It was at 2 p.m. on Monday, June 30, 1958, that Alaskans learned they would become residents of the new 49th State.
A huge bonfire would be lighted that evening in celebration of the long-awaited event. The 49th Star would not be added to the flag until January 3, 1959, but the wait would only extend the celebration. We were at last one of the United States, and that was what mattered.
Not everyone was happy, though. Some residents of Chugiak-Eagle River had voted against what now would become the Alaska Constitution. They were not in favor of keeping fish traps, one of the primary issues touted by statehood proponents, but they worried about the cost of government. As a territory, the federal government bore the cost of roads, public safety outside the cities, courts, health and other major responsibilities, including the biggest share of cost of local schools.
There had been six days of debate in the United States Senate. Lobbyists for the powerful fishing industry had worked hard to prevent an affirmative vote. Southern members of Congress feared that giving two senators to a place with so few residents would skew votes at a time when civil rights were coming to the forefront. Word from Washington was that a vote would be taken early in the morning, but it was not until 8 p.m. that it finally took place. Remember that in those days, the East Coast was in a time zone six hours ahead of Southcentral Alaska. In 1958, Alaska stretched across three time zones, with Nome and the Aleutian Islands still another hour behind the Washington bureaucracy.
This writer had the privilege of being in the back shop of the Anchorage Daily Times on that historic day. Excitement was high as the newsroom anticipated the vote. Publisher Bob Atwood, a major supporter of statehood, was in Washington to stay in contact with Alaska Delegate to Congress Bob Bartlett and Sen. “Scoop” Jackson of Washington State, a staunch ally. Expecting an early vote that day, the front page had “ears” identifying an EXTRA edition.
Managing Editor Bernard J. Kosinski and his reporters had compiled background material on what statehood would mean to Alaskans.
The front page was all ready to go on the press except for a short three-column hole left for a first couple of paragraphs giving details of the vote. A photograph showed the huge pile of material stacked on the Park Strip at 9th Avenue to make the bonfire.
People from all over had brought firewood, old furniture, paper and other items to contribute to the conflagration.
Six decades ago, most newspapers were printed by letterpress. Text type was set on a Linotype machine which cast one line at a time from lead pumped into a mold containing matrices of the assembled letters. The columns of type were combined with headlines and “display” type of letters larger than a quarter inch that were set one letter at a time. Very large type was made of wood rather than lead. A complete newspaper page form of solid lead, 17 by 22 inches in size and one-inch thick was very heavy.
Earlier in the day, Kosinski asked what was the largest type available. We had a font of six-inch letters to be used for a “Doomsday” headline. He wanted the banner to read “We Are No. 49.” Those letters in the six-inch size wood type were too long. The next smallest size was three inches high, too small for his plan.
“Make it ‘WE’RE IN’,” the editor said.
Unfortunately, there was no apostrophe in the font. It was not to be a fatal problem, however. There was a comma in the type case. The thin strip of wood was taken over to the pedestal saw, the image cut off the bottom of the strip, placed at the top and spacing material made to fit below.
That headline has become the icon identifying Alaska’s Statehood.
With the final vote coming at 2 p.m. the edition was put on the press at the normal deadline time. In the interest of full disclosure, it was not an extra edition, but the ears continued to proclaim it as such. At this point in time, it makes a better impression on the reader to think it was special, even if not an extra.
The desire for statehood dated to Gold Rush times. With wealth uncovered on the Seward Peninsula and along the Yukon, and problems encountered as a result, there was a demand for local governance. The Organic Act of 1884 had created districts with federal judges at Sitka, Eagle and Nome. It provided for a “temporary seat of government” at Sitka. That changed in 1900 when Congress switched the temporary seat to Juneau. Six years later, Alaska was designated as a territory and allowed to elect a non-voting member to the House of Representatives.
James Wickersham, a federal judge assigned to the Third District Court at Eagle in 1900, was elected as Delegate in 1908. He proposed a statehood bill during his first term. Later delegates also attempted to gain equal status with their fellow citizens.
Alaskans continued to press for statehood after feeling abused by the federal government and not having more of a voice in decisions.
A rallying cry became control of fisheries, particularly in outlawing fish traps. The contraptions were open around the clock, collecting salmon and not allowing enough to escape to guarantee future runs. That the traps were controlled by Outside canning interests added fuel to the fire. Lobbyists for those interests fought hard to stop the statehood movement.
Finally, in 1956, a constitutional convention was assembled at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks to write a constitution. Its second ordinance was to create the Alaska-Tennessee Plan whereby two “senators” and a “representative” would be elected and sent to Washington and demand to be recognized. That plan passed in an April election and in October, former governors William A. “Bill” Egan and Ernest Gruening were elected to be the senators and Ralph J. Rivers was to be the representative. Those three, after Alaska became a state, were elected to hold those offices.
The convention worked diligently to come up with a proposed constitution for the state. It was approved by voters and that word taken to Washington by its “delegation.” Efforts by Alaskans, including Gruening’s “Operation Statehood” group which enlisted Eleanor Roosevelt and popular Hollywood figures, had come to the aid of Bartlett’s work in Congress.
In 1958, the Statehood Act introduced in the House of Representatives by Bartlett won approval.
There was a counter bill introduced in the Senate but it was to be Bartlett’s bill that would be the final one voted on. It passed on a 64-20 vote among the 96 senators, with a dozen others either skipping the vote or abstaining.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill in the presence of several supporters, including Alaska Gov. Mike Stepovich, Atwood and Fairbanks News-Miner publisher C. W. “Bill” Snedden.
Concerns over the ability of the new state to pay its way were eased in 1957 by the discovery of the Swanson River oilfield in Cook Inlet. Until recently, oil royalties paid for 80 percent of state government costs and funded many programs and facilities. In addition, the Alaska Permanent Fund has provided annual dividends to citizens of the state. Gov. Jay Hammond, in office when the Fund was created, championed the idea that the resource belonged to all the people and they should benefit from a portion of its profits.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com.