Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Anchorage Remembers: Alaska's Big Day

by Lee Jordan

When I punched the time clock at 7 a.m. on June 30, 1958, excitement was evident throughout the Anchorage Daily Times building. It could easily be seen on the faces of those who were already hard at work, their demeanor even more earnest than usual. I soon learned that the Alaska Statehood Bill, which had been debated for the past week, was awaiting a final vote in the United States Senate. Passage was assured and was imminent. History was being made, and Anchorage would celebrate in a big way once that day’s edition hit the streets. Throughout the building we could feel the tension as we waited for the words from Congress that would set us in frenzied final motion.

When the back shop crew arrived, we saw that Publisher Robert B. Atwood was already at his desk in the editorial offices on the second floor, on the telephone with E. L “Bob” Bartlett, Alaska Delegate to Congress in Washington, D.C. Also getting an early start was the three-person news staff. Those of us whose job it was to set the type and get the paper ready for printing were met by Editor Bernard J. Kosinski. Adrenalin began to flow when he told us to prepare the front page for an Extra. That word was set twice in 72-point bold capital letters, placed in “ears” at the top of the front page, one in a box on each side of the paper’s nameplate.

“What’s the biggest type we have?” Kosinski asked me.

From the adjoining pressroom, I extracted from a dust-covered cabinet a character from a font of wood type. The type was six inches tall, reserved for use in a “Doomsday” headline.

“Try ‘WE’RE NO. 49’,” Kosinski commanded. When I attempted to comply, I found two problems. The more serious was that the phrase was too long to fit within the 16-inch page width. The other was that there was no apostrophe in the type case.

“There’s a comma, and I can make an apostrophe out of it if you can shorten the head,” I advised.

“Make it ‘WE’RE IN’,” he replied after a moment’s thought. That solved the first problem. The other didn’t take long. I took the comma and walked over to the saw standing in one corner of the composing room. I cut off the raised character from the bottom portion of the slim strip of hardwood, and placed it at the top of the headline; spacing material cut to order filled the void below.

Even though the front page soon was complete, except for a two-column hole on the right side, it would be several hours before the “Extra” hit the street. There was a great deal of nail-biting while we waited, all eyes on the clock. The gaping hole could not be filled until the Times’ Associated Press representative in Washington sent his lead paragraphs by teletype. From the publisher to us minions in the back shop, we agonized as we waited to break the news to a public waiting eagerly.

Background stories had been written in advance by Kosinski and his two reporters. They told of the effort to bring a Statehood Bill to the floor, what it provided, and its anticipated effects. Leaders of the Statehood effort were quoted, and space was given to the constitution that would guide the new State of Alaska. Emphasis was placed on President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s promise to sign the Bill as soon as it made its way to his desk. A picture of a huge pile of wood stacked on the Park Strip, waiting to become a celebratory bonfire, illustrated the excitement.

Bartlett had advised that passage of the bill was certain even though debate was continuing by senators not yet ready to admit defeat. All that was needed was word that the vote was final. It did not come until 8:00 Eastern time—2:00 Alaska time, the newspaper’s normal Page One deadline—when Associated Press reporter Robert Smith filed his report.

Times Circulation Manager Harry Stiver had already called in his crew of carriers and engaged a handful of them to take the Extra to the streets. Drivers were standing by to get copies to the stores, to the airport, and up the highway. The pressroom foreman was told to run twice the usual number of copies.

With the recently installed Hoe press cranking out 12,000 copies an hour, the 20-page edition was soon in the hands of sellers who shouted, “Extra, Extra! Alaska’s a state! Read all about it.” The newspapers, which sold for 10 cents each, became valuable souvenirs.

The “WE’RE IN” headline became an icon identifying the successful end to a decades-long struggle by Alaskans to gain a place in the Union. That fight began half a century earlier when residents of Nome (then Alaska’s largest city), Juneau (named as Alaska’s capital in 1906), Sitka (the former capital dating from the days of ownership by Russia), and Skagway (gateway to the Klondike in the 1890s Gold Rush) petitioned for recognition. Lack of a voice in Washington—other than that of lobbyists—and edicts coming from people thousands of miles and a continent’s-width away had long frustrated residents of the Territory.

The first Alaska Statehood Bill was filed in 1916 by former judge James Wickersham, who was elected as Alaska’s third non-voting Delegate to Congress in 1909. It failed, as did several subsequent efforts, although each brought attention to the Last Frontier’s concerns.

Fiercely pro-Statehood, Atwood became publisher of the Times in 1935. He battled relentlessly against the wealthy salmon cannery interests based in Seattle, whose fishermen came each spring to harvest the incredibly valuable runs spawned in Alaska’s rivers. To a great extent the Outside fishermen escaped paying taxes to the Territory. There were also concerns that with its small population Alaska could not afford to provide services previously provided by federal agencies. Control of the fishery, at least partially, ended with Statehood. The financial concern was alleviated when it became known that Atlantic-Richfield’s 1957 discovery of oil in the Kenai Peninsula’s Swanson River Field was a major find. That find was later eclipsed by what was found on Alaska’s North Slope. Although in 1958 we had only hopes for the future, Statehood has proved to be a success. Alaska holds untapped natural resources in abundance. The $7.2 million purchase from Russia has been repaid many times over. Alaska’s star continues to shine brightly.

My role in this drama was miniscule, but I still feel a sense of pride whenever I see the “WE’RE IN” headline. For a brief moment, I had a hand in history.

Lee Jordan was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1930. He enlisted in the Army and, despite asking to be sent “anywhere but Alaska,” found himself shivering at 20 degrees below zero on a windy dock in Whittier in January 1949, assigned to the Signal Corps’ historic Alaska Communication System. He later worked as a printer with the Anchorage Daily Times. He married Barbara Erickson in 1951. They moved to Chugiak in 1962, where they remain today. They founded the Chugiak-Eagle River Star in 1971 and operated it for 30 years until selling to the Morris newspaper chain. In 1974 Jordan was elected mayor of the short-lived Chugiak-Eagle River Borough. In semi-retirement, he is writing his fourth book—stories about people of the Klondike-Alaska Gold Rush. After 21 years of coaching baseball, Jordan is currently president of the Chugiak-Eagle River Chinooks Booster Club. He has four children, nine grandchildren, and four great-grandsons.

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