Jensens were witnesses, shapers of Alaska history

Posted: Thursday, February 08, 2001

Mamie Jensen watched Douglas spring up on the banks of Gastineau Channel, and Marcus Jensen saw it burn to the ground. Together, they helped rebuild the town, and build the state of Alaska as well.

Marcus Jensen died Tuesday night at his home on Fritz Cove Road, less than three weeks after the death of his wife. Married more than 67 years and both well into their 90s, the couple witnessed almost a century of Alaska history.

As a territorial and state lawmaker, lobbyist, political activist and Douglas mayor, Marcus Jensen helped shape the future of his community and state.

Mamie Jensen was born in Douglas in 1906. Her father owned a general store that sold Native art and curios to early Alaska tourists. She said in a 1995 interview that she grew up in a community that was part the company town of Treadwell, part Douglas and part Native village.

Marcus Jensen grew up in Minnesota, fascinated by the stories his uncles and grandfather told of their success in the Nome Gold Rush at the turn of the century. He came to Juneau in 1929 and worked seasonally at the Alaska Juneau gold mine and as a surveyor. He met Mamie at a dance in Douglas, they married in 1933, and he went into business with Mamie's father.

Jensen was a volunteer firefighter on a bitterly cold night in 1937 when 70-mph winds fanned a blaze that leveled Douglas. More than 50 buildings, including the family store, were engulfed. In a 1995 interview, Jensen talked about rebuilding Douglas just months after the fire.

"Myself and six others went to the bank and each got a $1,000 loan for materials. We started then to rebuild the (community) hall, and the whole community pitched in," he said. "Juneau folks came over and pitched in a lot on that. It was family. We finished the hall, and never spent a dime on labor."

Retired Judge Tom Stewart said the Jensens had tremendous enthusiasm for the Douglas community. He said Mamie was a wealth of community history.

Recognizing that, in 1978 Perseverance Theatre cast her in the theater's first production, "Pure Gold," a show based on local history. The Jensens' son, John, said Mamie helped found the Douglas Public Library, which started as a shelf of books in the old Fire Hall. John said in the 1950s she was named Mother of the Year, in part because of her work with the fledgling library.

Marcus Jensen served as the mayor of Douglas in the 1940s and again in the 1960s, and in the state and territorial legislature throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. During his political career he crossed paths many times with former Alaska Gov. Walter Hickel, and the two ran for public office in 1966. Hickel won the governor's office and Jensen lost the seat of secretary of state (now lieutenant governor) by only 600 votes.

"Politics is hard work and it can be a lot of fun. Marc Jensen made it fun. He cared about what the people cared about and never let any of the rest of us forget it," said Hickel this morning through his secretary.

Jensen was politically active, but his first love was the Alaska wilderness. For 40 years he earned his living as a guide and took hunters up rivers, across tundra and through Alaska forests until he was in his 70s. He continued hunting well into his 80s.

In 1973 he was appointed by Gov. Jay Hammond as the first chairman of the new Guide Licensing and Control Board, which shaped the development of the guiding industry in Alaska.

John Jensen said in the 1960s, his father built a house on Fritz Cove Road with his nephew, Tom Jensen. Marcus and Mamie spent summers there for several years, renting it out during the school year to teachers. They eventually moved to Fritz Cove Road full time, surrounded by the art, artifacts and memorabilia of a shared lifetime.

Riley Woodford can be reached at

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