Tag Archives: WPA

1935 WPA Federal Writers Project

ND Cover 420 resThe November-December issue of Alaskan History Magazine includes an article about the WPA Guide to Alaska, which was written as part of the Federal Writers Project, an interesting study of the territory in which the preface sagely advises, “The best way to know Alaska is to spend a lifetime there.”

WPACAThe Federal Writers’ Project was created in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as part of the United States Work Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal jobs program, to provide employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and other white-collar workers. Originally, the purpose of the project was to produce a series of sectional guide books, focusing on the scenic, historical, cultural, and economic resources of the United States (including the territory of Alaska, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.). The project was expanded to include local histories, oral histories, ethnographies, children’s books and other works.

WPANDThe American Guide Series books were written and compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project, but printed by individual states, and contained detailed histories of each state with descriptions of every city and town. The format was uniform, comprising essays on the state’s history and culture, descriptions of major cities, automobile tours were one of the important attractions, and there was a portfolio of photographs in each book.

m7cEAnxa5C9XwK15ggTnnvwA Guide to Alaska: Last American Frontier, was written by Merle Colby, and includes a foreword by John W. Troy, then-Governor of the territory of Alaska. Troy wrote, “Scarcely more than a generation ago, well within the memory of many living Alaskans, the news was flashed in 1897 over telegraph wires that the steamer Portland had arrived in Seattle with ‘a ton of gold.'”

Troy continues: “Even more important, and certainly no less dramatic, is the less-known Alaska of today — the Alaska of graveled automobile roads, of airplanes, used as casually by Alaskans as are taxis in continental United States, of giant gold dredges, of great fishing fleets, of farms with the latest in modern equipment, of homes set in frames of flowers and surrounded with vegetable gardens, of large shops, theaters, churches, schools, clubs, newspapers, and America’s farthest-north university.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 11.52.08 AMThe entire book can be read online, and there are interesting details throughout the 1939 guidebook, such as this curious advice regarding money: “The 5-cent piece is the lowest monetary unit in Alaska; in the remote interior, the 25 cent piece (two bits). In the latter case, this does not mean that the lowest price of any article is 25 cents, but merely that a total purchase must amount to a multiple of 25 cents. Pennies are almost unknown, and in post offices the clerk will usually make change in one-cent stamps. Prices such as 39 cents and $1.98 are unheard of.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 8.17.01 AMThe guidebook’s description of roads in Alaska is notably brief: “Automobile Highways. The Richardson Highway (open in summer only), 371 miles long, begins at the port of Valdez, on Prince William Sound, and ends at Fairbanks, paralleling the Alaska Railroad. Frequent bus and truck service connect with steamship arrivals; good accommodations are available along the route.”

Note that the Alaska Railroad, which reportedly ‘parallels’ the Richardson Highway, does so at a distance of well over 100 miles.

Delta River, Richardson Hwy circa 1922“The Steese Highway (open in summer only) extends 163 miles from Fairbanks to Circle. Bus and truck service connect with train arrivals; there are accommodations along the route.

“Other major summer highways, all with bus or truck service, are:
• Gulkana to Slate Creek, 60 miles
• Anchorage to Palmer and Matanuska Valley, 50 miles
• Fairbanks to Livengood, 85 miles
• Nome to Council, 57 miles”

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 8.29.37 AMA few local roads between 5 and 39 miles in length are listed, along with the 80-mile Mt. McKinley National Park gravel road from Paxson, now known as the Denali Highway.

A Guide to Alaska is an interesting in-depth look at the territory in the first half of the twentieth century, divided into six distinct regions and described in terms which would do justice to any modern travel guide, such as this depiction of southcentral Alaska: “A number of large rivers, as well as Cook Inlet, break through the mountains fronting the coast and open up inland valleys having a light forest cover, moderate precipitation, short but rather warm summers, and winter temperatures not unlike those found in the northern tier of prairie States. The level and rolling lands afford excellent opportunities for agriculture. The Matanuska agricultural area is located in one of these valleys in the vicinity of Anchorage. Additional and even more extensive tracts of potential farm lands, notably the Kenai Peninsula agricultural area, are found in this same general locality. ”

The entire book can be read online here.

1935 WPA Guide to Alaska

Best cover 420 resAn 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.

Screen Shot 2019-09-17 at 3.53.15 PM

Artwork by Merlin Pollock

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.”

Screen Shot 2019-09-18 at 8.51.14 AMToday 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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Nov-Dec Issue

Screen Shot 2019-10-25 at 1.48.24 PMThe November-December issue, now printing, ranges widely across Alaska, from the early settlements of Tyonek and Knik to the frontier towns of Cordova, Chitina, and Valdez, and from the goldfields of the Fortymile District to the halls of the Territorial legislature in Juneau. Among the articles for this issue:

• A guidebook to territorial Alaska from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s U. S. Work Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal jobs program which created the Federal Writers Project.

• An unusual but little-known earth-moving project, notable for the remote location and for the size of the undertaking. 

Orr Stage ad• The Ed. S. Orr Stage Company, an important part of our past, which proudly claimed “Eight day service between Valdez and Fairbanks, a distance of 364 miles,” and “All stages equipped with abundance of fur robes and carbon-heated foot warmers.”

• The Woodchopper Roadhouse, at one time the oldest and largest log structure on the Yukon River between Eagle and Circle City.

• The story of pioneer Native rights activist Elizabeth Peratrovich.

• The 1898 explorations of Capt. Edwin F. Glenn and W. C. Mendenhall through the Matanuska Valley. 

• Pioneering Alaskan artists, color postcards from the turn of the century, a timeline, an index to the 2019 issues, and a few classic Alaskan books worth seeking out make this issue another worthwhile addition to your library shelves.

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