by Terrence Cole
University of Alaska Press
Alaskans celebrated a major milestone recently – half a decade of statehood. It was a wild party, celebrated over an entire year, encompassing 586,412 square miles and somewhere in the neighborhood of 621,400 partiers.
Alaska the state was born January 3, 1959, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the statehood bill, but gestation and labor – the drive to make Alaska the 49th state of the USA — lasted much longer, as statehood activists fought segregationists, federal agencies, and sometimes even neighbors and friends for the opportunity to determine her own destiny.
Historian Terrence Cole details the efforts waged and eventual success in “Fighting for the 49th Star: C.W. Snedden and the Crusade for Alaska Statehood.” While this past year saw numerous volumes taking on this subject, including Cole’s brother, News-Miner columnist Dermot, Terrence’s effort stands out for its focus on the people behind the statehood drive, most especially C.W. Snedden, owner and publisher of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
Alaska was a territory of the US for 50 years, and a possession for 92 years. It was unique in that it was non-contiguous, bordering Canada rather than other states. Statehood opponents claimed allowing Alaska to join the Union would then open the door to other non-contiguous entities, including Italy, Puerto Rico, and maybe even Russia, vying for statehood.
Other obstacles were Alaska’s enormous size, lack of infrastructure and population, minimal economic base, long coastline, and challenging climate. In short, the rest of the country wasn’t quite sure what they would do with Alaska once she shook off the shackles of federal oversight.
The biggest tripping point was the obstinacy of segregationists in the halls of the U.S. Congress and Senate chambers. Fearing the addition of Alaska and Hawaii would upset their hold on power, Southern Democrats the likes of “Judge” Howard Smith of Virginia, who, as head of the House Rules Committee, was a formidable obstacle to getting the legislation on the floor for a vote, and House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson, avidly opposed to the civil rights movement, fought desperately to keep Alaska a territory. Smith went so far as to say, on record, he was opposed to statehood for Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and any other territory not attached to the mainland. “I want to keep the United States of America on the American continent,” he said on the floor of Congress in 1955.
Those stubborn Southern Democrats didn’t count on confronting a group of people even more stubborn than themselves – Alaskans tired of being on the short end of the federal stick – told what to do and how to do it with their resources and land; watching faceless bureaucrats make life-changing decisions from far away with no thought to the way things worked in a harsh, isolated land; and having no say in the election of those officials. Living in Alaska requires strength, toughness, and persistence – traits Snedden and other statehood advocates had in abundance. Those Southern Democrats wouldn’t know what hit them.
The first – and one of the biggest – blunt objects to hit the Dixiecrats was Snedden himself. Born in Spokane in 1913, Charles Willis “Bill” Snedden discovered his calling to newspaper work as a teen, when he realized the Linotype typesetter was making a very good living. He possessed the perfect attributes for the job: “besides mechanical aptitude and skilled hands, an essential requirement for a Linotype man was knowing how to spell, and particularly knowing how to spell like a printer: upside down and backward.”
After World War II, Snedden became a consultant for ailing newspapers, because selling Linotypes gave him a particular insight into what worked and what didn’t. Austin “Cap” Lathrop was concerned his daily, the News-Miner, wasn’t making money; he invited Snedden up to see what he could do for them. Snedden originally turned him down because the News-Miner was too small for him, but eventually decided it would be a great excuse for a fishing trip.
When Lathrop refused to spend the money Snedden said was needed to improve the paper, Snedden bought it himself. Lathrop’s sudden, unexpected death right after they shook on it didn’t queer the deal, so Snedden found himself with a money-losing paper badly in need of modernization and improvement. Snedden had become an Alaskan, if somewhat accidentally, and her fortunes were his.
Snedden was originally against the idea of statehood, thinking the young state needed to grow up a bit before leaving the federal nest. But he was an optimist, believing Alaska could eventually become something great.
“Alaska was a paradise of promise,” Cole writes, “a garden of expectations … [s]tatehood would be the primary avenue to bring this transformation about.” When Snedden was convinced by statehood adherents of the folly of his earlier views, he jumped in the fight with both feet, using the News-Miner to trumpet the idea of independence.
Snedden was a brilliant newspaperman, knowing what readers wanted and how to give it to them. He also knew how to use his paper for the good of the community, giving untold inches of space to civic improvement projects, elections, and other community issues.
His efforts paid off; Alaska was signed into statehood; and though Snedden wasn’t at the signing ceremony, he was given one of the ceremonial signing pens as a thank-you for his efforts.
Cole has given us an immensely detailed account of the fight for statehood, mostly from Snedden’s viewpoint, but he has also done an admirable job of introducing us to other important players in the making of our history, including Fred Seaton, federal Secretary of the Interior who pushed Eisenhower to make Alaska a state, Bob Atwood, owner of the Anchorage Daily News, an early statehood proponent; Ernest Gruening and Mike Stepovich, politicians; and young attorney Theodore Fulton Stevens, who started out as Snedden’s lawyer, did a stint as the US District Attorney for the Forth Judicial Division, and went on to the Department of the Interior before being elected to and serving as a U.S. Senator for the state of Alaska, becoming the longest-serving and most loved senator in Alaska’s history.
Cole excels at providing truckloads of facts and data in a very readable, easily understood format. He gives back history of major characters in a way that does not distract the reader from the real story, but enhances our understanding of the players’ motivations and agendas. He is objective in his descriptions, using letters, newspapers, and other primary documents without interjecting opinion in inappropriate places.
Cole also details the early differences between Anchorage and Fairbanks, giving readers a glimpse into a rivalry that has existed almost since the beginning, but making it clear residents of both cities want only what’s best for the state and themselves.
“Fighting for the 49th Star: C.W. Snedden and the Crusade for Alaska Statehood” is an excellent birthday present for Alaskans, one that reminds us why we make this young, vibrant state our home.