Bringing 100 years of Anchorage to life

Photo/Michael Dinneen/For the Journal

Editor’s note: The Journal of Commerce is recognizing the Anchorage Centennial with a series of articles over the next 10 weeks examining the events and the industries that have shaped Alaska’s largest city. The stories will be released as a single special edition of the Journal in time for the Solstice celebrations June 20 and will be available at centennial events throughout the summer.

The task: tell the century-long story of Anchorage in 124 pages. The man to do it: 50-year Anchorage resident Charles Wohlforth.

“From the Shores of Ship Creek” recounts Anchorage’s first 100 years through the stories of its residents. Each of the 14 chapters is a time capsule of the city’s history.

“I really wanted it to be a character-based book because characters are the fundamental building blocks of stories, and stories are what make history interesting and meaningful,” Wohlforth said during an interview at an Anchorage café.

However, it is not simply a compilation of recycled tales from best-known names. The final characters were chosen only after Anchorage itself gave thorough input.

Wohlforth chose the periods based on his extensive historical knowledge of the city — he’s authored several books on Alaska and told the stories of some of the state’s most influential people — and held public forums to get ideas for the characters.

He had never heard of Nellie Brown (chapter four) until a participant of one such meeting suggested the early Anchorageite.

“(Brown) turned out to be the most interesting person in the entire book,” he said.

Writing the piece was a “big honor and quite a challenge,” he said, particularly because it could’ve easily turned into an oppressive, academic history. It’s not.

Abundant photos tell the story of the city without reading a line of copy.

Flip Todd, the Anchorage publisher who worked with Wohlforth on “From the Shores of Ship Creek” said the book illuminates early Anchorage while still detailing its transition to a modern, multicultural city.

Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan said the book should be enjoyable for both those new to the city and lifelong residents such as himself.

“’From the Shores of Ship Creek’ captures so many details about Anchorage’s history in a truly personal and unique way,” Sullivan said.

Wohlforth said he understood from the beginning that if it was going to be inviting read there would be substantial amounts of worthy history that just wouldn’t make the cut.

An Alaskan since the age of three, Wohlforth’s family moved from New York City to Anchorage’s Turnagain neighborhood in 1966. His father is an attorney specializing in government finance and helped Alaska’s state and local governments rebuild after the 1964 earthquake.

“Of course, like everybody, they said they were only going to be here for three years; (they) didn’t sell their house back east for many years,” Wohlforth remarked.

Because the chapters in the book are distinct stories, they read as well on their own as they do as part of the larger work. He said that achieved one of the goals he had when he began the project: the standalone essays can be pulled out and used in classrooms as part of a unit lesson on the given time period.

For that reason and others, “From the Shores of Ship Creek” is an attractive history lesson, but not an advertisement.

“From the Shores of Ship Creek” is available at Title Wave Books, Barnes and Noble, Once In a Blue Moose, Mosquito Books (at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport), the Alaska Native Heritage Center, Anchorage Museum, Cabin Fever, and other Downtown Anchorage gift shops. The paper retails for $20 and the hardcover is $30. A second run will be available in June after the limited initial release in stores now.  Author Charles Wohlforth is scheduled to hold a book signing event May 8 from 6-8 p.m., at the Barnes and Noble between Benson and Northern Lights boulevards.

“Part of my pitch was that I was going to write a serious book that took on the issues having to do with Anchorage development, address them head-on and not sugarcoat things,” Wohlforth said.

Going in, he attempted to examine three themes of the Anchorage’s life: the role of the federal government; the struggle to become a permanent city; and whether Alaska’s largest city is a true representation of the state.

As much as Alaskans take pride in their contempt for Washington, D.C., the epicenter of their state is completely a creation of the federal government, Wohlforth said. The tent city that became Anchorage was 100 percent a railroad town at its inception; it was a construction and maintenance camp, first and foremost. Its economy was based completely on the Alaska Railroad’s payroll.

The headquarters of the railroad moved from Seward to Anchorage as the makeshift city first formed along Ship Creek in 1915. That was after the feds agreed to spend $35 million in 1914 to extend the short rail line out of Seward all the way to Fairbanks.

Wohlforth said the early residents refused to form a city until the federal government threatened to shut down the fire station.

“Maybe we’re still teenagers, because who’s more hostile towards their parents than teenagers, right?” he quipped.

For more than 60 years, Anchorage remained an incredibly young and transient city, always dependent on its maternal government. In the 1960s, the average age of an Anchorage resident was 23, Wohlforth said.

When the railroad was complete the military moved in to fight World War II, and then the Cold War. The boom and bust theme spurred for years by shifting military forces only magnified as oil took over the scene.

It all came to a crashing halt in 1985 when declining oil prices killed state budgets and sent nearly a third of Anchorage residents packing. The economic collapse forced more than a dozen banks to close, ruined the real estate market, and “flushed out” the transient portion of the population, Wohlforth said.

“Anybody who stayed after that really wanted to be here and that’s what we’ve built on from there to the present,” he said.

In a sudden and remarkable shift over the last third of its history, Anchorage’s steady and reliable growth since would be envy of any city in the country.

“Now we’re really a stable, middle-American city,” Wohlforth said.

The battle over the identity of Anchorage began almost immediately in 1915 and has flared long into the city’s history, according to Wohlforth.

Early residents of the city proper wanted it to be an outpost of the Lower 48, while those living on the periphery of the Bowl saw their home as Alaska first, U.S. second.

“It’s a very interesting lens that fits every era and every set of controversies,” he said.

It’s most recognizable today in the areas of the municipality that are plumbed for city sewer, a direct result of the unification of the Greater Anchorage Area Borough and the City of Anchorage in 1975.

The old Alaska adage, “Anchorage isn’t Alaska but you can see Alaska from there,” may be cliché, but it holds water, Wohlforth said.

Anchorage is a classic American economic center with box stores and too many chain restaurants to count.

He described it as a dichotomy that can’t be defined.

“In what other city in the country do you run into moose all the time? Or where can you go cross-country skiing from your house — or half an hour from a five-star restaurant be on the top of a mountain? These are really unique things and you have to be here a really long time to forget how unique this place is,” Wohlforth said.

These days the tug-of-war has subsided and even sworn political adversaries have found common ground.

“If you talk with (Anchorage Mayor) Dan Sullivan and (former Mayor) Mark Begich — in the last chapter of the book — their visions for the city are almost indistinguishable,” he said.

The multicultural feel Anchorage enjoys today is a direct result of the boom-bust and distinct lack of organized development of yesterday, Wohlforth said.

Also, the fact that 10 percent of the city’s population “turns over” every year means fresh faces with varying backgrounds are still common, even in the more stable version of Anchorage.

“The sort of silver lining to poor community planning is — in a lot of community planning there was a sub-layer of racism — it didn’t work here,” he said.

“Here, largely because of terrible community planning and rapid growth, we don’t have any of that. So you go near West High School and you have some of the most affluent people in town living across the street from some of the poorest people in town. You end up with one of the most diverse high schools in the country.”

Depending on which study is cited, Anchorage’s Mountain View, East, West and Bartlett high schools are all among the most integrated in the nation. The Anchorage School District notes on its website that its students speak 93 different languages at home.

The lack of social tiers among a collection of transients that built the city is now part of its culture, Wohlforth believes.

Anchorage’s tomorrow will likely be more challenging, at least economically, than the last 25 years have been, he predicts.

The city’s business base is often touted as being more ready to handle a downturn in oil prices, but the volatile commodity still rules many of its employers as well as state government.

Wohlforth said he hopes residents will “be more mature about the ‘build it and they will come’” mentality that has dominated the city from the start.

And like it or not, decisions made in D.C. are still felt in Anchorage.

“We’re kind of at the mercy of the Pentagon. As an economy we can’t give up oil and military at the same time,” he said. “That would really turn out the lights.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/20/2016 - 8:35am