Alaska Becomes 49th State: ‘Seward’s Folly’ No Laughing Matter
Just two years after the Civil War ended, while the nation was busy rebuilding itself, Secretary of State William Henry Seward surprised many by negotiating with Russia to purchase Alaska for $7.2 million, amounting to the ludicrously low price of about two cents per acre. Even so, critics blasted the purchase as “Seward’s Folly,” wasting money on a barren, remote land of ice and snow. The Alaska Treaty of Cessation was signed on March 30, 1867, and ratified by the U.S. Senate on April 9. Russia transferred Alaska to the U.S. on Oct. 18, 1867, in a formal ceremony in Sitka.
No one was laughing on Jan. 3, 1959, when Alaska was admitted as the 49th state into the Union. By then, Alaskan gold, salmon and timber had generated billions of dollars, and oil exploration was promising a robust petroleum industry. Equally significant in 1959, with the Cold War a constant presence in American thoughts, was the proximity to Soviet soil and the northern line of defense Alaska provided.
This congratulatory article on Alaska’s statehood was printed by the Aberdeen American-News (Aberdeen, South Dakota) on Jan. 3, 1959:
Once Folly—Now Guardian of the North
New Sister State Is Biggest of Them All
By William J. Tobin
Juneau, Alaska (AP)—It was called Seward’s Folly in 1867. It’s known as the 49th state today. It’s your new sister among the states—the biggest of them all. The place is Alaska.
This scenic city is the capital of the first state admitted to the Union since New Mexico and Arizona entered in 1912. It sits at the foot of Mt. Roberts and Mt. Juneau, two peaks just under 4,000 feet that are snow covered eight months a year. Juneau, near the top of the southeastern Alaska panhandle, and Dover, Del., now share honors of being the nation’s two smallest state capitals. Each has about 7,000.
Alaska’s 586,400 square miles—spanning four time zones and extending to within sight of Soviet Siberia, is one of its most distinctive features. It inspires a good many of the jokes that have circulated lately.
Myth and Legend
It’s pointed out here that if Alaska were divided in half, Texas would be the third largest state. This 49th state is more than 2 ½ times as big as Texas, before today the largest of the Union.
To many, Alaska is a land of bearded sourdoughs, swinging saloon doors and panting sled dogs mushing through zero cold. It has been a land that bred myth and legend since its discovery by Russian explorers in 1741.
Secretary of State William Henry Seward engineered its purchase from czarist Russia 91 years ago. The United States paid Russia $7,200,000 for all of Alaska. Critics called it folly. Alaska was regarded as an ice-locked hunk of land at the top of the world. It was too remote to reach, too cold to live in, too wild to civilize. But Alaska’s 210,000 residents and the pioneers before them have proved those estimates wrong.
Guardian of North
This new state occupies a key position in global air systems. Regular airline flights span the North Pole, refuel at Anchorage, and carry passengers and mail from Europe to the Orient.
Militarily, Alaska has become America’s guardian of the north. There is under construction a missile detection center south of Fairbanks. It will cost more than three times the purchase price of Alaska.
From Alaska has come billions of dollars worth of gold, salmon and timber. Now oil companies are investing millions into what apparently will become a major petroleum industry.
Alaska’s cities are as modern as those of any state. Its schools and hospitals are excellent. By way of the major airlines, Alaskans are less than a day away from Washington.
Alaska’s climate generally is not as severe as most people think. At Fairbanks, most northern metropolis, it reaches 50 degrees below zero in winter—but the air is crisp and windless. In summer, Fairbanks basks in 90-degree sunshine.
It was 17 years after the purchase before Congress organized the territorial government. It was 1906 before Alaska was permitted a non-voting delegate in Congress. It was 1913 before its first territorial legislature was convened.
Statehood bills for Alaska have been drifting around in Congress since 1916. The one that finally cleared Congress was signed by President Eisenhower last July.
The new Alaskan state government began functioning today, under direction of a 44-year-old Democrat, Gov. William A. Egan.
In that same issue, the Aberdeen American-News also printed this article announcing Alaska’s statehood:
Alaska Is Proclaimed 49th State
Washington (AP)—President Eisenhower proclaimed Alaska the 49th state today, pushing the boundaries of the United States within sight of Russian soil.
At the same time, the new 49-star flag was unveiled. Several proposed flag designs were presented to the President Friday at his Gettysburg farm for his final decision. The public and organizations had submitted almost 2,000 suggestions. The new flag becomes official next July 4. Officials have said it would be technically incorrect to display the new flag before then, although there will be no penalty for such use.
Admission of Alaska as the first new state since 1912 marks the formal end of the territorial status Alaska has held since 1906. It gives Alaskans control of their government for the first time, as well as a voting representation in Congress.
Sens.-elect E. L. (Bob) Bartlett and Ernest Gruening and Rep.-elect Ralph J. Rivers will take their oath of office when the 86th Congress meets Wednesday. All three are Democrats.
Alaska’s entry brings into the Union a rich store of timber, mineral and other resources. Its area is one-fifth that of its 48 sister states and more than twice that of Texas.
With an estimated 212,000 population—smallest of any state—Alaska also will add a new ingredient to the nation’s politics. In 1960, Alaskans for the first time will cast three electoral votes for president. Politically, the new state government will be solidly Democratic.
Alaska’s quest for statehood has gone on since 1916—nearly half the period it has spent under the U.S. flag since its purchase from Russia in 1867 for $7,200,000.
For more information, visit the official Alaska website.