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Building the Alaska Highway | Timeline

Alaska from Russian Colony to U.S. State

Alaska Highway today. Courtesy: Corbis

Eighteen years after the continental U.S. is wired from coast to coast, the first telephone wires connect to Juneau and Nome.

U.S. Secretary of State William Marcy and Senator William M. Gwin inquire as to whether the Russian colony of Alaska is for sale. Although the Russians are not selling, the two expansionists have made their interest in the colony known.

January 24, 1848
Gold is struck near Sacramento, California. Within one year, 90,000 people will catch gold fever and move to California, mining 10 million ounces of gold. America's focus moves west, and soon railroads, banks and telegraphs will branch out toward the Pacific Ocean too.

As a result of its crippling loss to France and Britain in the Crimean War, Russia reconsiders selling Alaska to the United States to help its economy rebound following the financial losses of the war.

April 9, 1865
The Civil War ends.

The Western Union Company begins building a telegraph line through Canada, Alaska and across Siberia into Europe. Under the direction of entrepreneur Peter M. Collins, plans call for the construction of almost entirely overland cable, with only 50 miles of underwater cable across the Bering Strait. The Russian American Telegraph Expedition, led by famed scientist Robert Kennicott, goes to Alaska to conduct a land survey.

After 12 years of cajoling investors and solving technical problems, Cyrus W. Field's attempt to complete a transatlantic cable succeeds. As a result, Collins and the Western Union Company abandon their work, despite having made significant progress.

March 3, 1867
The Russian ambassador to the U.S., Edouard De Stoeckl, begins negotiations with the American secretary of state, William Seward, for the sale of Alaska.

March 30, 1867
The United States purchases the rights to Alaska, known as "Russian-America," from Russia. Secretary of State William H. Seward negotiates a price of $7.2 million, or roughly 2 cents per acre. Some Americans, particularly those who have lost their zeal for frontier adventures and who know little of this mysterious northern land, disparage the purchase, and the acquisition is scorned in editorial cartoons as "Seward's Folly." Others see the acquisition as the inevitable progress of Manifest Destiny (spurring British and Canadian efforts to establish western provinces).

October 18, 1867
Russia officially transfers Alaska to the United States

The first salmon cannery is constructed on Prince of Wales Island in Alaska. Salmon fishing will become one of Alaska's key industries.

July 18, 1868
After much convincing on the part of Seward, the United States House of Representatives votes to reimburse Russia for the acquisition of Alaska. Under this legislation, Alaska is officially deemed the Department of Alaska, and placed under the control of the U.S. Army.

September 19, 1868
The first issue of the Sitka Times, Alaska's first newspaper, is published.

The War Department withdraws all military personnel from Alaska. The possession is placed under the administration of the United States Treasury Department.

August 17, 1880
Joseph Juneau and Richard Harris strike gold at Silver Bowl Basin. It is the first of many gold strikes in Alaska over the next 20 years. The Juneau-Douglas mines quickly become Alaska's largest company. The town that develops around the basin is called Juneau City, later shortened to Juneau.

President Chester Arthur signs the Organic Act, creating the "District of Alaska" and appointing several officials to reside over the region, including a governor, several judges and a district attorney. The act also provides for the protection of Native Alaskans; however, the developing industries -- fishing, mining, and timber -- that had begun with the influx of settlers and prospectors are taking their toll on the Native Alaskans.

Juneau is populated by 1,251 people and boasts several schools and stores, a hospital and nine saloons.

July 17, 1897
Returning from the Klondike River in Yukon Territory, the S.I.S. Portland arrives in Seattle. On board the ship is $1 million worth of gold. As word spreads about the Klondike gold, people flood into the Yukon Territory, leading to the development of many towns and businesses. At the mouth of the Klondike River, the town of Dawson City is founded.

September 22, 1989
Four miners strike gold in the vicinity of present-day Nome. News of the strike spreads quickly, and prospectors inundate the area.

The White Pass and Yukon Railroad gets a boost. Originally a British-financed connection between Skagway, Alaska, and Whitehorse, Yukon, the railroad garners U.S. government support following the successive gold rushes and immigration to Alaska. The railway will be extended along the Yukon River, and riverboats will distribute goods throughout the Yukon River Basin.

Congress authorizes funds for the development of a telegraph from Seattle to Sitka.

May 31, 1899
The Harriman expedition leaves Seattle to explore the flora, fauna and native cultures of Alaska. Later in the year, the expedition's namesake, railroad tycoon Edward Harriman, will propose the construction of a railway to Alaska from the continental United States, with a connection to Russia.

Alaska has seen substantial growth, thanks to successive gold strikes. The total population in Alaska is now 63,592. More than 20,000 miners live in Nome alone. Congress votes to incorporate towns in Alaska, and moves the capital of Alaska from Sitka to Juneau. The White Pass and Yukon Railroad, begun in 1898, is completed.

Another significant gold strike occurs in the center of Alaska, in the Tanana Valley. As the area swarms with gold prospectors, the town of Fairbanks is founded.

December 17, 1903
Wilbur and Orville Wright record the first controlled flight of an aircraft at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. With few roadways, air travel will become extremely important to the development of Alaska in the post-WWII era. Until then, interior shipping will still travel mainly by riverboat.

Telegraph cables are laid from Seattle, Washington, to Valdez, Alaska, by way of Sitka. For the first time, Alaska is able to communicate via telegraph with the continental United States.

January 27, 1905
Congress creates the Alaska Road Commission to build the region's first proper roads.

At the behest of Alaskans, Congress permits residents to elect a non-voting representative to sit in the House of Representatives. Alaskan residents will continue to push to be politically recognized by the United States.

President Theodore Roosevelt establishes the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. The forest is the largest national forest in the United States today.

August 24, 1912
Congress passes Alaska's Second Organic Act, designating Alaska an official territory of the United States, and creating a legislature and government for it.

Construction begins on the Alaska Railroad, a line that will eventually connect Seward to Fairbanks.

April 6, 1917
Congress approves President Woodrow Wilson's call to enter World War I, and America officially mobilizes. As a result, Alaska's population decreases significantly as many Alaskans join the war effort.

May 3, 1917
The University of Alaska is founded with a particular emphasis on agriculture and mining.

July 13, 1923
The Alaska Railroad, approximately 470 miles long, is completed at a cost of roughly $65 million. Running from Seward to Anchorage and ending in Fairbanks, the railroad provides the sole year-round route from Alaska's coast to its interior. The Alaska Railroad will serve as the primary mode of transportation for the American military and prove invaluable for moving military goods and engineers, including those needed for the construction of the Alaska Highway during World War II.

KFQD, Alaska's first radio station, goes on the air in Anchorage.

May 1927
Charles A. Lindbergh becomes an instant celebrity after he completes the first nonstop airplane flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

The United States Navy begins surveying Alaska for military bases.

At the beginning of the Depression, local officials propose a highway to Alaska to spark economic development in British Columbia and the far northwest. A Congressional committee approves the plan, but the Canadian government rejects it for fear that Americans will claim sovereignty over the Canadian west.

Charles Lindbergh, accompanied by his wife Anne, flies a plane from New York to Shanghai, China, via the arctic circle of Alaska. Anne will later write an account of the famous flight, entitled North to the Orient.

November 21, 1932
Slim Williams begins a trek from Alaska to Washington D.C. on a dog sled to speak with politicians in support of a highway proposal known as Route A. Strongly supported by British Columbia, Washington State and Alaska, the proposed route will connect Vancouver and Alaska, running along a scenic route a short distance inland from the Pacific Coast. During his travels Williams becomes a minor celebrity, and when he reaches Washington, he is immediately invited to speak with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The last of the Alaskan copper mines is closed, as the period of rapid expansion of the mining sector comes to an end.

At the age of 57, Slim Williams, sometimes riding, sometimes dragging, travels with a 300-pound motorcycle from Fairbanks to Seattle in another publicity stunt to garner support for Route A.

72,000 people live in Alaska, with natives comprising nearly 45 percent of the total population. At this time, the White Pass and Yukon Railroad and the Alaska Railroad provide the only land transportation service in Alaska. The Navy constructs air stations in Kodiak and Sitka.

December 1941
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the United States government forces Aleutians to evacuate their homes in the Aleutian Islands for fear of a Japanese invasion. The nearest Japanese military base is only 750 miles away. Over the next few years, America's military presence will increase dramatically in Alaska; from 500 in 1940, the number of troops will reach 124,000 in 1943.

February 6, 1942
The U.S. Army's Chief of Staff reveals a plan to construct a military supply route to Alaska. Five days later, President Roosevelt will authorize the building of the Alaska Highway.

April 11, 1942
Construction officially begins on the Alaska Highway. When the Army Corps of Engineers comes to the Northwest, Alaska's population is 60,000. The neighboring Canadian territories are much more sparsely populated.

May 17, 1942
Twelve men drown when their makeshift ferry is overcome in a sudden storm on Charlie Lake in British Columbia.

June 1, 1942
After nearly two months of work in difficult terrain, the Army Corps of Engineers has completed only 95 miles of the Alaska Highway.

June 4, 1942
Japan bombs Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, killing more than 100 Americans. Within less than a week, the Japanese invade the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska. They will occupy the islands for nearly a year. Aleuts taken prisoner will be held in Japanese camps for the duration of the war.

June 30, 1942
The Army Corps of Engineers speeds its progress in the month of June, building 265 miles of the Alaska Highway.

July 1942
During this month, aided by the good working conditions, the Army Corps of Engineers picks up the pace, and builds 400 more miles of highway.

August 31, 1942
An article in Time magazine heralds the construction underway in Alaska and brings the project to the attention of Americans.

October 25, 1942
At 4 p.m., the Army Corps of Engineers closes the final gap on the pioneer road that laid the foundation for the Alaska Highway. Civilian contractors managed by the Public Roads Administration continue their work on the more substantial highway.

November 20, 1942
The Alaska Highway is officially opened to military traffic as the first truck makes the trek from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. A ceremony at Soldiers Summit is part of a wartime propaganda effort. In reality, work on the road will continue.

July 1943
The Japanese, weakened by the turning tide of war in the Pacific, evacuate the Aleutians.

Over the course of World War II, the United States has invested nearly $2 billion in Alaska. During this time, railroads, airfields and roads have been modernized. The military presence in Alaska is increased dramatically, and by 1950 the civilian population of Alaska will reach 128,643, up from 72,524 in 1940.

After the war, Alaskan residents begin a campaign for statehood. A referendum passes, with 9,630 Alaskans voting for statehood and 6,822 against.

April 1, 1946
The United States transfers control over the Canadian portion of the Alaska Highway to Canada. In order to reduce future American claims to the Highway, the Canadian government repays the U.S. for the cost of the Canadian portions of the construction.

Congress begins hearings on the Alaska statehood bill. However, the Korean War interrupts the legislative process, and the statehood bill will be forced to the back burner until 1955.

The Alaska Highway is opened for public transportation on a limited basis, with checkpoints and convoys used to ensure safe travel along the still-rough road.

Television makes its debut in Alaska; broadcasters send out the first TV signal from Anchorage.

The Alaska legislature holds a constitutional convention and drafts a constitution in its push for statehood.

Alaskans ratify the state constitution, and one representative and two senators are sent to the U.S. Congress. The first U.S. senators from Alaska are former territorial governor Ernest Gruening and William A. Egan, the president of the Constitutional Convention. Alaskans send Ralph J. Rivers, a former territorial attorney general, as their U.S. representative. The Congressional delegation still cannot vote, but the group lobbies in Washington, D.C. to secure statehood.

May 28, 1958
The U.S. House of Representatives passes the Alaska statehood bill.

June 30, 1958
The U.S. Senate passes the Alaska statehood bill. A week later, on July 7, President Dwight Eisenhower will sign the bill into law.

August 26, 1958
Alaskans head to the polls in a special election to affirm their wish for statehood. With heavy voter turnout, Alaskans approve of becoming a state by a six to one margin.

January 3, 1959
Alaska is officially proclaimed the 49th U.S. state. More than 25 percent of the state's land is titled to the Alaskan government.

Alaska's total population is approximately 648,000 people, of which Alaska Natives account for just over 15 percent. Each year, about 360,000 people make the trek across the Alaska Highway.

In 2010, Alaska's total population had risen to approximately 710,000 people, of which Alaska Natives still accounted for about 15 percent. Hunreds of thousands of visitors visit the Alaska Highway each year.

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