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Alaska's First Legislature, 1913:
Oh, How Times Have Changed!
by June Allen


January 18, 2003
Saturday - 12:30 am

As they have been doing regularly for almost 90 years now, duly-elected lawmakers from all parts of Alaska assemble in Juneau this month to represent their constituents in Alaska's legislature. In 1913, after Congress had granted territorial status to the erstwhile federal district the year before, 23 men from every corner of Alaska traveled to the newly-proclaimed capital for the very first legislative session of the new territory.

Attainment of territorial status in 1912 meant that Alaskans could chose legislators and thus begin, if gradually, the journey toward a degreee of self-determination for the vast and rich country.

The 23 members of Alaska'a first territorial legislature assembled
in the Elks Lodge Hall in Juneau, March 1913.
Photo courtesy of Alaska State Library and Alaskan Southeaster Magazine

There was grumbling, then as now, by some of the newly-elected legislators from the Interior, Southcentral, and Western Alaska about Juneau's geographical location as capital. Among the grumblers in 1913 were some of those who would have to make late-winter trips by dog sled to an ice-free salt water port to catch a ship for the legislature's planned early March opening.

In 1913, Alaskans were still basking in the afterglow of the gold rush that had started in the neighboring Klondike in 1898. The "name Alaska was synonymous with gold." There were those who thought the capital should be close to the action - but bustling northern mainland communities founded on gold strikes more often than not faded into ghost towns.

So, there were reasons for Juneau's becoming the seat of government in 1900. Sitka had been the Russian headquarters and remained the seat of government after the Alaska purchase from Russia in 1867. However, by the time of the gold boom at the end of the 19th century, Sitka, off the main track to the mining districts, had declined in population, influence and accommodations.

Juneau, on the other hand, was more solidly anchored, an established and busy mining town. Mining was a major part of the early 20th century economy in Alaska. Also, in those early years, Southeastern boasted communications superiority: Mail turn-around with Washington D.C., that could take many months in the more northern reaches of the territory, took only a matter of weeks from Juneau. And, most Southeastern towns such as Wrangell and Ketchikan were, in terms of the economic times, economically stable.

Legislators in 1913 represented Nome, Ruby, Fairbanks, Seward, Valdez, Skagway, Douglas, Juneau, Sitka, Wrangell and Ketchikan. However, some of the mainland towns from which 1913 legislators hailed are today only memories or simply waystops, former mining communities like Fox, Knik, Iditarod and Candle. Another was the town of Katalla, all but forgotten today but worthy of mention. Represented in 1913 by R.D.Gray, Katalla was a small boom town on the Gulf of Alaska 110 miles southeast of Valdez. Oil was struck there in 1902 and an oil refinery operated there until 1933, when it was destroyed by fire.

So, you think it's inconvenient and time-consuming to get to Juneau today?

Consider this: Two would-be politicians from Nome, Charles D. Jones and Elwood Bruner, were so confident of their election chances that they left Nome for Juneau on the last southbound steamship of the season at the end of October, before the November election had even been held. And both did win!

The four other successful candidates from Nome, Conrad Freeding, Frank Aldrich, J.C. Kennedy and Tom Gaffney, hitched up their dog teams and departed Nome on January 7, headed for Fairbanks. En route they stopped at Ruby for rest, a banquet and revelry, and there picked up Ruby's new legislator, Dan Sutherland. The five mushed on to Fairbanks for another rest and recreation pause before continuing on to Valdez. The last musher arrived there February 13, where they all boarded the southbound steamship NORTHWESTERN, bound for Juneau. Henry Roden of Iditarod and Milo Kelly of Knik also are said to have mushed to Valdez.

Eight senators and fifteen of the sixteen elected representatives finally arrived in Juneau for the opening session March 3, 1913. 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.

Juneau in early March is thinking spring. Temperatures usually hover a little above the freezing mark. The home towns of some of the more northern delegates, however, would not be seeing springtime for another two months. It is possible, in the spirit of an old traditional Alaska custom, that upon arrival in the capital city the legislators-elect were feted by Juneau territorial senator Herman T. Tripp and representative William Stubbins of Douglas.

Three legislators listed themselves as Democrats, three as Republicans, and the rest claimed some variety of independent or no-party affiliations. All the novice lawmakers were eager to serve. They would be paid, from federal funds, $15 per day while in session plus fifteen cents per travel mile, round trip. Mileage was said to have amounted to an estimated $600 to $700 for the Nome mushers.

Sessions were limited to 60 days. The legislators would meet in Juneau's Elks Hall in 1913. They were photographed there, seated stiffly on straight chairs, dressed in dark woolen suits with stiff white shirt collars, their dress shoes firmly planted on the floor. Behind them, the wall was decorated with two huge American flags flanked by the columns of the hall's proscenium arch. The presiding officer stands at attention, possibly L.V. Ray of Seward, president of the senate. Presiding in the house was Ernest B. Collins of Fox.

Other legislators were Daniel Driscoll of Fairbanks, B.F. Millard and F.M. Boyle of Valdez, J.M. Tanner of Skagway, William T. Burns of Fairbanks, Charles E. Ingersoll of Ketchikan, H.B. Ingram of Valdez, Arthur G. Shoup of Sitka, and N. J. Svindseth of Wrangell.

Alaska's legislators would meet in rented halls for another eighteen years! It would be that long before the capitol building was completed in 1931. The delay was caused by two things - World War I (1914-1918) and the fact that the owner of the property chosen as the site for the capitol building wanted twice as much for the land as the federal government was willing to pay. There was a deadlock. So finally resourceful Juneau people raised the rest of the purchase price themselves and construction was begun on the Art Deco structure - but not until 1929.

The very first act of the first Alaska Territorial Legislature in 1913 was to give the right to vote to the women of the territory. However, most of the legislation dealt with the nuts and bolts of mining operations. Ten of Alaska's legislators in that first session were involved in mining either as mine operators, miners or mining engineers. There were other occupations represented from various businesses and professions. But the mining occupational preponderance, plus the public interest in the industry at the time, accounts for the fact that most of the legislation enacted in 1913 dealt with mine safety codes, provisions for mine inspections, and the creation of the office of mine inspector. Further laws to protect miners and prospectors were also passed. The first legislature also established the first Pioneers' Home, at Sitka, for indigent old miners who could not longer make a living.

Territorial lawmakers were, however, limited in what they could do. When Alaska finally was given territorial in 1912, the territory's natural resources were already neatly managed by the federal government and would be administered for the benefit of federal coffers for another forty-plus years.

The acts of the first Alaska territorial Legislature were under the purview of lame duck Governor Walter E. Clark (R), who had been appointed by President William H. Taft. But, since the 1913 session followed a national election year, a new Democrat governor, J.F.A. Strong, would serve at the pleasure of President Woodrow Wilson beginning May 21, 1913, just three weeks after the adjournment of that first legislative session.

Territorial government gave the people of Alaska the right to elect a legislature to represent them. But all following legislative acts were watched closely by the Governor of Alaska, who was not elected by the people but was appointed by the president of the United States. A Republican president appointed a Republican governor and a Democratic president appointed a Democrat to serve as governor. However, the people of Alaska would not be able to vote for president until statehood.

The future was edging closer and with more speed. Alaska's cable and telegraph capacity was still in its infancy but communication and other miracles of technology were just around the corner.

In the world of men, motorcycles and Tin Lizzies were beginning to appear on the streets of Alaska's towns. Arcade-style cranked moving pictures were already the rage. The crossword puzzle was invented in 1913 by one Arthur Wynne, indicating that Americans were beginning to have leisure time. Radio and jazz were just around the corner.

In the world of women, 1913 was the year that Mary Phelps Jacob invented the bra, presaging the abandonment of the corset, that restrictive and unhealthy undergarment that held women in another kind of bondage. The historic Alaska vote for women came seven years before the enactment of 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, which gave the vote to all the women of the nation.

And the years did indeed roll into the future with amazing speed. At least one thing has remained the same, however. There are still Alaska legislators from outside Southeast who whine about the inconvenience and distance to the historic state capital at Juneau. In the age of jet travel . . . !



Reprinted Courtesy Alaskan Southeaster Magazine



Copyright © 2003 June Allen
All rights reserved.
Not to be reprinted in any form without the written permission
of June Allen & The Alaskan Southeaster Magazine.


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