Gateway to the 49th State

Having evolved from a tent city to Alaska’s commercial and tourist hub within less than 100 years, Anchorage offers both economic opportunity and endless adventure.
This article appeared in Vol. 8, No. 5 - 2011


Having evolved from a tent city to Alaska’s commercial and tourist hub within less than 100 years, Anchorage offers both economic opportunity and endless adventure.  
I took my first oil company job in Anchorage in 1975. Leaving Seattle on a Western Airlines Boeing 707, I was so excited I could not sit still. On descent, all I could see were snow covered mountains. Where could this city be? Finally, after breaking through thick clouds, a flat coastal area came into view. Between the dark, churning waters of Turnagain and Knik Arms of Cook Inlet and the beautiful Chugach Mountains, sat a fascinating city that would be my home and workplace.  

Times were exciting in those days. The Trans Alaska Pipeline was being built; a series of Outer Continental Shelf sales offered in the Gulf of Alaska were scheduled over the next several years, and exploration activity was brisk. I knew my journey was just beginning.  

Here I found outdoor adventure just minutes from my doorstep. Where else can you walk a short distance from the downtown area and catch huge salmon? Or mountain bike in summer on trails through town and on into uninhabited forest? Or ski in winter on many kilometres of maintained trails only minutes from home?  

A Short History

The first explorer to describe the Anchorage area was the English Captain James Cook during his third voyage in 1778. Looking for the Northwest Passage, he discovered Cook Inlet and charted the majority of the North American north-west coastline. Cook named the River Turnagain (now Turnagain Arm) as he could not proceed any further inland and was forced to turn around.  

In 1867, the Russians sold their North American holdings, what is now Alaska, to the United States for $7,200,000, but it was not until 1915, when President Wilson authorised funds for the Alaska Railroad, that Anchorage got its early start. The Ship Creek Landing was chosen as headquarters and a tent city sprouted up in the area with more than 2,000 inhabitants.  

Entrepreneurs flocked to this exciting frontier bringing with them everything needed to build the new town. The first hardware and clothing store, called “The Anchorage”, was an old dry-docked steamship. Still the town was not named until the US Post Office Department formalised the use of Anchorage.  

Anchorage remained a small frontier town until the beginning of World War II, when the population exploded from 8,000 to over 43,000 with the construction of airfields, roads, and other infrastructure related to the war effort, and water, sewer, and utility systems were greatly improved. The state benefited directly from the construction of new airfields and the development of electronics and devices for safe flying, making life easier for bush pilots that had become a critical part of life in Alaska.  

Becoming an Oil City

Oil was discovered on the Kenai Peninsula at Swanson River in 1957 (see GEO ExPro Vol. 8, No. 2). Less than a year later, 17 oil companies set up offices in Anchorage and spent tens of millions of dollars on exploration. Alaska became a state on January 3, 1959, opening the doors to new oil and gas exploration opportunities through state land selections.  

What could have been a major set back for Anchorage came on Good Friday, March 27, 1964, when the city was shaken by the strongest earthquake ever to hit North America. The 9.2 Richter scale jolt lasted 4 seconds, ripped through the region (damage covered 130,000 km²) leaving roads impassible, buildings toppled, and 131 people dead. However, with its frontier spirit, the city was rebuilt at lightning speed with improvements to its entire infrastructure.  

The huge oil discovery in 1968 on the North Slope at Prudhoe Bay would soon bring major changes to the state and to Anchorage, although it took a monumental effort to gain access to these large reserves. After much opposition, the US Congress authorised the construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) in 1972. Construction began in 1974 and oil started flowing to the port of Valdez in 1977.  

This was boom time in Anchorage. House prices quadrupled. Construction was everywhere, with new homes, offices, cultural and arts centres, hospitals, roads, and a network of trails and parks throughout the city. Today, Anchorage is home to about 41% of Alaska’s residents with a population of 292,000.  

Anchorage remains the northland’s oil capital with most oil, service and drilling companies located there, as well as the government agencies overseeing oil and gas activity.  

Year Round Recreation

Anchorage is blessed by a maritime climate that is rarely too hot or too cold and there are new adventures at every turn. Wilderness and outdoor activities are a way of life, and wildlife roam the city’s greenbelts. In only a few minutes you can fly to a remote lake or river, or take a train to Denali National Park right from downtown.  

Ship Creek, where the city started, is just steps from downtown and has prolific king and silver salmon runs. Hiking into the Chugach Range from one of the many trail heads that border the city, one can be rewarded with views of the downtown area, Cook Inlet, surrounding volcanoes, and of course Denali, North America’s highest peak. Moose, white Dahl mountain sheep, and bears, both brown and black, can be spotted along many of the trails.  

Adventure is just beginning for some as the snow falls. Anchorage has its own ski area and Mt. Alyeska Resort is only a short drive up Turnagain Arm. The city also boasts world class cross-country ski trails and maintains over 175 km of groomed ski trails throughout the city. Other winter activities include trails for dog mushing, ski-joring, and snow shoeing.  

Tired yet? Try hoisting a pint at one of Anchorage’s brew pubs or dinner at one of the city’s excellent ethnic or Alaskan style restaurants, followed by a symphony or a play at the Anchorage Performing Arts Centre. Anchorage has always hosted a great deal of cultural diversity. Learn about the many distinct cultures across the state at the Alaska Native Heritage Centre. Here, Alaska’s first people share their rich heritage, the wisdom of their elders and the traditions that endure. And there are events and festivals in nearly every month of the year if you have time left over.  

Anchorage is one city where working really does get in the way of adventure.


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