Happy Birthday Alaska! | NBC New York

Happy Birthday Alaska!

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Alaska, you don't look a day over 25.

    Mike Stepovich peered over Dwight D. Eisenhower's shoulder while the president signed Alaska's statehood proclamation — just to be sure. "We did it; we're in," Stepovich thought while Eisenhower, not an original backer of Alaska statehood, dragged his pen across the page.

    This signature on Jan. 3, 1959, made Alaska the nation's 49th state, and touched off a series of celebrations more than 3,000 miles away while William A. Egan took an oath in a downtown Juneau movie theater to serve as the state's first governor.

    "That was the final act," said Stepovich, now 89. "Congress approved it six months earlier, but it never came about until it was signed by Eisenhower. He wasn't for it at first, but by then he was. There was such relief."

    For the next 50 years Alaska built on its appeal as rugged and at times untamed, while becoming a key domestic energy provider, a place for critically located military bases during the Cold War, and a state with a highly charged — and of late, hostile — political climate.

    Alaska has provided 15 billion barrels of oil — as well as the most costly oil spill in the nation's history that led to a protracted legal battle. Oil has also provided Alaska with nearly 90 percent of its state treasury annually.

    It's offered fodder for political pundits and humorists following the unsuccessful GOP vice presidential run of Gov. Sarah Palin, and the federal corruption scandal that stretched from Juneau to Washington, where it ensnared Sen. Ted Stevens.

    And it's given writers and directors a place to set a scene for memorable books, movies and television shows. Think James Michener's book "Alaska," the movie "Limbo," with director John Sayles, or the Discovery Channel documentary "Deadliest Catch."

    The state's foundation was built by fishermen, miners, lawyers, merchants, homesteaders. Today, Alaska's leaders still are made up of people unafraid to get dirty, while serving in the Legislature for half a year then casting nets at sea and hunting for food in the interim.

    "Most of us still share a love for the land we live on," said state Rep. John Coghill, a Republican whose father, Jack, was one of the state constitution's drafters. "In the end, that's what's made us work well together."

    Recently, the nation's look at Alaska has been through a political prism: concurrent, unrelated developments that led to Stevens' conviction for lying on federal disclosure forms and Palin's emergence onto the national scene as America's favorite hockey mom.

    But to those living here, especially historians, that point of view may be an important slice of Alaskana, but it is still myopic.

    They point to the state's wildlife that attracts photographers, artists and hunters: features such as bears pouncing on salmon; moose roaming parks as well as the streets of downtown Anchorage; eagles soaring overhead.

    They cite the Iditarod, a long-distance dog race and the one sport that puts Alaska in the national spotlight.

    And they mention the tasty seafood that lands on the plates of many in the Lower 48. Alaska supplies nearly 50 percent of the nation's seafood, including delicacies such as Copper River salmon that fetched up to $40 a pound in 2008.

    "The people who wrote the constitution were optimists," said Vic Fischer, an 84-year-old man who was among the charter's authors. "We saw what we had to offer to the rest of the world."

    Efforts to make others recognize Alaska predated Eisenhower's signing 50 years ago, of course. It took nearly 10 years of intense lobbying from territorial leaders before Congress gave its final approval in 1958.

    Congress and Eisenhower balked at the notion for much of the 1950s, worrying about potential state interference with military operations during the Cold War's emergence, and whether the state's entry would upset a power balance in Congress.

    But in 1958, opponents, including Eisenhower, accepted Alaska's statehood pitch, largely thanks to a relentless push by a delegation made up partly of future Congressmen Ralph Rivers, Ernest Gruening and Bob Bartlett.

    The House first backed statehood for the territory on May 28, 1958, with a 210-166 vote. On June 30 of that same year, Alaskans waited anxiously to see if the Senate would concur.

    One of those sitting tight was Jack Coghill, one of 55 people who helped draft the state's constitution three years earlier. He was among a small group in his roadhouse coffee shop huddled around a radio crackling out as much static as it did news.

    When word came that the Senate backed statehood, 64-20, "there was euphoria all over the state," recalled Coghill, who went on to serve as lieutenant governor as well as state senator.

    In downtown Anchorage, a bonfire roared that evening; in Juneau, people rang the liberty bell replica in front of the Capitol, and in Fairbanks, fire engines made a noisy celebration.

    An Anchorage newspaper came out with a six-inch headline that hangs framed in the state's Capitol: WE'RE IN! (A Juneau paper lightheartedly bannered: WE DOOD IT!)

    But a few hours later, the state of Alaska had its first crisis.

    Egan was rushed to hospital. Three days later, he had his gall bladder removed, but his recovery would last months and require a trip to a Seattle hospital with more sophisticated facilities.

    "When he got sick, he didn't have a clue what was going on," recalled his son, Dennis Egan. "It was his will that kept him going. He had worked so hard — everybody did — to make Alaska a state. He wouldn't give up after coming that far."

    Egan went on to serve two terms as governor and was later elected for a third nonconsecutive term. He worked with budgets in the low millions of dollars before oil started flowing.

    Today, Palin, the state's ninth and the first woman governor, works with surplus-generating budgets in the billions generated from oil revenue.

    The industry has been a boon and a black eye for the state, producing some indelible memories:

    — June 20, 1977, oil first moved through a trans-Alaskan pipeline. More than 31 years later, 15 billion barrels of oil have moved through an 800-mile pipeline that's rooted in the resource-rich North Slope.

    — March 24, 1989, the Valdez oil tanker ran aground and spilled nearly 10 million gallons of oil in the Prince William Sound. It led to a 19-year compensation battle between fishermen and Exxon Mobil Corp., which prevailed in the U.S. Supreme Court.

    — Aug. 6, 2006, BP partially shut down Prudhoe Bay, the nation's largest producing oil field. The shutdown unsettled markets globally, driving prices close to $90 a barrel.

    — Aug. 31, 2006, the FBI raided the offices of six state lawmakers under investigation for a relationship with oil field services firm VECO Corp. seeking favorable votes on an oil tax. The investigation has led to convictions of four state lawmakers, with one trial pending.

    — Aug. 1, 2008, the Legislature agreed to give TransCanada Corp. an exclusive license to pursue a natural gas pipeline project that's deemed to be the state's next economic lifeline, much like the oil pipeline 31 years ago.

    Fischer said people continue to have an idealized vision of Alaska.

    "It's a place where Native people still live in their original environment," he said, "a place of North America that's still gorgeous and shiny like the North Star."