Museum exhibit to celebrate century of Alaska banking

  • The Bank of Alaska, which eventually became National Bank of Alaska before being acquired by Wells Fargo in 2000, opened its doors in Skagway in 1916 on March 20. The event is being marked by a celebration at Wells Fargo headquarters in Anchorage with an Alaska Heritage Museum exhibit on March 14.
  • Elmer Rasmuson served as president of National Bank of Alaska, mayor of Anchorage and as chair of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council among his many contributions to the state during his banking career. When he passed away in 2000 he left his $400 million personal fortune to charity, much of it to the family’s namesake Rasmuson Foundation. Photos/Courtesy/Wells Fargo

The Alaska Heritage Museum will feature exhibits and speakers on March 14 at Wells Fargo’s Northern Lights Boulevard headquarters to celebrate a century of banking in Alaska.

Event speakers will include Ed Rasmuson, chairman of the Rasmuson Foundation, Terrence Cole, a professor of history from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, former Wells Fargo Alaska Regional President Richard Strutz, and current Wells Fargo Alaska Regional President Joe Everhart.

The event will begin at 5:30 p.m. on the first floor of 301 Northern Lights Blvd.

Museum manager Tom Bennett said the exhibit and speakers fall back on a rich history of financial institutions in Alaska that distills the patterns and attitudes of Western banks in the Lower 48, and marks the rise of the Rasmuson family, National Bank of Alaska and eventually Wells Fargo in the history of Alaska’s key developers.

Wells Fargo traces its roots in the state back to the Gold Rush days, and National Bank of Alaska opened as the Bank of Alaska on March 20, 1916, in Skagway.

Before the modern world of banking regulations, any frontiersman looking to earn extra cash could get into the business.

“The banking history in Alaska is so complex it’s amazing,” said Bennett. “At the time of the gold rush, anybody could own a bank. If you were a barber, you could own a bank. You could just put a sign on your door that said, ‘I’m a bank.’”

The territorial Legislature allowed branch banking, and the Bank of Alaska opened offices in Skagway, Wrangell and Anchorage.

Edward “E.A.” Rasmuson moved to Skagway in 1916 after passing the bar and becoming an attorney in the then-territory, then took over Bank of Alaska in 1918 despite no banking experience.

As World War I funneled resources towards the national war effort and shaky banks struggled even harder to stay afloat, Rasmuson bought up the boutique banks, enlarging the Bank of Alaska’s footprint.

Wells Fargo at the time established itself as a transportation provider for the gold and furs coming from the Interior. When the federal government took over such transportation services at the onset of World War I, Wells Fargo shifted to a purely financial institution elsewhere. It wouldn’t resurface in Alaska until purchasing National Bank of Alaska in 2000.

Wells Fargo is the largest bank in the state with 49 branches and 53 percent of total deposits totaling more than $6 billion according to the most recent FDIC reports.

After passing away in 1949, E.A. Rasmuson left the bank to his son Elmer Rasmuson, and his widow Jenny Rasmuson established the foundation bearing the family name in 1955.

Elmer Rasmuson eventually served as mayor of Anchorage and his interest in fisheries led him to the chair of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which governs the federal waters off Alaska’s coast.

When Elmer Rasmuson passed away in 2000 not long after his son Ed negotiated the sale of National Bank to Wells Fargo, he left his personal fortune of some $400 million to charity and much of it to the family foundation.

Until the 1960s, Alaska’s banks and its economy stood on shaky ground. Bennett said E.A. Rasmuson’s early lending practices foreshadowed his namesake foundation’s charity, signing loans on a handshake and even bartering goods and livestock for loans before statehood prohibited the practice. The spirit of Alaska solidarity, formed by mutual dependence in a harsh environment, remains in Alaska’s banking world today, Bennett said.

“Even looking at other states, National Bank of Alaska and the Rasmuson family really stands out as extraordinary,” said Bennett. “Even if someone couldn’t afford a loan, they’d find a way to get them a loan. That bled its way into the whole banking industry.”

03/10/2016 - 8:41am