Entry into Union was cause for celebration across Alaska

Sen. Bob  Bartlett, left, confers wit Gov. Bill Egan in May of 1959 during the early days of the new state.

Alaskans ring a replica of the Liberty Bell in Juneau to celebrate the U.S. Senate approval of statehood June 30, 1958.

The following story is excerpted from “North to the Future: The Alaska Story, 1959-2009,” by Dermot Cole. Published in 2008 by Epicenter Press. This is part of a five-part series the News-Miner has produced in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Alaska statehood. Through Monday, the News-Miner will publish memories of that momentous event, a glance back at where we were, and a look ahead at what the next 50 years might bring.

FAIRBANKS — The early morning sun glistened on Gastineau Channel 50 years ago Saturday as federal judge Raymond Kelly, clad in a black robe, administered the oath of office to Alaska’s first elected governor.

Bill Egan put one hand on a Bible presented to his family by the First Baptist Church of Juneau.

As he raised the other, Egan took the oath, similar to the loyalty oaths in widespread use in that era: “I William A. Egan, do solemnly swear that I am not a member of the Communist Party or any subversive parties or affiliated with such party, that I do not believe in, am not a member of, nor do I support any organization that believes in or teaches the overthrow of the United States government by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional method, that I will defend and support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of Alaska, and perform all of the duties of the office or position on which I am about to enter, and therein do equal right and justice to all men, so help me God.”

Egan and Secretary of State Hug Wade stood in front the Alaska flag of eight stars of gold on a field of blue and a venerable 48-star American flag. Wade wore a gray suit and bow tie.

Alaska’s radio stations wasted no time announcing the news that Texas had become the second-largest state. It was shortly after 7 a.m. in Fairbanks and Anchorage and 6 a.m. in Nome. In Fairbanks, cab drivers honked their horns, sirens sounded, and a driver flashed his headlights at the corner of Second Avenue and Lacey Street in the six-below-zero chill.

In Juneau, the Post Office opened two hours before Egan was sworn in as collectors lined up to buy the new 7-cent airmail stamp honoring Alaska. E.M. Peck of the Fleetwood Cover Service in Pleasantville, New York purchased the first sheet. Fifty temporary employees helped mail a half-million copies of the new stamp that day. It featured the Big Dipper and North Star of the Alaska flag superimposed on a map of Alaska.

Dignitaries gathered outside the federal building in Juneau to strike a replica of the Liberty Bell 49 times. The new governor left the building that soon would be known as the state Capitol, and went to the 20th Century Theater in downtown Juneau to address a crowd of about 800. The Juneau High School band played “Alaska’s Flag” and the Alaska National Guard posted the colors.

As the new leaders of the state walked upon the curtained stage, the audience gave a standing ovation. First lady Neva Egan wore a blue dress and jewelry made from Alaska ivory, while her son, Dennis, “sat on the stage with a dignity and seriousness most uncommon in an eleven-year-old boy,” said writer Pat Oakes of Fairbanks. Unlike many politicians, Egan was never comfortable giving speeches. Gathering his strength for his first public pronouncement as governor, he said that almost a century had passed since the purchase of Alaska from Russia and “our apprenticeship is done.”

He drew a comparison between the admission of Alaska and the launch of a satellite by the Russians one day earlier, labeling both as historic events. The satellite had been the first object to break free of Earth’s gravitational pull. He said Alaska now was free from territorial restrictions, proof that “Uncle Sam continues to practice what he preaches.”

“We are today full members in that great Union of sovereign states,” Egan said. “We shall strive to maintain and enhance this moment’s glorious radiance of America’s 49th star.” The program planners from the Juneau Chamber of Commerce did not make room on the agenda to hear from Wade, who, in the words of one Juneau reporter, “seems destined to setting some sort of a record for being the ‘silent man’ of the Egan administration.”

Egan and Wade took office without pay, their salaries to be set by the first Alaska Legislature, which had yet to meet. Egan didn’t even have a state car. The Lincoln that had been the official vehicle for the last three territorial governors remained federal property.

One published report said the Lincoln would be headed to Guam or some other federal enclave. The contents of the governor’s mansion might have been removed also, but an agreement was reached to “loan” certain furnishings to the new state, and Congress later transferred title to the mansion’s furniture and pots and pans.

Before Egan’s illness disrupted plans for an inaugural ball, the organizers declared it would be an “Alaska formal” event. “Roughly translated,” newspaperman Vern Metcalfe joked, “this means that everyone should wear a suit and tie, preferably with a shirt.”

Summing up the day’s events, the editors at Jessen’s Weekly in Fairbanks proclaimed, “SATURDAY WAS GREATEST DAY IN HISTORY OF ALASKA.”

It was a momentous day in Alaska’s history, but despite the headline writers’ enthusiasm, the real celebration had occurred with bonfires, street parades, and parties the previous summer when Congress approved the Alaska statehood bill on June 30. That concluded a political campaign that had dominated public life in Alaska in the 1950s.

The Senate vote was the crucial decision in 1958 because Eisenhower had already signaled he would sign the statehood bill. News of the victory spread quickly to Alaska by telephone and Teletype. Bob Atwood’s Anchorage Times had prepared a front page for a late afternoon extra edition with what would become the most famous headline in its history. The bold, black letters six and a half inches high shouted: “WE’RE IN.”

Sirens, fire alarms and church bells sounded throughout Alaska, motorists honked their horns, lines formed at the bars and people danced in the street on that summer day. In Fairbanks, Don Pearson dumped dye into the Chena River, hoping to turn it into a temporary river of gold.

However, the saltwater dye transformed the water to a bright fluorescent green. “Statehood celebrants jammed Second Avenue,” reporter Jack de Yonge remembered. “Conga and Bunny Hop lines snaked in and over and around bodies. City cops and military police refereed friendly fist fights and broke up the others.”

In Anchorage, a bonfire burned that night on the Park Strip under the midnight sun. Anchorage resident Frank Adams said the Eisenhower proclamation in January was something like “celebrating a honeymoon years after the wedding took place. I’m happy, but I did all my celebrating when we had the bonfire. That was the real day in Alaska history.”

The admission of the 49th state ended a long campaign founded on idealistic notions about the value of self-government and the democratic process. Proponents believed statehood would give Alaskans control over their destiny and end decades of federal domination. This dream of self-government led to an unusual political consensus that gained strength through the 1950s.

Year in and year out, Congress had rejected statehood, largely because of political calculations about how expansion of the U.S. Senate might change the balance of power there. In the summer of 1958, statehood forces prevailed, with many crediting the tireless work of E.L. “Bob” Bartlett, who had sold the statehood dream as Alaska’s nonvoting delegate to Congress.

It was a matter of considerable resentment among some Alaskans that most people in the United States didn’t know that Alaskans, as residents of a territory, paid federal income taxes and were subject to the military draft, but were denied representation in Congress.

After Congress and the president endorsed the terms under which Alaska would become the 49th state, Alaska voters sealed the deal with a 5-to-1 landslide vote on Aug. 26, 1958.

The turnout was so large that many polling places had run out of ballots and had to use samples. For the first time ever, Alaskans would be able to choose their governor, elect a Legislature with real power and vote for president.

“Few contests in Congress in recent history have been more bipartisan,” the New York Times concluded about the campaign to achieve Alaska statehood.

The effort was bipartisan, but sharp regional divisions across the country had played a part in the political mix. Southern senators feared that Alaska’s admission would weaken their ability to filibuster civil-rights legislation.

Read More Alaska's 50th

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