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13 Things You Didn’t Know About the History of Alaska

The things most people know about Alaska can be counted on one hand: It’s big. It’s cold. It was a latecomer to the whole statehood thing. It’s rugged, full of mountains, etc. Long a haven for undaunted individualists, explorers, and the plain old fearless, Alaska’s history maintains an aura of mystery. Luckily, we’re here to demystify a few things and let you in on the essence of this elusively captivating state.

1. The Denali range is still growing.

Call it history in motion. The Denali fault cuts through what is now known as Denali National Park. The fault is termed a “strike-slip” fault, and as the Pacific tectonic plate slowly subducts beneath the North American plate, the striking and slipping of nearby Denali Fault causes all kinds of ruckus, including massive earthquakes and the continued rise of the gigantic mountain range that follows its line. This would include the vertiginous Wickersham Wall, the north face of Denali that also happens to be the largest vertical relief in the world. In geologic time, its growth spurt is only beginning.

2. President McKinley never actually visited Alaska.

Despite being recognized in the naming of Alaska’s – and America’s – highest peak, President McKinley did not step foot in the state. Perhaps he planned to, but we’ll never know. He was assassinated in 1901. Indigenous peoples had long called the awe-inspiring mountain variations of “big mountain” and “great one.” Both seem apt, and within Alaskan communities, Denali is the accepted name. As recently as January 2013, Alaska’s senators squabbled with representatives of Ohio, McKinley’s home state, over the official name. “I have nothing against President McKinley whatsoever, but I would rather have this peak be called by the name it has gone by for centuries by Alaskans than a man who never set foot in our state,” Alaska’s senior senator said in her release.

3. Alaska came cheap.

When the U.S. government purchased the Alaskan territory from Russia in 1867, they paid approximately 2 cents an acre for it. Considering the wealth of natural resources and tourism revenue that Alaska has at its disposal, the state’s land has paid back that initial investment many, many times over.

4. Humans have lived in Alaska for thousands of years.

As inhospitable as some of Alaska’s landscape may seem, the Inuit and Yupik peoples were making a go of it in the frozen north long before the arrival of European settlers or the gas heater. The known remnants of the ancient peoples living in Alaska date to 5,000 years ago, though they may have arrived up to 7,000 years before. Let this be a lesson that though the state seems new and undiscovered to us in the Lower 48, humans have contributed to its history for quite a bit longer.

5. Do not be fooled by the polar bear on the wrapper.

The Klondike bar’s not from around here. Its sheer, frosty cliffs hail…from Ohio. The Eskimo Pie? Iowa. Sorry.

6. Gold makes people do crazy things.

No surprises here, but the prospect of sudden wealth can provoke the most staid person to the most outlandish actions. Case in point: the 100,000 would-be miners who dropped everything and rushed to the Klondike en masse after a large vein of gold was discovered there in 1896. Braving bitter cold, and sometimes leaving home for the very first time, most of them met with even more bitter disappointment, or didn’t make it there at all. Seattle’s mayor, William Wood, ditched his job mid-term to cash in on ferrying prospectors to the north. The moral? Desk jobs just can’t compete with gold.

7. Mush!

The world famous Iditarod dog sled race stretches over 1,049 miles and lasts 10 to 17 days. Part of its inspiration lies in a 1925 race against time, when a group of heroic mushers took turns relaying doses of a diphtheria vaccine to Nome, Alaska, in order to save its population from the threat of an epidemic. Balto, the first dog to cross the finish line, so to speak, was lionized (caninized?) in pop culture. A beloved statue of him still stands in Central Park.

8. The ice is melting.

Mendenhall Glacier, just one of Alaska’s giant glaciers, has retreated 1.75 miles since 1958, forming icy Mendenhall Lake as it melts. Count in an additional 3/4 miles it has receded since 1500, when no one was around to witness the spectacular “calving” process of large blocks of ice breaking loose. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the time to visit Alaska and see its spectacular glaciers before they experience further change is now.

9. Alaskan towns are resilient.

Case study: Seward, Alaska. The gateway to the breathtaking Kenai Fjords National Park, Seward was founded in 1903 and served as the southern terminus of the Alaska Railroad. Even today, Seward’s fisheries are the 9th most lucrative in the entire United States. All well and good, until the (literally) earth-shattering Good Friday earthquake in 1964 wiped away almost the whole town along with the devastating tsunami that followed. Now rebuilt and prosperous once more, Resurrection Bay seems like a suitable name for the glittering water that bounds Seward.

10. Kodiak bears are genetic loners.

The Kodiak bear is North America’s largest bear, and is only found in Alaska. Isolated from the rest of the continent’s bear populations after the last ice age approximately 12,000 years ago, Kodiaks have evolved into their own sub-species with their own nifty Latin name. Ursus arctos middendorffi were also an important source of food and resources for the ancient Alutiiq people, and evidence of their existence has been uncovered in archeological excavations of settlements thousands of years old.

11. You haven’t heard of most of Alaska’s National Parks.

Most people have heard of Denali, by far the most famous of Alaska’s eight national parks. It will be celebrating its centennial in just four years. However, Gates of the Arctic, Glacier Bay, Katmai, Kenai Fjords, Kobuk Valley, Lake Clark, and Wrangell-St. Elias are all national parks, too. (Anyone notice a lot of ‘K’ names in there?) This list includes 7 of the 10 largest national parks in the country, and the dubious title of the least-visited national park (Kobuk Valley, but whatever, we all know what Robert Frost said about taking the road less traveled). In 1980, a stroke of then-president Carter’s pen brought the majority of these national parks into existence under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Very prescient of him, as Americans still retain a national interest in visiting these beautiful and singular places.

12. Alaska saw battles during World War II.

Then still a territory, U.S. forces led a campaign to retake two of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands from Japan – Attu and Kiska. Both countries saw the Aleutians as an important strategic stronghold, despite their relative isolation. Nicknamed the One Thousand Mile War, one veteran of the conflict was none other than Dashiell Hammett, author of such pot boilers as The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.

13. Alaska owns its railroad system.

Completed piecemeal to link southern point Seward with Fairbanks and Anchorage, President Warren G. Harding drove in the final spike of the completed Alaska Railroad line in 1923. He’s one president that did make it to the fair state. In 1985, the state of Alaska purchased the railroad back from the federal government, which is why current passengers ride along with freight, unlike the rest of the United States where passengers are relegated to the Amtrak system. As of yet, however, no over-land link exists between Alaska and any other North American destination.

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