Alaska's Constitutional Convention: 1955
Honoring its 50th anniversary
By JUNE ALLEN
September 16, 2005
"We the people of Alaska, grateful to God
and to those who founded our nation and pioneered this great
in order to secure and transmit to succeeding generations our
of political, civil, and religious liberty within the Union of
do ordain and establish this constitution for the State of Alaska."
Preamble to Alaska's Constitution
These simple words were written
by Alaskans and for Alaskans as the introduction to the Constitution
of the State of Alaska, the treasured document that gives citizens
the reasons and intent of the law under which they are governed.
Alaska's Constitution is uncomplicated, written in plain
English that anyone can read. It is a short document, designed
to leave the greater authority to the state's legislators, elected
by us, among us and for us.
Convention, Nov 1955 - Feb 1956
Group portrait of the Alaska Constitutional Conventioneers,
with signatures of the attendees.
Historical Photograph Collection - University of Alaska Fairbanks
Photograph used with permission of the University of Alaska Fairbanks
Gaining Statehood wasn't easy for Alaska. The federal government
required of Alaska's political body lengthy and complete preparation,
dedication, and perseverance toward its goal. Alaskans would
need to prove to Congress that Alaska had the courage to take
on the responsibilities of Statehood, that it had the resource
wealth to support itself, that it would not become a financial
drain on the federal government, and, perhaps most of all, that
it could govern itself wisely and well. That was a charge that
a delegation of Alaska's leaders, the delegation charged with
drafting a Constitution were ready to address.
Alaskans shrewdly decided to draft their Constitution well before
Statehood was granted. The decision was, in fact, part
of the political maneuvering to convince Congress that forward-thinking
Alaskans were ready, willing and able to manage their own affairs.
The miracle of the Constitutional Convention was that a collection
of 55 ordinary Alaskans, men and women from every walk of life,
living in the remote reaches of the continent not even contiguous
to the 48 states farther south, would draft such a simple, beautiful,
carefully crafted and fully functional document. And they did
it in 90 days!
The drafting of Alaska's Constitution was not a dramatic event.
The fifty-five delegates were chosen from Alaska's cities, towns
and villages to take part in the historic undertaking. They were
men and woman from every walk of life. The number 55 was chosen
to match the 55 delegates to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution
in Philadelphia back in 1798.
Each community elected its own delegate(s). In Ketchikan, W.O.
"Bo" Smith was chosen to represent his city at the
Constitutional Convention. Bo Smith was one of four Smith brothers,
Bo, Ben, Jim and Bob, who were the sons of a Magistrate at Craig.
The brothers all fished and Bob had a fish-buying scow. Bo campaigned
via personal contact and letters to the editor. As a fisherman,
he said his primary interest and experience was in fisheries,
a prime consideration in Ketchikan. He was elected and then named
chair of the committee on resources when he arrived in Fairbanks
for the Convention. In addition, he was appointed a member
of the committee on direct legislation, amendment and revision.
Records indicate that most of the delegates were enthusiastic
proponents of Statehood and they shared a political idealism
that had sustained the Statehood movement. They also shared a
sense of historical purpose. To see their names, faces and hometowns,
on this link.
There were no Brooks Brothers
suits or spike heels on display 50 years ago as the delegates
trudged across the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus to Constitution
Hall on a frigid, dark morning of Nov.8, 1955. They wore parkas
or heavy coats and snow boots. The delegates, chaired by Bill
Egan of Valdez, would be able to finish their duties by
Feb. 6, 1956.
Territorial Alaska in 1956 was not the State of Alaska of today.
Only two of the main streets in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city,
were paved! The city of tiny fuel-efficient homes and Quonset
huts was on its way to become a polished metropolis. Fairbanks
had a couple of paved streets but the city, second largest, was
clouded with dust in the summer and ice fog in the winters. Ketchikan,
Alaska's southernmost city, looked much as it had in when it
was founded in 1900. The capital city Juneau, much older than
those larger cities, and smaller, snuggled up against the looming
mountains of Alaska's spectacular Inside Passage.
The Constitution was as accomplished fact by February 1956 and
was approved by the voters two months later. But there were still
a number of political hurdles to jump in the future, the not
the least of which was convincing a hesitant U.S. Congress to
approve Statehood for a Territory that was, still, considered
Seward's Folly or "Walrussia" in some stodgy back-east
minds. Finally a reluctant Congress approved Statehood by a squeakily
narrow margin. And still time and events marched on. Then, almost
unexpectedly three long years after the Alaska Constitution was
In the wee hours of Saturday morning, January 3, 1959, Alaskans
were startled awake to clanging church bells and wailing sirens.
The urgent can't-wait clamor echoed through the blackness of
an Alaska winter night to announce that back in Washington D.C.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower had just signed the long-awaited
law that made Alaska the "49th State."
Statehood for Alaska had at last become a reality! Alaskans had
worked long and hard to shed their largely neglected Territorial
status. It was time to celebrate the fact that their great land
of resource wealth and opportunity would now become a contributing
member of the Union of States under the Stars and Stripes, a
flag now 49 stars! Alaska was the first new state since Arizona
joined the Union in 1912, almost half a century earlier.
Fairbanks was frozen stiff in 30-below weather and ice fog when
the exciting news came in. The building in which Alaska's Constitution
had been written three-plus years earlier sat silent within a
glittery haze of ice crystals. It was at least 30 degrees below
zero on campus and it was even colder in the valley below where
Fairbanks was uniformly muffled in a thick white blanket of ice
fog. Alaska's second largest city boasted 13,000 souls who were
temporarily distracted by making sure furnaces and automobiles
In an excited Anchorage to the south, not quite so cold, plans
were underway for a wide variety of Statehood celebrations including
Statehood themes for the city's Fur Rendezvous to be held soon.
Anchorage had become Alaska's largest city after World War II
and by 1959 boasted a population of almost 83,000!
In the capital city of Juneau, population almost 10,000, the
news was received with high excitement. Every American school
child in the (now) 49 States would learn that Juneau was the
State Capital! The seated Governor in 1959, Mike Stepovich of
Fairbanks, would be the last of the Territorial governors appointed
by the President. From now on, Alaska's Governor would be elected
by a vote of the people of Alaska!
To the south in Ketchikan, population about 6,500 (which was
the third largest Alaska city until Juneau annexed Douglas) the
reaction to the Statehood news was mixed. Independent fishermen,
however, rejoiced! Ketchikan's economy had, since early in the
century, been dependant largely on the fishery industry, specifically
its many fish canneries. Ketchikan at that time billed itself
"The Salmon Capital of the World." There was at one
time a sign on the docks that read "We Catch What We Can
and Can What We Catch." The posts holding up the "Welcome
to Ketchikan" sign on Mission Street were circled with can
labels from the region's processors. The canneries kept the rainy
city economically afloat.
That industrial segment of the fishery industry depended to a
greater or less extent on fish traps. The traps were not popular,
however, with the fleets of Alaska's independent fishermen! It
is a curious fact that Territorial Alaska at the middle of the
20th century, through the inaction of the federal government,
was the last place on the planet that hadn't outlawed the traps
that had destroyed the fisheries in other parts of the world.
Southeastern's cannery industry knew that if and when Alaska
gained Statehood, traps would be instantly outlawed by
its new State legislature. And that is, indeed what happened. (FISH
PIRATES & FISH TRAPS; Ketchikan's Real Melodrama! By
The full significance of the news began to sink in that frigid
day in 1959 when Statehood became a fact. Alaskans would now
be able to vote(!) to elect a governor. They would at last be
able to vote for the President of the United States who, until
Statehood, had appointed Alaska governors. They would be
able to elect two Senators and a Congressman to represent them
in Washington D.C. They would now be in charge of their own vast
natural resources and manage their fish and game. And, predictably,
one of their very first acts would abolish the salmon fish traps!
Alaska's Constitution is a model document admired by other, older
states. Alaskans can be proud of it. It was the dedication, wisdom
and teamwork of the 55 men and women from every part of Alaska
who drafted that document that has become a model among the 50
states. And it is those dedicated Alaskans and their accomplishments
that we honor this year, 2005, the 50th anniversary of
their historic service to their state.
Related Historical Photographs:
Copyright © 2004
All rights reserved.
Not to be reprinted in any form without the written permission
of June Allen.
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