"I fell in love with Alaska at first sight. I loved the beauty of the woods, the sky, the light- it was a luminous light, the lack of pollution. I loved the trees, and flowers."
-- Ruth Gruber, Alaska researcher
Many Americans have shared Gruber's sentiments. Nicknamed "The Last Frontier," Alaska has long captivated the minds and hearts of explorers. Over time, many people have raised public awareness of this beautiful frontier to the north.
Edward Harriman, a railroad tycoon, was a prominent admirer of Alaska. Interested in the creation of a railway from the United States to Russia by way of Alaska, Harriman in the spring of 1899 embarked on one of America's most celebrated expeditions. With 126 passengers and crew aboard the George W. Elder, Harriman, officially on vacation, transported scientists to Alaska. The group performed a groundbreaking survey of the landscape, studying the land's plants, animals and native peoples. Harriman's expedition garnered public interest, and news of the party's discoveries made headlines. When the expedition returned to Seattle, they had in hand detailed notes, illustrations, more than 5,000 photographs, and 100 trunks of artifacts that would introduce Americans.
Another prominent Alaska promoter was Slim Williams. A gold prospector drawn to the area in 1900 at the age of 18, Williams found fame with his outlandish publicity stunts to raise awareness of Alaska in the continental United States. Between November 1932 and October 1933, Williams, on a bet, trekked from Alaska to the Chicago World's Fair, and on to Washington D.C. Beginning on a dogsled, and later, riding on an old Model T Ford automobile pulled by eight of his part-wolf dogs, Williams was sponsored by Donald MacDonald, the senior engineer with the Alaska Road Commission and proponent of the Route A proposal for the Alaska Highway, a route along the Pacific Coast to Alaska (the eventual highway would take another course).
Williams' travels became somewhat of a cause célèbre. Wherever he stopped to rest, Williams would be greeted by throngs of people. Fan mail poured in from all over the country. Women sewed Williams' dogs leather booties to protect their feet. In October 1933, Williams arrived in Washington, D.C. where he was granted an audience with President Franklin Roosevelt. While visiting with the president, and later at dinner with the president and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Williams advocated for the Route A highway proposal. Although it would take several years before a serious plan for the Alaska Highway would emerge, Williams' stunts brought Alaska to the attention of the American public.
One of the most famous explorers and proponents of the Arctic was Canadian-born Vilhajalmur Stefansson. Stefansson first visited Alaska in 1906, when he left college to join the Anglo-American Polar Expedition. When Stefansson's ship became delayed, he lived for six months with an Inuit family. As a result, Stefansson became fascinated with the Native Alaskans' way of life; he saw their adaptation to the extreme conditions in the Arctic as far superior to those developed by the white settlers and explorers. Between 1913 and 1918, Stefansson mapped more than 100,000 square miles of the Arctic. When he returned from his expedition, Stefansson had become a minor celebrity, and his lectures drew large crowds, who were intrigued by his stories of the people of the north and his adventures, which included living for several months on a floating block of ice. Stefansson was convinced that Alaska would be crucial to America in the future, and worked on mapping flights for Pan Am airlines and for the War Department, helping with the planning of the Alaska Highway.
During the early 1940s, New York journalist Ruth Gruber, who had been personally chosen by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, traveled to Alaska on a fact-finding expedition for the Department of the Interior. The group was searching for Japanese fishing canneries that were suspected of spying. She was on a Coast Guard cutter when word came of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Arctic Myths and Realities
Before traveling to Alaska, Ruth Gruber had worked for Stefansson. "I translated a lot of the documents that were in German for Stef," recalled Gruber. "And he's the one who helped me get rid of all the superstitions about the Arctic: that nobody could live there, that it was all a land of ice, and snow, and in Russia that only prisoners lived there. He was the one who taught me these were all superstitions. And now I was to find how true his work was." At the time of Gruber's travels, many shared her belief that Alaska was situated to become a "crossroads of the world." Some hoped that the building of a highway in Alaska would enable the territory to develop in this direction.
Following the Japanese attack on Hawaii, Gruber suddenly found herself in the middle of an urgent military mission. Reporting via radio, as telephones had yet to be established in Alaska, she made recommendations to Ickes, who forwarded her reports to President Roosevelt and his staff, about the status of Alaska. One of her advisories was to evacuate the Aleutians in anticipation of an attack by the Japanese.
Possibilities for a Good Life
Some have suggested that Stefansson and Gruber presented an overly optimistic portrait of the region. Alaska is isolated, cold, and life is challenging there. Still, if there was some exaggeration in their descriptions of the territory, they were providing an important counterbalance to the prevailing notion that Alaska was all but uninhabitable. And their obvious love of the land set the stage for further development and American investment in the region. As Gruber would recall: "We had to let the rest of the country know the beauty of Alaska and the possibilities of having a very good life in Alaska."