June 30 marks historical day in Alaska statehood

Posted: Monday, June 30, 2008

When the U.S. Senate voted 64 to 20 in favor of Alaska statehood on June 30, 1958, Delegate to Congress E.L. "Bob" Bartlett called it the greatest day in Alaska history.

Courtesy Of University Of Alaska Fairbanks
Courtesy Of University Of Alaska Fairbanks

"This is a great day," he was quoted saying in the Daily Alaska Empire 50 years ago today. "This is the greatest day in Alaska history. The Congress has acted wisely and in the national interest. We in Alaska will justify what has been done this day."

After more than four decades of fighting for statehood, the final major battle for full admittance to the union had been fought with the passage of the Alaska Statehood Act that day. Seven days later, on Monday, July 7, 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill into law. Alaska officially became the 49th state on Jan. 3, 1959.

The Alaska Statehood Act was passed on the sixth day of debate in the senate after fending off the opposition of a determined group of senators, primarily from the south, that didn't feel Alaska was ready for statehood because of its population and what they believed would be an economic burden on the country, Associated Press reporter Frank Vaille wrote 50 years ago.

"During debate statehood supporters cited Alaska's admission as a redemption of the pledge for self-government made in the treaty acquiring it from Russia," Vaille's story reads in the June 30, 1958, edition of the Empire. "They saw it also as a psychological weapon of great value in the western world's battle for world opinion.

The senate's approval of the statehood act on June 30, 1958, was a memorable day, Alaska Constitutional Convention delegate and former territorial and state legislator Vic Fischer said in a recent interview.

"The big celebration came when the senate voted because that meant congress had approved it," he said.

Fischer had been in Juneau on June 29, 1958, and heard the statehood act had momentum in the senate and was likely to pass.

"I decided I had to be in Anchorage when it passes," he said. "So I took the morning flight from Juneau to Anchorage on the 30th and my wife picked me up ... and as we were approaching downtown all of a sudden sirens went off and bells started ringing and celebrations started happening. Everybody streamed to the center of town downtown and they had a giant flag already up on the side of the federal building."

They watched Fur Rendezvous Queen Rita Martin pin the 49th star on the large American flag hanging over the side of the federal building with the assistance of the Anchorage Fire Department.

"That evening there was a tremendous bonfire and everybody came together," Fischer said. "Just real celebration."

There was also tremendous celebration in the capital on June 30, 1958, according to reports in the Daily Alaska Empire. Spontaneous and planned celebrations erupted in "a tidal wave of enthusiasm," a story read. The civil defense siren alerted the community to the passing of the statehood act and residents were said to have poured out of their homes and shopkeepers gathered on the downtown sidewalks.

"Among activities were couples dancing in the streets, a bonfire at the subport, tolling of the Liberty Bell in front of the former federal office building and a fireworks display," the story read.

Juneau resident Romer Derr rang the replica of the Liberty Bell in front of the present-day state capital building 49 times upon news of the Senate action. A picture of him ringing the bell was published in the Empire and other papers across the country.

"It was tiresome," Derr said in a recent interview.

"Forty-nine of them got a little hot," he added.

It was reported that more than 2,000 people gathered at the subport in downtown Juneau the evening of June 30 for a "giant bonfire." The Alaska Flag Song and the Star Spangled Banner were both sung prior to the 30-minute fireworks display.

Ernest Gruening, former territorial governor and one of Alaska's first two senators elected to congress, said on June 30, 1958, that the action taken by the Senate that day was a historic occasion.

"It has been a long hard fight and victory is therefore all the sweeter," he was quoted saying in the Empire that day. "I am confident before long there will be few, either in Alaska or in the states, who will not be wholly enthusiastic about the establishment of the 49th state. Certainly it will be by far the most outstanding achievement of congress in this decade."

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