The Alaska State Library in Juneau is a remarkable treasure trove of historical documents and photos dating back to district and territorial days. While an in-person visit remains impractical for many due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s still possible to visit remotely through the library’s online exhibits. In this section of the library’s website, you’ll find seven photographic collections to browse, allowing you to travel (virtually speaking) to disparate periods from Alaska’s past. The idea, the library says, is to show off materials that people might otherwise not know about, and perhaps inspire them to seek out more information. And although these exhibits represent just a tiny fraction of the images in the library’s historical collections—which number approximately 200,000—what better way to bring the romance and nostalgia of long-ago Alaska to your laptop, tablet, or phone?
Golden North Salmon Derby
According to the Alaska State Library, in the early days of this annual Juneau event “a canon shot signaled a mass start, with boats racing from Auke Bay to their favorite fishing holes. Sometime in the 1980s, safety concerns put an end to this mad dash but the derby continues to be characterized by a competitive spirit.” The pictures in this exhibit cover the period 1964 to 1972, and, the library notes, “many of the individuals in the exhibit photographs are unidentified. If you recognize yourself or others, please let us know.”
From Working Dogs to Racing Dogs
Buck of The Call of the Wild fame was based on a real working dog, one of many that accompanied the prospectors of the Klondike Gold Rush. This collection features rare images of dogs like Buck at work in the late nineteenth century hauling water and packing goods to the mines. Other photos chronicle early sled dog competitions including the All Alaska Sweepstakes, the district’s first official sled dog race. And while more limited in scope compared to some of the library’s other online exhibits, it’s definitely worth a gander.
Baseball in Alaska
First in the lineup of online exhibits is a look at the national pastime, northern style. As in the Lower 48, baseball has long been popular among Alaskans, who pose for traditional team photos (check out the uniforms) interspersed with action shots dating back to 1904. See what the game looked like up north over the past century statewide, from Juneau to Skagway and Fairbanks to Dutch Harbor. My personal favorite is an image of baseball being played on snowshoes: Even the umpire is wearing them!
Women on the Pipeline
Women are often the unsung heroes of the Last Frontier. This exhibit focuses on the women who were directly involved with the construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline, built between 1974 and 1977, or who provided support services essential to the project. Altogether, women represented as much as 10 percent of the pipeline’s total workforce. Those you’ll meet here include a fire patrol guard, an air-taxi pilot, a couple of bus drivers, and various pipeline laborers. Just like the men they worked beside, these women from Alaska and Outside seized the opportunity to earn more money than ever before in their lives.
Alaska at War
Little known to many is Alaska’s role in World War II. This exhibit focuses on the northern Pacific theater with a collection of photos documenting Alaska’s part in the global conflict. Images include American soldiers in action at the Battle for Attu, the prisoner of war camp at Excursion Inlet, the 1942 bombing of Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island, and the Aleut relocation to southeast Alaska. Along with many other related photographs, these black-and-white images provide a panorama in miniature of this crucial era in Alaskan history.
Schools in Rural Alaska
What was going to school like in the Alaska of nearly a century ago? In some ways, it was a very different experience from going to school elsewhere in the U.S., like having class in a Quonset hut. But in other ways, it was totally recognizable, such as the image of a girl next to a classic school bus on a muddy road somewhere in the vicinity of Palmer. This exhibit provides an intriguing glimpse at education in the Alaskan territory during the 1930s and 1940s.
Dramatic images of shipwrecks are the subject of this exhibit—including the last traces of the steamship Princess Sophia, which ran aground and ultimately went down during a blinding snowstorm in 1918 with 343 passengers aboard. In terms of lives lost, it was the worst maritime disaster in Alaskan history. Other images depict the oil tanker Exxon Valdez being towed for repairs in 1989 and the cruise ship Prinsendam, which was abandoned 200 miles off the coast due to a fire in 1980. More than 500 passengers and crew were rescued; the ship sank seven days later.