A short history of alcohol and bars in Alaska

Editor’s note: This week’s Southeast in Sepia is courtesy of guest author and historian Doug Vandegraft, author of “A Guide to the Notorious Bars of Alaska, published in 2014.The revised second edition of the book, which has more old photos, advertisements and maps than the first, has just been released.

 

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Alcohol has long been a part of Alaskan culture, and Alaskans have a legendary thirst for alcoholic beverages. The remoteness of Alaska, seasonal darkness, isolation, and loneliness creates a tremendous need to socialize, which provides a unique niche for bars to prosper.

Russian Period: 1741–1867

The Russians introduced liquor to the Aleuts (indigenous people of the Aleutian Islands, Alaska Natives) as early as 1741. The Russian-American Company, which operated out of Sitka beginning in 1808, sold its wares, including liquor, to whalers, fur traders, fish processors and prospectors. During the 1830s, rum, vodka, and brandy were routinely traded with the indigenous people for labor, furs, ivory, and physical affections.

First Prohibition: 1868–1899

The United States bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, and the US Army was assigned jurisdiction over the new “territory.” The Alaska Act of 1868 made it illegal to import liquor, and in 1873, Alaska was classified as “Indian Country,” which made it illegal to give or sell alcohol to any “Indian,” or Alaska Native. Violators were to be brought before a judge within five days, which was next to impossible as the nearest civilian judge was in Oregon. Instead of enforcing the laws, the soldiers at Sitka taught Alaska Natives how to give a kick to a traditional beverage made of bark and berries by adding molasses and yeast for fermentation and then distilling the results. The first batch of this mind-numbing concoction known as “hoochinoo” (or simply “hooch”) was reportedly made at the Tlingit village of Hootchenoo near present-day Angoon. The word “hooch” is Alaska’s contribution to the American vernacular, a term which is still in use today.

Because the liquor laws were not being enforced, saloons were operating in Sitka as early as 1869. The Sitka Saloon, Caplan & Co., G.W. Brady’s, and the One Bit House advertised openly and were probably some of the very first bars in Alaska.

The Organic Act of 1884 established a civil government for Alaska. The legislation provided Alaska with a governor, district judge, district attorney, one U.S. marshal, and just four deputy marshals. The Act prohibited all alcohol except for medicinal and scientific purposes. Enforcement of the law was extremely challenging due to the lack of marshals, funding, and transportation. This absence of resources reflects the political influence of commercial interests, most notably the Alaska Commercial Company, which had twenty-three trading posts along the coast, and used liquor for trade with the Alaska Native and white populations.

The discovery of gold near present-day Juneau in 1880 and the Klondike gold rush of 1898 introduced Alaska to people all over the world. Thousands were coming via ships from Seattle and San Francisco to seek their fortunes. Newcomers found that saloons were operating openly, more or less, in Wrangell, Juneau and Skagway. By this time, Congress finally realized that it was impossible to keep liquor out of Alaska.

Liquor Becomes Legal: 1899–1917

In 1899, Congress repealed Alaska’s prohibition laws. Territorial Governor John G. Brady established a system of local option, licensed liquor sales. The licensee had to gain the approval of the majority of men and women living within two miles of the saloon. This is one of the first known examples of women being allowed to vote in the United States. Annual liquor license fees cost between five hundred dollars and two thousand dollars, depending on the population of the town. The license fees were used to support schools and build court houses and jails. In some towns, the license fees funded the entire local government. The legality of liquor applied only to white residents; it remained illegal to supply liquor to Alaska Natives in or outside of a saloon. In fact, prohibition for Alaska Natives was not repealed until 1953.

On June 5, 1899, Peter Nelson received the very first “Bar-room license” for his establishment at Sourdough Flats, a now-abandoned village on Unimak Island. The following year, W.Y. Egan received license No. 1 for his “Bar Room” in Tanana.

The price for drinks varied by location, but in general, draught beer sold for ten cents a glass while whiskey and mixed drinks sold for twenty-five cents a glass. The only women allowed in the saloons, other than prostitutes, were entertainers and “percentage girls.” The latter encouraged a customer to buy what were usually watered-down drinks for her and the patron. The bartender would give the woman a percentage of the cost of the drinks, usually 25 percent. Respectable women who actually enjoyed an occasional drink were allowed to enter a saloon through the “family entrance” where they could take away their beer in a bucket and their whiskey in a bottle. By 1908, however, licenses were being revoked to saloons allowing gambling and service to women.

Alaska became a US Territory in 1912, and in 1913 women received the right to vote. Soon after, some of the more established Alaska communities began voting to prohibit the sale of alcohol. The evils of alcohol and the saloon atmosphere were being written about in Alaska newspapers and many lawmakers believed that most, if not all, of Alaska’s woes could be traced to people trying to obtain alcohol or acting under its influence. Led by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union of Alaska, and Territorial Governor John F.A. Strong, the Territorial Legislature voted to once again ban all alcohol. Congressional Delegate (and former Judge) James Wickersham wrote the Alaska “Bone Dry” law which took effect January 1, 1918. This was a whole two years before the eighteenth amendment to the US Constitution was ratified and the entire nation became dry. The “bone dry” law was exactly as it sounded: it prohibited the manufacture and sale of any and all alcohol. This was so extreme that physicians complained that many people died of influenza because they were not allowed to prescribe medicine containing alcohol.

Second Prohibition: 1918–1933

“Last Days of Frontier Pass Away,” the Juneau Alaska Daily Empire reported January 1, 1918. Describing the party in Juneau the night before, “Several of the bars in the city were completely out of liquor or ‘suds’ early in the afternoon, but the Alaskan, Gastineau, Grotto, Tucks Place, Montana, Circle City, and New York Exchange had plenty to supply the demand and until the last minute were dishing it out over the bar to the belated revelers. Promptly at the stroke of twelve the patrons of all these places were turned out into the street and the key turned in the locks for the last time.”

Alaskans, however, were never really without alcohol. The location of Alaska, the lack of funding for effective law enforcement, and a general apathy toward prohibition by many Alaskans, created a situation where bootlegging and moonshining were extremely lucrative. The proximity of the Southeastern towns to Canada (which had no prohibition) allowed fleets of fishing boats to smuggle in thousands of gallons of “liquid sunshine.” Stills were set up all over the Alaska Panhandle, and certain towns in other areas were known hotbeds of moonshining: McCarthy, Anchorage, Wasilla, Chickaloon, Nenana, Fairbanks, Tanana, and, of course, Nome.

Speakeasies were also common in many towns. These places operated under the guise of “soft drink” parlors, pool halls, and cigar stores. Anchorage, with a population of about 1,900, supported thirty to forty such establishments where liquor was served. Boats would deliver cargo to Bootleggers Cove from where it was transported to the speakeasies. Booze was moved from one place to another via a system of underground tunnels — away from the eyes of the territorial police.

End of the ‘Bone Dry’ Law: 1933

Territorial Governor George A. Parks signed the bill repealing the bone dry law and it took effect April 7, 1933. A sense of jubilation rippled through the territory. An editorial in the Anchorage Daily Times compared the end of prohibition as “equivalent almost to the delivery of the children of Israel out of the wilderness where for years they wandered famished and athirst.” At first, only beer and wine were allowed but neither was readily available. Beer arrived in Juneau on Friday, May 5, 1933. It would be weeks later until deliveries occurred in places like Fairbanks and Nome.

Licenses under the new law ranged from $25 for a retail store to $175 for a beverage dispensary license. License No. 40 was issued to Joseph J. Stocker May 16, 1933, for his dispensary, “The Imperial” in Juneau. The Imperial is probably the oldest bar in continuous operation in Alaska.

Dispensaries to Cocktail Bars: 1934–1940

All liquor became legal in Alaska May 1, 1934. However, Alaskans would have to wait until July 1, 1939, when the law allowed them to drink liquor inside a bar. All communities had to vote whether to allow the local dispensaries to serve hard alcohol or not. Dispensaries that did became known as “cocktail bars.” The cost of a cocktail license went for five hundred dollars to one thousand dollars, depending on the population of the town. A condition of the law was that no female could tend bar unless her name was on the license; this was finally repealed in 1971. It was after the advent of cocktail bars that the “percentage girls” reappeared, but now they were known as “Bar Girls” or “B-Girls,” and were allowed to encourage customers to buy drinks at Alaska bars, usually at inflated prices, until a measure outlawing the practice was passed in 1959.

WWII and Statehood: 1941–1959

World War II changed Alaska more than the gold rushes or the future construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. The potential for war in the Pacific was a huge concern for the United States in the late 1930s.

Military build-up in the form of air bases, ship harbors, and fortifications were constructed all over the territory. A highway connecting Alaska to the Lower 48 states was punched through the Canadian wilderness in 1942. The increasing number of people residing in Alaska provided fuel to the talk of statehood and also increased the number of bars, particularly in towns like Anchorage and Fairbanks.

In 1951, Anchorage had 32 bars, 21 liquor stores and a population of 39,242. In 1954, a staggering 3,132,586 gallons of liquor was shipped into Alaska. More than 2.5 million gallons of the total was beer, but almost half a million gallons were classed as hard liquor. This amounted to 17 gallons of intoxicating beverages for every man, woman, child, and infant living in the territory. Alaska became a state January 3, 1959, and the first Alaska State Legislature created a three-member Alcoholic Beverage Control Board appointed by the Governor.

Oil, Areas of Prohibition, and Tourism: 1960–Present Day

The discovery of a vast oil field on the North Slope of Alaska in 1968 prompted another rush of people to the state, lured north by the promise of high-paying jobs. The construction of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline prompted many new bars to open in Anchorage and Fairbanks. The economic boom for Alaskans lasted until 1986, when oil prices crashed. However, this increased prosperity highlighted the continuing problem of alcohol and Alaska Natives. In 1979, the State Legislature allowed communities to prohibit the sale and importation of alcoholic beverages. In 1986, the laws were amended to allow communities to prohibit possession of alcohol, and in 1995, Barrow became the largest city in Alaska to ban possession of alcoholic beverages. Barrow, now Utqiagvik, has since voted itself “damp,” which allows the importation of alcohol for personal consumption.

Since the early 1970s, the tourism industry has transformed towns that could no longer depend on fishing, logging, or the military for steady income. In particular, cruise ships now bring thousands of visitors to coastal towns, where they are more than willing to purchase clothes, souvenirs, and a drink at a real Alaskan bar. With the increased national interest in Alaska, the next chapter of Alaska’s history with alcohol and its impacts on the population and economy is still being written. The recent glut of reality television shows that are set in Alaska has highlighted not only the uniqueness of the state, but the undeniable role that bars play in its culture.


• Doug Vandegraft is the author of “A Guide to the Notorious Bars of Alaska.” Find out more at https://www.notoriousbarsofak.com/


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