Although Russian sailors led by the Dane Vitus Bering had established trading posts in Western and parts of Southcentral Alaska more than 30-years earlier, the English explorer Captain James Cook is credited with first exploring Southcentral Alaska in 1778. Under Captain Cook’s third attempt at finding the elusiveNorthwest Passage he reached the shores of the land that is now known as Anchorage, and mistook one of the arms of the inlet for a river. Thus, he named the water “River Turnagain”; later the water was renamed the Turnagain Arm by another British explorer, George Vancouver.
Russian explorers continued to establish trading posts across Alaska and during the next 100 years the Russian influence on the state continued to grow. In fact, it was not until March 30, 1867 that the United States purchased the Alaska territory from Russia. U.S. Secretary of State William Seward prompted the national government to purchase the territory from the Russians for $7.2 million (about 2 cents per acre). Seward was mocked by national politicians for his perceived poor judgment and the purchase was then known as “Seward’s Folly”. It took 101 years and the first major discovery of a oil field for “Seward’s Folly” to be recognized as an asset to the country.
On March 12, 1914 the U.S. Congress authorized the construction of the Alaska Railroad, clearing the way for the only railroad in history to be owned and operated by the U.S. Government. The next year, in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson authorized funds for the construction of the Alaska Railroad and selected the railroad’s route. That year, 2,000 Americans flooded the Ship Creek valley (near present-day downtownAnchorage) looking for federal employment.
On July 9, 1915 President Wilson authorized the “Great Anchorage Lot Sale”, a land auction where the first 600 plots of land in Anchorage were sold. Businesses began spreading across the newly organized Fourth Avenue, where many buildings remain today. The first Pioneer School was established one day later and the beginnings of modern-day Anchorage took shape.
Anchorage was established as a railroad construction port for the Alaska Railroad, which was built between 1915 and 1923. Ship Creek Landing, where the railroad headquarters was located, quickly became a tent city; Anchorage was incorporated on November 23, 1920. The city's economy in the 1920s centered around the railroad. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, the city experienced massive growth as air transportation and the military became increasingly important. Merrill Field opened in 1930, Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson were constructed in the 1940s and Anchorage International Airport opened in 1951.
On March 27, 1964, Anchorage was hit by the magnitude 9.2 Good Friday Earthquake, which killed 115 Alaskans and caused $1.8 billion in damage (2007 U.S. dollars). The earth-shaking event lasted nearly five minutes; most structures that failed remained intact the first few minutes, then failed with repeated flexing. Rebuilding dominated the city in the mid 1960s.
In 1968, oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay, and the resulting oil boom spurred further growth in Anchorage. In 1975, Anchorage merged with Eagle River, Girdwood, Glen Alps, and several other communities. The merger expanded the city, known officially as the Municipality of Anchorage. The city continued to grow in the 1980s, and capital projects and an aggressive beautification campaign took place.
*Information provided courtesy of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.