October has always been a busy month for Alaskans.
Oct.18 is observed as Alaska Day, a holiday celebrating the transfer of Alaska from Russia to the United States. State employees each year now get to have that day off with pay.
Let’s first, though, look at some of the other notable events on the October calendar.
It was Oct. 27, 1778, when Capt. James Cook in command of HMS Resolution left Alaska after failing to find a passage over the top of the world connecting the Pacific and Atlantic.
Unfortunately for the man whose name was given to the Inlet bordering our area, he was killed in Hawaii a few months later. He had discovered the Sandwich Islands while headed from England toward the North Pacific on his third and final voyage. Stopping there while headed home after leaving Alaska, he was at first worshipped by the native Hawaiians. Sadly, Cook and his crew wore out their welcome. When some Hawaiians stole nails and a small boat, Cook attempted to hold the Big Island’s Ali’i Nui for ransom. Defending their king, the islanders fatally stabbed the captain.
Famed Alaska artist Sydney Laurence was born Oct.14, 1865, in Brooklyn.
He married a fellow art student, Alexandrina Dupre, on May 18, 1889, and within a week the couple sailed to England. The intended summer visit lasted a decade and a half during which time they had two children. In 1903 Laurence headed to Alaska to seek his fortune during the Gold Rush. He prospected in summer and painted in winter, for a period teaming up with photographer Erik A. Hegg, whose pictures recorded that grand era in the Yukon’s history. He roamed Southcentral Alaska, settling for a time in Tyonek, and in Valdez. In 1915 he left Valdez for Anchorage and set up a studio while working for The Alaska Railroad. Spending some time in California, he married French artist Jeanne Holeman. They returned to Alaska where the artwork of both flourished.
Sydney Laurence, for whom a theater in Anchorage’s Performing Arts Center is named, was honored when his 6-foot by 12-foot view of Mt. McKinley titled “Top of the Continent” painted in 1913 was put on display at the Smithsonian Museum and hung there for half a century. He is considered to be Alaska’s premier artist, depicting its landscape and people in all their glory. He died in Anchorage on September 11, 1940, and is buried there alongside his wife Jeanne, who died 40 years later. Her paintings of flowers were treasured. Her book, “My Life with Sydney Laurence” was published in 1974.
Ft. St. Michael was established at the mouth of the Yukon on Oct. 20, 1897. With it, the Army controlled entry to the northern part of the continent. It was to become a major presence after news of the big gold discovery in the Klondike three months earlier brought a heavy influx of fortune-seekers.
On Oct. 1, 1899, the All-American Mail Route was established between the open-water port of Valdez and Circle, located on the Yukon above the Arctic Circle.
The Knik Post Office was established on Oct. 29, 1904. That office, with George Palmer as postmaster, served the miners who had joined the Cook Inlet gold rush that began in 1897.
Because we’re proud of the state flag that bears “eight stars of gold on a field of blue,” the birth of its designer on Oct. 12, 1913, should be noted.
Thirteen-year-old John Ben “Benny” Benson was born in Chignik and lived at Seward’s Jesse Lee Home when he submitted his design. His was among 700 entries from around the Territory. The judges chose him after reading his description of the meaning behind the design. He was awarded a $1,000 prize and a watch. He used the money to fund his college education and became an engineer and aircraft mechanic.
A highly respected three-term governor, William A. Egan was born in Valdez on October 8, 1915.
The son of a miner, Egan was valedictorian of his graduating class at Valdez High School. He was befriended by lawyer Anthony J. Dimond, who was to become a judge and the Territory’s Delegate to Congress. Dimond encouraged Egan to engage in politics and the young man went on to be elected to the Alaska House and Senate. A staunch supporter of Statehood, Egan was elected as a “senator” under the Alaska-Tennessee Plan, along with “Sen.” Ernest Gruening and “Rep.” Ralph Rivers. The unofficial delegation went to Washington to lobby successfully for passage of the Alaska Statehood Bill. Rather than run for the U.S. Senate, Egan chose to run to be Alaska’s first governor and won handily. He was elected to serve two more terms.
The Army post at Whittier was established on Oct. 3, 1942, providing a port for troop transports and a terminal for a submarine telegraph cable. A huge concrete building constructed there to house personnel has since been abandoned and remains as an unsightly relic of the wartime days.
The Seward Highway opened on Oct. 19, 1951, giving road access for the first time from the Kenai Peninsula and the Seward seaport to the rest of the Continent by way of the Alaska Highway. Prior to that time, the road south of Anchorage ended at the Potter Station. The Sterling Highway linked the Peninsula with Seward.
Alaska Methodist University was dedicated on Oct. 13, 1960, providing a second upper-level school. Until then, Anchorage had offered only a community college. Now known as Alaska Pacific University, it is located adjacent to the University of Alaska Anchorage campus.
The Aleutian Island of Amchitka, located near the end of the Chain, was chosen for a series of underground nuclear explosions.
The first of three blasts, called “Long shot,” was set off on Oct. 29, 1965. The second, code-named “Milrow,” was detonated on Oct. 2, 1969. A third, “Cannikin,” was conducted on Nov. 6, 1971. Purpose of the tests was to learn how to differentiate between man-caused underground blasts and natural seismic occurrences, and the effects on the environment. The tests were highly controversial and resulted in the creation of the Greenpeace organization. Doomsday predictions were not realized although radiation threats remain and are still being monitored today. Results of the tests have allowed authorities to recognize and measure underground nuclear explosions such as those held in recent years in North Korea.
That brings us to the October date of the event most important to Alaskans: Oct 18, 1867.
On that day the Russian Bear was lowered from the flagpole in front of the governor’s home at Sitka and replaced by the Stars and Stripes. It was an impressive ceremony, staged by representatives of the Russian Czar and the President of the United States. Ships from the fleets of both countries were anchored offshore. They alternately fired 21 shots in honor of the occasion.
Crown Prince Dimitry Maksoutoff, governor of Russian America, stood with his delegation. Representing Czar Alexander II was Capt. Alexy Pestchouroff; representing Pres. Andrew Johnson was Brig. Gen. Lovell Rousseau. Wearing full dress uniforms, soldiers of the Russian Army lined up in the courtyard in front of the governor’s mansion, nestled atop a hill overlooking the harbor. The American entourage disembarked from the USS Ossipee and marched up to take their place opposite the Russians.
After the booming 21-gun salutes, Peschouroff faced Rousseau and solemnly intoned, “By the authority of his Majesty the Emperor of all Russians, I transfer to you, the agent of the United States, all the territory and dominion now possessed by his Majesty on the continent of America and the adjacent islands, according to a treaty made between these two powers.” Rousseau, in turn, said, “I accept from you, as representative of his Majesty the Emperor of all Russians, the territory and dominion which you have transferred to me, a commissioner on the part of the United States to receive the same.
The Russian double eagle flag was lowered, but according to an account from Sitka resident T. Allund, a blacksmith who had been sent there two years earlier, it came down reluctantly. A witness to the ceremony, Allund was quoted as writing that the ensign snarled as it began its descent. It took three attempts to free. Rousseau’s report went into detail, saying that a boatswain’s chair was rigged to send a man aloft to untangle it and that the flag was dropped, landing on the soldiers’ bayonets.
The American flag, to which a 37th star had been added three months earlier, was raised by George Lovell Rousseau, assisted by a soldier. George was the general’s son but identified in his official report as his “private secretary.”
Resistance by the Russian flag to surrender itself could have been an omen.
Sold by the czar for two cents an acre to relieve a financial crisis, a “what if” comment by the New York World at the time might be interpreted as a prediction. The newspaper, an opponent of the purchase, opined that Alaska “Was a sucked orange… Unless gold were found in the country much time would elapse before it would be blessed with Hoe printing presses, Methodist chapels and a metropolitan police. It was “a frozen wilderness.”
Within 30 years, gold of the yellow variety indeed was found and “black gold” half a century later repaid the price many times over. Newspapers did, in fact, flourish, churches of many denominations made their mark and police enforced law and order.
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.