Alaska celebrates its constitutional convention's 50th

Posted: Sunday, November 06, 2005

When reviewing the Alaska Constitution after it was written, the National Municipal League said it was "one of the best, if not the best, state constitutions ever written."

Here was a unique constitution that centralized courts, created a borough system for urban and rural areas and gave residents control over natural resources.

The convention that started it all began 50 years ago Tuesday.

Some 55 delegates from urban and rural Alaska traveled to the University of Alaska in Fairbanks to assemble the document, though some had little or no knowledge of how to do it.

"We all agreed to make it short and to the point," said Jack Coghill, delegate from Nenana and the second-youngest delegate at the convention. Coghill recently turned 80.

The convention lasted 75 days and the constitution was adopted by Alaska voters on April 24,1956. Three years later, Congress approved statehood for Alaska.

Through a project of the University of Alaska Fairbanks called Creating Alaska, scholars are celebrating the constitutional convention and collecting as much data as possible to have a lasting record of what happened.

"It's also a tribute to the living delegates," project coordinator Joseph Hardenbrook said.

Five signers of the document are still living: Victor Fischer from Anchorage, Seaborn Buckalew from Anchorage, Jack Coghill from Nenana, Burke Riley from Haines and George Sundborg from Juneau.

Scribing the constitution before Congress granted statehood was a gesture to show Washington that Alaska was capable of governing itself.

The state constitution is the supreme body of law for Alaska and has three major functions: establishing three branches of governments - executive, judicial and legislative; ensuring civil rights; and singling out significant public policies.

Delegates ironed out the draft in the basement and cafeteria of a new student union building on the university campus, which is now known as Constitution Hall.

The convention's budget was $350,000 and delegates lived on a per diem of $20.

"We still had some money left over after it was done," Coghill said.

Convention secretary Thomas Stewart - later a Superior Court judge in Juneau - traveled the country for six months prior to the event to pick the nation's most knowledgeable minds on constitution drafting.

The State Committee, a group of former appointed Alaska governors and legislators, laid out several blueprints from other state models from which the delegates picked and chose the best parts.

Coghill said the U.S. Interior Department was toying with the idea of drafting its own constitution for Alaska and state residents wanted to beat the federal government to it.

"When we wrote this, we were saying, 'We are the people of Alaska and this is our philosophy,'" he said.

Coghill, one of 18 Republican delegates, added that partisanship was checked at the door and all worked toward the common goal of statehood.

Attending meant making sacrifices. Coghill had four children at home and two businesses in Nenana, which his wife and brother ran while he was gone.

"The success of the American people is the fact they had to do something in order to survive," he said.

According to the lieutenant governor's office, 40 amendments were proposed and 28 were adopted.

On Tuesday, the university will unveil in Anchorage a traveling exhibit that shows events that led up to the convention and developments afterward, up to statehood.

Creating Alaska's goals are educating young people and spreading the word to those in government about the effort that went into the convention.

"Alaska has such a transient population. A lot of folks share a disconnection with Alaska's history," Hardenbrook said.

The university is also giving away pocket-sized copies of the state constitution.

• Andrew Petty can be reached at

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