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Picturing Alaska history : USA territory to statehood

Turner Publishing ( asked if I would consider reviewing a new book. I’m glad I agreed. Historic Photos of Alaska has just been published, a large format book of black and white photographs from the period 1867 to 1979. Dermot Cole, long-time columnist for the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer, provides the text and captions.

As a journalist, Dermot also has an interest in history (apart from his twin brother, Terrance, history professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks). Dermot Cole is the author of Amazing Pipeline Stories published by Epicenter Press in 1997, about the people and Fairbanks during the Alaska oil pipeline construction.

The perspective of Historic Photos of Alaska, is for those readers outside Alaska. That is, this is a pictorial history of Alaska as part of “America”. [Through no fault of this book, many in the US will still consider Alaska as a foreign body, along with New Mexico.]

The photos are arranged by time periods, from purchase to statehood– 1867-1905, 1906-1919, 1920-1940, and 1941-1979. These periods represent significant periods of US and Alaska relations. The orientation is a deliberate effort to stand apart from the usual Alaskana picture books. Another significant difference in this book is the choice of rarely seen photos and not the ubiquitous ones. The photos are reproduced with sufficient quality to review again and again and see something new each time.

Readers can follow themes such as regional changes (southeast Alaska also known as the Northwest Coast compared to Nome in northwest Alaska) and transportation. However, other themes can be chosen by readers according to personal interest.

    Most of the dogs are Alaska huskies (freight variety), such as ones on pages 44 and 55 and in harness, page 58. However, the team on page 67 is actually part of a Saami family (reindeer herders originally from Scandinavia. Note the hats and boot toes.) The harness setup is very different from that of the Eskimo family team on page 128. There are also sporting dogs (early 20th century conformation) such as the one on page 92 belonging to Jim Haly. Look carefully. The dog has just spotted another dog out of view, and kicked up a cloud of dust with his hind legs.

    Electric trees
    Even on the frozen tundra of Nome (page 111) and sprouting ever more branches over time in populated areas such as Cordova page 120 and Fairbanks page 151.

    One way to trace the influence of the military in Alaska is through men’s hats in the photos. Since Territorial days, the military has been a significant economic and development force in Alaska. Much of the early geological studies and geodetic surveys were military. World War II and then the Cold War continued the inflow of money and people. Photos from pages 168 to 180 show differing aspects of building the Al-Can or Alaska Highway and the later battles of Attu and the Aleutians. (see related posts here on the Al-Can and the Aleutians,

    Everywhere. The curiosity of Edwardian women’s fashion in open-air fish camp (useful against mosquitoes I suppose); the plank streets (for cars and horses) 400 miles from the nearest highway; even a Piggly-Wiggly store outside of the South.

Dermot Cole avoided the shop worn stash of Alaska photos. However, the next to last photo, page 197, is of the oil pipeline’s zigzagged engineering (to avoid temperature stresses) up the North Slope and over the Brooks Mountain Range. It’s a clever homage to the iconic Klondike gold rush photo of the future miners traipsing up the Chilkoot Pass.

I do have some quibbles with the book. There is an amazing variety of horses depicted but no photos of cows at Creamer’s Dairy in Fairbanks (I like the image of the wood stove chimney peeking out the milk truck to keep contents from freezing at 40 below).

More importantly, an outline map of Alaska is needed, with the places of photos identified.

The southwest of Alaska is mostly excluded. Considering that most folks in or outside Alaska believe everyone lives in an Eskimo igloo, it would also be helpful to include a map of languages/cultural regions in the state. Most readers will not be aware of the significance of the temporary, river going, hide boat depicted on page 44 built by the Athabascan Indian trapper to bring his skins to market. Compare with the more permanent skin boat built by Iñupiat Eskimo marine hunters on page 103. I already noted the Saami family.

The period of the first half of 1919 is missing although extremely important in the demography and history of non-urban Alaska. Upwards of 80% to 100% of people in some communities died during the pandemic of the “Spanish Flu”. The Jesse Lee Home (I ran across this recently published history) was one of several that cared for orphans left behind (those that survived long enough for help to reach them).

A suggested reading list would be nice, including Steven Langdon’s 1993. The Native People of Alaska. Anchorage, AK : Greatland Graphics. ISBN: 0936425172 9780936425177 OCLC: 27405205

A great companion volume would be John S. Whitehead’s 2004. Completing the Union: Alaska, Hawaii, and the Battle for Statehood. Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press. ISBN: 0826336361 9780826336361 082633637X 9780826336378, OCLC: 55665367

This book is not supposed to be a comprehensive pictorial history. Cole did an amazing job just to make a selection from all the possibilities and put together such an enjoyable book.

[Dermot Cole. 2008 Historic Photos of Alaska. Nashville: Turner Publishing Co.
# ISBN-10: 1596524243
# ISBN-13: 978-1596524248
# LoC 2007938665
Hardcover: 216 pages, Language: English, Product Dimensions: 10.2 x 10.1 x 1 inches, list price $39.95]

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