Southeast needs new Capitol

Posted: Sunday, March 28, 2004

Juneau has support throughout Southeast Alaska despite reasons for Ketchikan and Sitka residents to turn on their neighbor. What Juneau needs is improved infrastructure.

That means a road out of Juneau to Skagway and improved ferry service until the road is completed. It is also necessary to get the Bradfield Canal Road built. That gives access to the continental road system south of Juneau via an affordable day-boat ride. Those roads also improve access to other parts of Southeast that need the economic boost more than Juneau.

Timber and fishing jobs are down, mining is fighting to stay alive. Population of Southeast is down to 71,800 in 2003 from 73,300 in 1997, according to the state Department of Labor. That is, everything is down except in Juneau, where population is up and jobs are up 2,719 in the last 10 years, versus 870 fewer jobs in the rest of the Panhandle. Juneau should be worried. The population of the state is up to 648,818, an increase of 22,000 since 2000. Southeast is being bypassed.

A priority Juneau project must be a new capitol. Property has been set aside on Telephone Hill. It is inefficent for government to work in the cramped, 75-year-old converted federal building, now expanded across Fifth Street into what was an old high school when this writer attended it 65 years ago (and some worry about newer buildings in Ward Cove?). Southeast residents support Juneau's efforts to build a new capitol building. We better get it while we have a progressive governor, Frank Murkowski, in office and Juneau and Southeast still have the capital.

There is a lesson to remember.

When the United States purchased Alaska, there was no Juneau. So, headquarters of what was called a district stayed in Sitka.

During the Gold Rush of 1898, steamships loaded with stampeders bypassed Sitka because it was out of the way on the Inside Passage. Stampeders wanted to get to the trailheads at Wrangell, Juneau, Dyea, Skagway and Haines soonest. With increased mining activity in Juneau, government activity increased. It was inconvenient to go to Sitka. Juneau agitated to have the government offices moved to Juneau.

On June 6, 1900, Congress enacted a law providing, among other things, that "the seat of government shall remain at Sitka until suitable buildings shall be obtained by purchase or otherwise at Juneau."

Gov. John G. Brady, a Sitka missionary and businessman, was not about to find suitable buildings in Juneau.

Brady resigned in his third term and PresidentTeddy Roosevelt named Wilford B. Hoggatt in April 1906 to succeed him. Hoggatt announced that he had found suitable buildings in Juneau.

Hoggatt was manager of the Julian Mine at Berners Bay north of Juneau before becoming governor, which is why we are dismayed over the opposition to the Kensington Mine planned for that area 100 years later.

Location of the capital precipitated heated debate in the First Territorial Legislature. It started when Rep. Arthur Shoup of Sitka, letting bygones be bygones over loss of the offices to Juneau, introduced a memorial asking Congress to appropriate funds for construction of a federal building in Juneau.

Rep. Hunter Ingram of Valdez called the idea "preposterous."

Reps. Tom Gaffney of Nome and Ernest B. Collins of Fox argued for Fairbanks as the proper place for Alaska's capital.

Despite those oratorical outbursts, the memorial for funds for the federal building received unanimous approval. However, Juneau landlords, renting to the government, fought the project.

Completion of the government railroad from Seward to Fairbanks in 1923 exacerbated the capital relocation issue. Northern and Western residents were almost unanimous in advocating Seward as a preferable capital site.

To Southeast residents, secession seemed the only solution. Then there could be two capital cities - one in Juneau and the other in Seward. An idea originated in Ketchikan to have residents of Southeast vote on whether they wished to split off from the rest of the territory. A vote on Nov. 7, 1923 was overwhelmingly in favor of splitting. The vote in Ketchikan, then Alaska's largest town, was 441 in favor and 39 against.

After the election, delegates from Southeast communities met in Juneau and drew up a constitution for the Territory of South Alaska. They chose former Juneau Mayor R. E. Robertson to carry a petition to Congress for the division of Alaska. He was rebuffed.

Juneau residents - including landlords - saw the light and began a campaign for the federal building. The cornerstone was laid in 1929 for what is now Alaska's antiquated Capitol.

Campaigns since to move the capital were unsuccessful. But Juneau isn't home free. It needs better, and affordable (check ferry and plane fares), access, as does the rest of Southeast, and a Capitol of which Alaskans can be proud while being efficiently served. Or, Juneau will be bypassed as surely as Sitka was100 years ago.

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