince William Sound and spilled more than 240,000 barrels of oil into the surrounding water. The result was catastrophic: Commercial fishing was so negatively impacted that many who fished for a living were forced out of business. The area would take years to recover completely from the wholesale destruction of wildlife. If any good came out of the Exxon Valdez disaster, it is that the shipping of oil on supertankers became more strenuously regulated. Many new tankers have double hulls so that if the hull is punctured, the oil will not leak into the surrounding ocean.