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Tuesday, June 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Dispatches From the Road: Anchorage, Alaska

Courthouse News Service began in-person coverage in the state of Alaska in October 2015. This includes daily trips to the Anchorage Trial Courts and the Anchorage division of the federal court for the District of Alaska, as well as regular live coverage of the majority of other state courts including the trial courts in Fairbanks, Palmer and Juneau.

Alaska Facts

Alaska became the 49th U.S. state in 1959, nearly a century after being purchased from the Russian Empire in 1867 for $7.2 million - 2 cents per acre - or $112 million in 2015 dollars.

Despite the sweet deal (especially given later discoveries of gold and fossil fuels and the U.S. military's substantial presence beginning in the 20th century), the United States' purchase of Alaska from the Russians became known as "Seward's Folly" and "Seward's Icebox" after its key negotiator, U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward.

Some Americans could not see Seward's vision and opposed spending money on what they thought was a vast frozen wasteland inhabited by a few wandering savages, valuable only for furs and not even attached to the rest of the United States.

After Seward's death, however, discoveries of large reserves of gold in 1892 and fossil fuels in the 20th century brought a high return on that investment. Today, Seward's Day is celebrated as a state holiday on the last Monday in March.

The first U.S. federal court in what became the Territory of Alaska in 1912 was headquartered in Sitka, the only community inhabited by American settlers in the early years under the U.S. flag.

The state's name is derived from an Aleut word used to describe the Alaska mainland, literally meaning "object to which the action of the sea is directed."

At just over 663,000 square miles, Alaska is the largest U.S. state. In fact, Alaska is larger than the next three largest states - Texas, California and Montana - combined. When superimposed on a map of the lower 48 states, Alaska stretches from coast to coast.

Residents like to say, "Everything is bigger in Alaska" - fitting since the state is also home to the tallest mountain in North America. The peak's name Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley) is an Athabaskan word meaning "the great one" or "the high one."

But Alaska is also the third least-populated state with 738,432 people, and the least densely populated state in the union.

Alaska recognizes 21 languages including English and the 20 Alaska Native languages declared as official languages by the state Legislature in 2014.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, nearly 67 percent of Alaska's population was white and nearly 15 percent was Alaska Native or American Indian. Asians, African-Americans and Pacific Islanders made up less than 10 percent of Alaska's population in the last census combined.

Oil and gas dominate the Alaskan economy, with over 80 percent of the state's revenue coming from petroleum extraction. Fishing, military bases and tourism also make up a significant portion of the state's economy.

The official state sport is dog mushing, and the state motto is "North to the Future." And while Alaska's official state bird is the Willow Ptarmigan, Alaskans joke that the real state bird is the mosquito - following the sentiment that everything is bigger in the Last Frontier. Nickel- to quarter-sized slow-moving mosquitoes first appear as snow and ice melts into puddles and parts of the forest floor and tundra begin to bloom with forget-me-nots, the state flower.

Continuing with the theme of big in Alaska, the state's largest island is Kodiak and its longest river is the Yukon. Wildlife tends to be bigger in Alaska as well, with Kodiak and polar bears weighing up to 1,400 pounds and reaching heights of 11 feet. Alaska is also home to brown and grizzly bears, moose and caribou.

Alaska hosts half of the world's glaciers and is the only state to have coastlines on three seas: the Arctic Ocean, Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea. The latter forms the U.S. border with Russia, with a little over two miles from soil to soil through the Big and Little Diomede Islands separating the two nations.

The state also has 29 volcanoes, some active.

Interior Alaska boasts the state's high and low temperature records: 100 degrees and minus 78 degrees.

At winter solstice, the northernmost parts of the state experience 24 hours of darkness - 67 days' worth in places like Barrow. But come summer solstice, people in Barrow enjoy 24 hours of daylight - where the sun just circles the horizon - for 80 consecutive days.

Anchorage Facts

While Alaska's capital is Juneau, its largest city is Anchorage. In fact, about half of Alaska's entire population lives in the Anchorage metropolitan area.

Because of this, there have been several efforts to move the capital closer to the Anchorage area. The first attempt came in 1960, and since then there have been 10 ballot initiatives to move the capital put before voters.

Even though voters approved a 1974 initiative to move the capital and in 1976 voted to select a site near Willow, two hours north of Anchorage, voters rejected the bond to pay for the move.

Now the only major event happening in Willow is the start of what is dubbed "the Last Great Race on Earth" - the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The 1,000-mile event began in 1973 as a way to commemorate the way of life in rural Alaska, using dogs and sleds for transportation along the major gold-mining and mail route ending in Nome on the northwest coast of Alaska.

As heard by the CNS Western Regional Bureau Chief

A CNS Anchorage job applicant: "Anchorage is the nicest little city outside Alaska."

Another applicant: "Anchorage is a big city, like New York and LA."

CNS Anchorage reporter during training: "The folks in Fairbanks call Anchorage Los Anchorage." (For his part, the bureau chief says Anchorage is more like a "sub-sub-Arctic combo of Portland, Maine and Reno, Nevada.")

And as heard by the CNS Anchorage reporter (and many women in Alaska) regarding the disproportionate number of men to women - and some men's tendency toward the eccentric in the Last Frontier:

"The odds are good, but the goods are odd."

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