An enigma among Alaskan politicians was the Territory’s second governor, John Franklin Alexander Strong.
Appointed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913, he served until 1918. He was not reappointed and was replaced by Thomas P. Riggs, Jr. Years later, former Gov. Ernest Gruening surmised that the reason Strong was dumped was that a private investigator discovered that the well-known man had never been naturalized as an American citizen. Not only that, but he had abandoned the woman he married in Canada, along with their two daughters and son, and became a bigamist when he married Anna Hall of Tacoma, Wash.
That said, however, other than his habit of throwing in a superfluous “u” in words like favor and endeavor, everyone considered him to be as American as baseball and apple pie.
Strong graduated from New Brunswick Normal School at age 16, then became a teacher, retail clerk and merchant.
Born in the Canadian town of Salmon Creek, New Brunswick, on Oct. 15, 1858, he married a neighbor girl, Elizabeth A. Aiken, on New Year’s Eve, 1879. The date he called it quits and left Liz and the kids behind is unknown.
He crossed the border into the States and showed up in Kentucky where he apparently picked up the nickname “Major,” a moniker that stuck with him for the remainder of his days. He then traveled West, working at various jobs, including journalism. In 1896 he landed up in Seattle where he met and married Anna, a woman several years younger than himself. A year later he headed for the Klondike to join the mob seeking riches in the golden sands.
Landing in Skagway, Strong found he was too late to make it over the mountains to the goldfields and went to work at the Skaguay News.
It was there that Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith and his gang of hoodlums held sway. Strong found the situation ripe for reportage and not only used his pen to oppose the rampant crime but joined the Committee of 101 that put an end to the scourge. Smith was killed by Frank Reid as the rifle-toting barkeep tried to disrupt a Committee meeting. The underworld kingpin was gunned down on July 8, 1898, just four days after being heralded as grand marshal of Skagway’s Independence Day Parade.
Strong stayed over at Skagway the next year, returned to Seattle, then in 1900 ventured to Nome where he found work with the Nome Daily News. There were at the time three newspapers in Nome, with Strong soon owing the News and in 1905 combined it with the Nome Nugget. He was to found the Katella Herald in 1907 and the Iditarod Nugget in 1010. Always on the lookout for greener pastures, he moved to Juneau two years later and became editor of the Juneau Empire.
A distinguished-looking man with a full head of gray hair at age 50, Strong was a man of strong principles despite his questionable past.
In her book “Bent Pins to Chains: Alaska and Its Newspapers,” author Evangeline Atwood extensively quoted Strong’s strongly-worded editorials. (Unfinished when Atwood died, the book was completed by Lew Williams, Jr.)
“Strong’s editorials analyzed local needs and offered solutions. He urged establishment of a school, a pure water supply and proper waste disposal,” they wrote.
Examples of his straight-forward, shoot-from-the-shoulder style are plentiful in copies of those publications from the Gold Rush period. Although his sentences were lengthy as was the custom of the day, they were properly punctuated and abounded in pith. It is easy to picture the man, his head tilted and the hint of a wry smile on his lips, as he fashioned words that would raise the eyebrows of his readers that evening.
When one resident pontificated loudly that the Nome newspapers were lackluster in their coverage, Strong let loose with venomous but polite invective:
“If the newspaper defamer thinks in his verbose grandiloquence that it is the province of a newspaper to incite trouble, create distrust, sow dissension, be the organ of some cheap clique that wishes to get even with some other clique, again it pleads guilty to the lack of backbone; if the News is unable to view public questions and men from an extremely narrow, warped and prejudiced standpoint, whose horizon is bounded alone by self and selfish interests, self-aggrandizement, must it be accused of lack of stamina?
“If the average man would think more and talk less, such charges concerning newspapers will not sound like the braying of an immortal ass.”
Having abandoned his native land as well as his family, the editor’s concerns over actions of Washington, D.C. were clearly stated:
“The men behind the revolution of 1776 had not a tithe of the legitimate grievances against the British parliament that the people of Alaska had against the Congress of the U.S.”
Editor Strong had harsh words for Seattle interests who benefitted hugely from the Alaska trade but failed to reciprocate:
“Last year Seattle’s commercial transactions with Alaska reached the magnificent total of $20 million, yet if an Alaskan were to approach a Seattle capitalist with a bona fide mining proposition, he would be turned down with scant courtesy. Yet they are investing their money in mines in Nevada towns, many of these stocks of doubtful value.
“They are not farsighted enough to see that the development of Alaska’s resources means added growth and prosperity for Seattle. Seattle’s attitude toward Alaska has always been of the mean-spirited kind.”
A staunch Democrat whose time in Nome was during the administration of Republican William McKinley, Strong became a friend and supporter of Judge James Wickersham, a member of the opposing Grand Old Party. Wickersham served temporarily at Nome to clean up the claim-jumping mess left by disgraced Judge Alfred Noyes and later was elected as Alaska’s Delegate to Congress.
Woodrow Wilson became president during Strong’s sojourn with the Daily Empire at Juneau. The editor was named as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2012. It was there that the Alaska newsman came to the attention of the president. The convention was subsequently persuaded to adopt a plank calling for people appointed as officials of U.S. possessions to be local residents.
It seemed natural that Strong be named to be the second governor of the Territory of Alaska. The Alaskan editor was so vocal on political matters that “Major” Strong’s birthplace was not questioned.
Another Alaska editor, however, did look for dirt in the past of his adversary.
John Weir Troy, a Washington State native, also covered the Gold Rush, as correspondent for a Seattle newspaper. He was to buy the Empire from Strong when the latter was appointed governor in 1913. Twenty years later, Troy was named by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to govern the future 49th State. Troy himself had dealt with controversy, having been charged with using public money for personal needs. He was cleared when a grand jury did not indict him.
Troy was angered when fellow-Democrat Strong supported Republican James Wickersham for delegate to Congress. He was reported to have hired the Thiel Detective Agency to dig into Strong’s past after his adversary and former colleague was named governor. Troy was said to have turned the agency’s findings over to Wilson, who then appointed Thomas Riggs, Jr.
Strong retired to Seattle where he died of a heart attack July 27, 1929, at the age of 72.
Genealogy researchers report that Strong’s only legal wife possibly received money from Strong’s estate after his death.
According to that statement, an attorney caught up with Elizabeth Aiken in New Brunswick in 1929 and asked if she had been married to John Strong. She was said to have declined to answer, but her daughter who was present responded that Strong was her father. The amount of the bequest was not stated. It probably did little to make up for the struggle the abandoned family went through while the distinguished and literate man basked in fame and fortune.
A writer must wonder why authors make up fictional stories when history contains more interesting yarns.
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. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.