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The original capital creep

Posted: April 14, 2013 - 12:00am
The old Presbyterian church used as the Governor's office after the capital was transferred from Sitka is shown being torn down to make way for the Capitol Building on site.  Alaska State Library Historical Collections
Alaska State Library Historical Collections
The old Presbyterian church used as the Governor's office after the capital was transferred from Sitka is shown being torn down to make way for the Capitol Building on site.

While looking around for another topic for my column, I came across a tourist book that pointed out that Juneau was the capital of Alaska and that, originally, Sitka had enjoyed that position. I, of course, knew that, but a thought entered my mind, “Why did the capital of Alaska move from Sitka to Juneau?” My next thought was, “There must have been a lot of political wrangling over this.”

Over the 35 years I’ve lived in Alaska there has been a lot of wrangling over the possibility of another capital move further north and so my interest was piqued.

Previous to the purchase of Alaska in 1867, Sitka was considered the capital of Russian Alaska. But, after a bit of research, it turns out that Sitka was never the capital of Alaska. In 1884, when Alaska’s first Organic Act was adopted, “the temporary seat of government” was established at Sitka. The first five American governors of Alaska used the long Russian log building adjoining the parade grounds for their offices. Most of those governors were military.

As time went on and gold was discovered in Juneau, the people of Juneau began agitating to move the seat of government, mainly because of the need for easy access to the courts. In any mining town there are always needs for settlement of boundary disputes, contracts, payments and many other legal matters. Every time something like that came up they had to travel all the way to Sitka just to see a judge. Only two boats ran to Sitka each month and that was the only communication. When a lawyer had a case, he was compelled to rush into court, take a chance of getting a speedy verdict, and then try to catch the same boat back before it left. Otherwise, he was compelled to remain in Sitka for two weeks until the next boat.

In 1900, the people of Juneau put pressure on Congress to pass a bill forwarded by Senator Thomas H. Carter of Montana who was the chairman of the Territorial Committee. The bill, otherwise known as the Alaska Bill or the Alaska Code was entitled, “An Act making further provision for a Civil Government for Alaska and for other purposes.” The bill has the distinction of having been the longest bill ever passed by Congress up to that time. In bill form it comprised 600 pages and in its third and final form made a fine print book of 258 pages. On June 6, 1900 President William McKinley signed the Bill into law. The following is an excerpt:

Title I

Chapter One

Sec. 1. That the territory ceded to the United States by Russia by the treaty of March thirtieth, eighteen hundred and sixty-seven, and known as Alaska, shall constitute a civil and judicial district, the government of which shall be organized and administered as hereinafter provided. The temporary seat of government of said district is hereby established at Juneau: Provided that the seat of government shall remain in Sitka until suitable grounds and buildings thereon shall be obtained by purchase or otherwise at Juneau.

The above excerpt (a tiny portion of the whole) was responsible for almost all of the editorial comment in the Alaska press, which did not erupt until six years later. The proviso delaying the actual transfer of the seat of government until suitable grounds and buildings were provided was a device inserted in the act to protect the government from unscrupulous property owners who might jack up their prices making the change more expensive than it needed to be.

Interestingly enough, the Juneau people and merchants seemed little concerned with the idea of their town becoming the seat of government, since about all it meant at the time was the moving in of the governor and office of the Surveyor-General, plus some additional expense and effort on their part. So when Governor Brady neglected to make any effort to move his office to Juneau, nobody gave it a second thought. In fact, Governor Brady was in favor of the move but, since Sitka had been his home, he decided to sit tight until his term expired and then let the new Governor make the move.

As Bob DeArmond described it, “If the District Court would have been moved to Juneau or had the judge simply gone there to hold court, the people of Juneau might have been quite content to leave the Governor’s office and the Surveyor-General’s office in Sitka.”

Immediately upon receipt of word that the Civil Code was law, the District Court and the U.S. Marshal quietly moved to Juneau. Following that, a petition was drafted calling for the incorporation of Juneau as a first class municipality and was circulated among the citizens. On June 23, 1900, Judge Melville Brown, sitting at Skagway, approved the petition and set Friday, June 29, as the date for an election to approve the proposition and elect a City Council of seven members and a School Board of three members.

What really got the Juneau citizens riled up was Governor Brady promoting the resources of other sections of Alaska. It wasn’t long before the Juneauites appealed to Washington. President Theodore Roosevelt terminated Brady’s tenure and appointed Wilford B. Hoggatt, who had mining interests in Juneau, to the office of Governor on March 2, 1906, he was confirmed by the Senate on March 21.

Wilford Hoggatt had come to Alaska as a Naval Lieutenant in 1894 and had spent four seasons surveying in Southeast Alaska. After resigning from the Navy in 1899 he studied mining at the School of Mines, Columbia University, and then returned to superintend the Jualin Mine at Berners Bay.

Governor Hoggatt did not bother to move the Governor’s office; he merely opened an office in Juneau. The lone clerk in Brady’s Sitka office resigned; the records were boxed up and shipped to Juneau. So, with the Governor in Juneau; the Collector of Customs had transferred his seals, sealing wax and papers from Sitka in 1902; in September of 1906, General William L. Distin, Surveyor-General and ex-officio Secretary of Alaska, boarded the steamer Cottage City in Sitka and with forty tons of paper work and fixtures, left for Juneau. This then was the completion of the transfer of Alaska’s “seat of government” from Sitka to Juneau. It wasn’t until 1912 that Juneau officially became the first and only “capital of Alaska”.

The Alaska Territory became an organized incorporated territory on August 24, 1912. However the resolution, later to be called “The Oregon Resolution” was adopted by the US House of Representatives on January 19, 1911 and by the US Senate on January 26, 1911. For Alaska, this was an extremely important issue as it enabled the creation of the Alaska Territorial Legislature and with that Legislature came the capital designation. On Saturday, February 25, 1911 the Oregon resolution was printed in the Daily Alaska Dispatch in Juneau:

Whereas the territory of Alaska is settled by hardy, active, and energetic people numbering more than 64,000, according to the thirteenth census, 1910, who have in the last ten years added in gold and fish alone more than $225,000,000, being greater than our trade with China and twice as great in value as our trade with the Philippines; and

Whereas the development of the territory is being greatly retarded by the want of a law-making or legislative body therein, to be elected by the people:

Resolved by the legislative assembly of the state of Oregon (the senate and house jointly concurring), That we do hereby declare our most earnest opinion that it is necessary to the development of the Pacific coast of the resources of and good government in Alaska that the congress of the United States shall, at the earliest possible date, pass an enabling act creating and providing for the organization of a territorial legislature in Alaska, to be elected by the American citizens resident therein, with such powers and limitations as have been usually given to and imposed upon such legislative assemblies in other territories; and the senators and representatives in the congress of the United States from the state of Oregon are hereby requested to aid and assist in securing the passage of such a bill.

Acknowledgements:

1) The Heritage of Alaska by Herb Hilscher

2) When the Capital Came to Juneau by Ed L. Keithahn

3) Fifty-sixth Congress, Sess. 1 Ch. 786. 1900

4) Sitka Chronology 1900

5) Gold Camp News by Robert DeArmond

6) 1811-1911, April 2011, Juneau Empire by Jack Marshall

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