|Alaskan Draftees at Fort Seward|
Many individuals from Alaska served in the wartime effort. Even before the United States joined the war Alaskan women joined the Red Cross and Alaskan men traveled to Canada to enlist and fight with British Expeditionary Forces.
In Alaska more than 10,000 men enlisted to serve between 1917 and 1918, though only 2,200 of these enlistees were eventually inducted into service. Most of these 2,200 soldiers were sent to military bases in Alaska for training, while some were transported to bases in the Lower 48. Few of the 2,200 inductees traveled to Europe and participated in battle due to the war's end in November 1918. About 85 Alaskan servicemen died during the war, two from combat wounds, the rest from disease, mainly influenza or pneumonia induced by the flu. Though Alaska Natives and other ethnic minorities pursued enlistment, most were rejected for induction.
The war impacted Alaska in many ways. While salmon canneries marketed and supplied their goods to Europe and its armies, they also suffered from a labor shortage as workers left Alaska to serve in the war. Although some Alaskan schools trained cadets for war and Alaskans were encouraged to purchase war bonds to help fund American involvement in the conflict, not everyone supported the war. Some Alaskans hoped for peace and the war's end. Xenophobia, an irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries, against those with Germanic ancestry in Alaska was such a problem that Alaska's Governor J.F.A. Strong issued a 1917 Proclamation reminding Alaskans that; “no word or deed on the part of American citizens should operate to incite racial feeling or create prejudice against those who have come to the Territory for the purposes of bettering their condition and enjoying the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
|Fishing Was a Critical Part of Alaska's Economy|
The Alaska Territory’s leading staples industries—gold, fish, and copper—each experienced the First World War differently, but for each the war marked the beginning of a period of decline. Cutbacks in production and employment resulted in people leaving the territory. Jones (2010) observed that the notable exodus of population “had a marked impact on the shops, services and trades.” The second decade of the twentieth century was a time of economic optimism in Alaska. Coal and the construction of the Alaska Railroad represented the promise for the territory’s future. Alaska’s coal resources, which were assumed to exceed those of Pennsylvania, were opened to leasing in 1914. Railroad construction began in 1914, creating jobs and new communities; at its peak there were 4,500 jobs in construction of the line (Naske and Soltnick 1987). The railroad provided the key that promised to open the potential of Alaska’s interior to the world economy. Unfortunately, the promise was short-lived. The Navy determined in the early 1920s that low quality and high costs eliminated their interest in the coal fields in Southcentral Alaska.
The war years treated Alaska’s three main industries differently. The war was good to the copper and fishing industries; increased war-related demand for each product resulted in expanding production. Copper prices reached their highest levels in a century in 1916, and the fish pack in 1918 was almost three times what it was in 1910 (Cole and Rasmuson 2000). The wartime boom in the fishing industry had limited effect on the Alaska population and economy since there was little resident employment in the fishing industry. The salmon packers brought crews from outside for the fishing season (Naske and Soltnick 1987).
|Red Cross Volunteers in Juneau|
Gold production, however, went the other way; production fell in value by almost half between 1910 and 1918. The profitability of gold mining was limited by an inflexible legal price of gold and rapidly rising production costs. Wartime inflation tripled the cost of mining as labor and material became more expensive (Cole and Rasmuson 2000). The war also had indirect eff ects on the economy’s collapse and the population exodus. Military service and high wages in wartime industries outside Alaska attracted its large population of single men. The rapid rise in prices and the shortage of shipping to export products and bring materials to Alaska made living and doing business more difficult. Wartime spending and high costs likely contributed to the decline in investment in the state. Finally, the delay in appropriations for the Alaska Railroad reduced employment opportunities (reflections of Andrew Stevenson as referenced in Cole and Rasmuson 2000)
The war years saw a substantial departure of population from Alaska. The White population of the territory fell by 50 percent between 1916 and 1918 (Cole and Rasmuson 2000). Anchorage, Alaska’s most recent boom town, lost around 3,000 people (Jones 2010). The territory’s population fell by 14 percent between the 1910 Census and the 1920 Census—from 55,000 to 47,000 (Naske and Soltnick 1987). This exodus presented a challenge to businesses in the support sector of the economy since it represented a decline in the market for their products.
The postwar period treated the Alaska economy no better than the war years. After the war, Alaska commerce declined by 50 percen percent (Cole and Rasmuson 2000). Both copper and fishing suffered from declining prices that reflected the short postwar recession in the United States and the longer recession in commodity industries (Walton and Rockoff 2010). With the end of the war and the recovery of European agriculture, the demand for both copper and fish fell. In addition, overfishing during the war resulted in a significant decline in the salmon runs; the salmon pack fell by 60 percent between 1918 and 1921 (Cole and Rasmuson 2000).
The First World War ended the “gold rush” boom in the North and began the long-term stagnation in the Alaska economy. As described by historian Terrence Cole: “The First World War disrupted Alaska’s economy as no outside event had ever done before, and set in motion a downward spiral that continued for years. The traumatic loss in Alaska of businesses, jobs, population, capital, and confidence, equaled the darkest days of any downturn in American history. The Great Depression of the 1930s left Alaska relatively unscathed in part because the economy and population of the territory had already collapsed a dozen years earlier during the Great War.
|A Doctor and Nurse During the Influenza Pandemic|
Sources: Alaska State Archives; Alaska’s Economy: The First World War, Frontier Fragility, and Jack London