An article in the Nov-Dec issue of Alaskan History Magazine tells how, in 1935, with the nation in the grip of a crippling depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Federal Writers Project as part of the United States Work Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal jobs program designed to provide employment for historians, teachers, writers, editors, cartographers, librarians, and other white-collar workers. The purpose of the project–and its most visible legacy–was a series of guidebooks which focused on the scenic, historical, cultural, and economic resources of the United States, comprising the first self-portrait of America.
The 427-page guide for the territory of Alaska was written by Merle Colby, who was already the author of two novels and numerous short stories about the American frontier. The WPA Guide to Alaska was described by Kirkus Review in 1939 as a “Comprehensive fact book of Alaska’s history, points of interest, resources, train, boat and plane and highway travel, anecdotes, hunting and fishing, places to stay, prices, etc., etc. Complete coverage for the prospective traveler, with suggestions for various types of trips, and ways of getting to Alaska. Not a personal experience travel book, but manages to convey a sense of enthusiasm for the territory, its background and future. Good library item, and practically a must for Alaska travelers.”
Today Merle Colby’s WPA Guide to Alaska provides a richly detailed look at the territory at an important time in the history of America, and at a critically transitional time for the future 49th state. Copies are often available at online book sources, and the full book is available to download or read online.
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