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Anchorage, the Tent City
By Tricia Brown Page 1 of 2   Next ยป

Alaska's biggest city sprawls across the Anchorage Bowl in Southcentral Alaska, from the edge of Cook Inlet to the slopes of the Chugach Mountains, its borders bumping against military installations on one side and a national forest on another. It's hard to imagine its beginnings as a tent city near the muddy banks of Ship Creek in 1915, a railroad construction camp that grew so large in such a short time, unsanitary conditions threatened the spread of disease. The Alaska Engineering Commission, charged by the federal government to build a railroad, had selected a town site as early as spring 1914, for in March of that year, the AEC chartered a survey of what is now downtown Anchorage. With federal funding for the railroad guaranteed by President Woodrow Wilson, in early 1915 a construction camp boomed at Ship Creek. Situated between the deep-water port of Seward and the railroad terminus at Fairbanks, Ship Creek Landing was deemed the best site for the railroad headquarters.

With its radical tidal swings and broad mud flats, the location seemed less than ideal. Shore access was difficult for oceangoing vessels, and freight as well as horse and foot traffic maneuvered over corduroy log pathways and boardwalks. In prehistory, Native Alaskans hadn't seen fit to settle in this particular spot, although evidence of settlement can be found at several better sites along Cook Inlet. Nonetheless, the city of white tents and hastily built log cabins served as temporary housing for representatives of the Alaska Engineering Commission, railroad construction workers, their families, hoteliers, restaurateurs, laundry operators, freight haulers, and others who supplied services.

By June of 1915, as conditions at the tent city became dangerously overcrowded, land on the nearby bluff was cleared and railroad officials were ready to sell townsite lots. In early July, more than 600 lots were auctioned off, and building there began in earnest. Gradually, the boomtown population grew to 2,000. If the residents had had their way, the new town would have been named Ship Creek or Alaska City. Instead, the postal service made the decision, settling on Anchorage.

Working under the business name Sydney Laurence Company in 1915, Laurence, who would one day achieve fame for his oil paintings, earned his living as a commercial photographer. Assisted by a second photographer, Alberta Pyatt, Laurence catalogued life in the railroad construction camp, from the tent city restaurants and laundries to baseball games on the 4th of July, and the historic auction in which town lots were sold. Today, few original wood-frame homes or businesses from 1915 are still standing, viewed as expendable as the town matured. Also, the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake rendered others irreparable. Notable survivors include:

  • Oscar Anderson House, 420 M Street
  • Wendler Building, 4th Avenue and D Street (originally built at 4th Avenue and I Street; moved here in 1984)
  • Kimball Building, 5th Avenue and E Street

The Alaska Railroad was the largest local employer in the two decades that followed, and by 1940, Anchorage was one of the biggest towns in the territory.

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Gallery of Images
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Ship Creek
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The dirt street in 1915 Tent City (Old Town Anchorage)
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The "White City" photographed by Alberta Pyatt
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Businesses crowded the Tent City streets of 1915
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Fourth Avenue from F Street, looking west
Click here for all 23 photos in this gallery.

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