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Harriman Expedition Retraced



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Community Profile: Anchorage


Anchorage is situated in one of the most beautiful spots in North America. The city is at the base of the Chugach Mountains, and on the shores of the Cook Inlet. Above downtown Anchorage, Mt. Sustina glows pink during spring sunsets. On clear days, Mt. Denali, the highest peak in North America, looms in the distance.


Anchorage (Photo by National Ocean Service, NOAA).
Click image for a larger view.

Location: Lat. 61E 13' N, Long. 149E 53' W

Area: 1,698 square miles

Population: 260,000

Industry: Oil, natural gas, communications, government

Access: Water, land, air, Alaska Railroad

Alaska Native Affiliation: Diverse, historically Dena'ina Athabascan

Alaska Native Regional Corporation: Cook Inlet Region Native Corporation

Weather: The temperature averages between 6 and 20 degrees Fahrenheit in January, and between 50 and 70 degrees in July. Annual precipitation is 15.9 inches, with 69 inches of snowfall.

Historical Overview

  • Archeological findings show that the Anchorage area in south central Alaska was inhabited first by Eskimo and later Dena'ina Athabascan people. Contact with 18th century European explorers brought disease to the Dena'ina Indians. The tribe, numbering 5,000 at the time of discovery, was decimated by small pox and other illnesses in just a few years.
  • In 1778, English Explorer James Cook sailed up what is now Cook Inlet, hoping to find a waterway that would lead back into North America. Frustrated when he was blocked at the head of the inlet, he named the waterway he'd just sailed through "Turnagain."
  • In 1867, after the United States purchased Alaska from Russia, the Alaska Commercial Company set up mining and rail operations along Cook Inlet. Gold mining, the principal industry, attracted many settlers to the muddy, make-shift community that would one day become Anchorage.
  • In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson authorized the construction of a railroad from the port of Seward to Anchorage, and the population swelled to 2,000. City planners mapped the area on a grid, then held the Anchorage Townsite Auction, selling six hundred lots in what is today downtown. When the railroad was completed in 1923, President Warren Harding drove the final spike -- gold, of course -- into place.
  • On March 27, 1964, the Good Friday earthquake, centered 80 miles off-shore, struck Anchorage, permanently altering much of the coastal landscape. Whole streets dropped ten to twenty feet into the earth, leaving gaping craters along much of the roadway. Several blocks in the downtown neighborhood of "Turnagain by the Sea" collapsed into Cook Inlet. One hundred and thirty people died in Alaska as a result of this quake.
  • Twentieth century Anchorage has experienced two major growth spurts. The first came during World War II, with the construction of military bases in the area. The population grew from 3,000 in 1940 to 47,000 in 1950. The second took place in the 1970s, with the construction of the Alaska oil pipeline. By the early 1980s, the population grew to 184,775, over half that of the entire state.


  • Anchorage is headquarters for government, corporate and military installations, and home to the state's largest newspaper. Unemployment is generally low. Most residents work in government, energy, or communications, and 9,000 military men and women are stationed in the city. Almost 1,000 residents hold commercial fishing permits, but, since the area is not known for its commercial fisheries, these residents most likely fish elsewhere.
  • Though the oil boom has subsided, energy continues to play a huge role in the community's economic and political life. In recent years, the state has begun negotiations with the oil industry over the construction of a pipeline to bring natural gas from Alaska's North Slope southward into the continental United States, and possibly to an international market. Many predict another boom if this pipeline is indeed built.

Community Issues

  • Alaska, with its remote location and frontier image, has attracted many people with libertarian leanings who resent government involvement in their day-to-day lives. As late as 1980, marijuana was legal in parts of the state, and the constitutional right to privacy was considered the broadest in the country. But since then, many factors have contributed to an ideological shift: changes in the way voting districts are arranged; increased lobbying for development; a growth in the number and influence of fundamental Christian churches. In the early 1990s, after reapportionment of voting districts, the state legislature, once controlled by Democrats, was taken over by Republicans.
  • Anchorage, as the state's largest city, has been the site of many events that illustrate the political division in the state. In 2001, Anchorage made national headlines when police arrested three young men who had driven through the city, videotaping themselves as they shot paint ball bullets at Alaska Natives. The Anchorage Daily News editorial pages were blanketed with commentary about race relations in the state, and the Alaska Federation of Natives asked for and received a federal investigation into the racial climate. But anti-hate crime legislation was tabled by the legislature, and the debate about race relations continues.

(View the August 4, 2001 daily photo album from Anchorage)

(View the August 19, 2001 daily photo album from Anchorage)




For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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