Tourism in Alaska’s Past

By Stephen Haycox

In June in Alaska, all the signs are evident–the snow is retreating from the mountain sides, yard work and fishing are in full swing, and the tourists are invading. Although Alaska has long lured nature-lovers, sightseers, and adventurers north, the modern frenzied tourist season dates only from the post-World War II era.  For Alaska and its visitors, perhaps it is useful to recall the more exclusive, rugged, and less crowded (and less profitable) tourist trade of the prewar years.  Stephen Haycox, Professor of History at the University of Alaska Anchorage, briefly described earlier tourism in an article in the Anchorage Times in the late 1980s that is reproduced below.  At the time, he wrote that the number of tourists traveling to Alaska was nearly a million a year.  By the 1990s, that number swelled to nearly one and half million annually.
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Although Alaska tourism began with a Pacific Steamship Co. cruise to Glacier Bay in 1880, the industry as an integral, significant aspect of the Alaska economy is a thing of the quite recent past.  Before World War II, a trip to Alaska was rather like a trip to Nepal or Tibet today.  It was far more expensive than traveling elsewhere, the season was very short, the inconveniences were many, and the numbers who braved all these conditions were few.

The number of tourists to travel to Alaska now approach a million a year.  Though numbers are difficult to verify, historian Bill Wilson estimates there were probably about 30,000 Alaska tourists in 1929, half that number in the Depression year of 1932, and a recovery to the 1929 figure by 1940, just before the war.

It wasn’t that people weren’t trying to get tourists here.  For the 1929 season the Alaska Railroad opened a tourist office in Chicago’s Loop.  It would operate every year until the war.   Steamship companies had been advertising their Inside Passage tours from the beginning, and after World War I lured prospects with one of three coordinated trips: The Yukon Circle, the Golden Belt, or the All-Rail.

But all the tours took time–and money.  From Seattle, the Circle went to Whitehorse via Skagway, down the Yukon River to the Tanana and up to Nenana, and from there, after a “side-trip” to Fairbanks, via the railroad to McKinley, Anchorage, and Seward.  It took five weeks, time enough to rule out nearly everyone but wealthy oilmen and very frugal school teachers.  The Golden Belt took the Richardson Highway from Valdez to Fairbanks, or the Copper River and Northwestern Railway and the Richardson Highway to Fairbanks from Cordova, and the Alaska Railroad to Mt. McKinley, Anchorage, and Seward.  That took three weeks.  The All-Rail took two weeks to go from Seattle to Fairbanks and back, with the appropriate stops along the way.

The bare cost of such a trip, without sidetrips and extras, ranged between $350 for the All-Rail to $600 for the Yukon Circle.  Even a “little circle,” from Cordova by rail to Chitina,past Miles and Childs Glaciers (“the 8th and 9th wonders of the world”) over the Million Dollar Bridge and back to Valdez cost $100.  In 1932 a six-week tour to Europe cost only $350, and allowed the traveler to see a good deal more.  For $600 the visitor could stay in luxury while on a summer’s progress from London to Rome.

There were other problems with the Alaska trip.  It could only be taken in the summer, from about the middle of June to the end of August.  The rest of the time the rivers were frozen or treacherous, and the passes on the highway (really, a mud-and-gravel road) were filled with snow.   Often, steamship schedules did not mesh with the movements of the trains, or river boats.  So there were delays and waits, with nothing for the traveling urbanites to do but fight off the mosquitoes and watch the mountains age.  On the other hand, when things were on schedule, tourists found themselves on such a tight itinerary that they had only a day or two in Fairbanks, a few hours at McKinley, and an evening and overnight in Anchorage.

Accommodations were often a problem, too, mostly because investors didn’t want to build grand facilities that would sit idle nine months of the year.  Fairbanks never had enough space, and until 1939, the only “rooms” at Mt. McKinley National Park were in tents.

One bright spot on the tour was the Curry Hotel, a little over one hundred miles north of Anchorage.  The trains stopped there for the night and though there was “no library no newstand and no bar,” and prices were high, the rooms were clean, the air clear, and the view of Mt. McKinley spectacular.