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Alaska: The state of the state in 1906

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Posted: Sunday, December 18, 2011 12:05 am | Updated: 1:33 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

FAIRBANKS - Alfred Brooks was a geologist who traveled thousands of miles in Alaska and left his name on the state’s northernmost mountain range. Twenty years before his death in 1924, he also left behind a summary of what Alaska was like over a century ago, when “large areas (were) still practically unexplored.”

To see what Brooks had to say about the Alaska of 1906, I pulled a copy of his “Geography and Geology of Alaska: A Summary of Existing Knowledge” from a shelf of rare books in a Fairbanks library.

In his government report, Brooks pointed out misconceptions about Alaska that endure today. He wrote this in his introduction:

“If facts are presented which may seem elementary, it is because even well-informed people have been known to harbor misconceptions in regard to the orographic features, climate, and general character of Alaska. Those who read about the perils and privations of winter travel and explorations are apt to picture a region of ice and snow; others, again, who have personal knowledge of the tourist route of southeastern Alaska, regard the whole district as one of rugged mountains and glaciers.”

In Brooks’ day, about 60,000 people lived in Alaska, yet they were scattered wider across the territory than people are today. The Klondike gold rush and the stampedes that followed had driven determined men to the far corners of Alaska.

“The more venturous prospector found no risk too hazardous, no difficulty too great, and now there is hardly a stream which has not been panned by him, and hardly a forest which has not resounded to the blows of his ax,” Brooks wrote. “Evidences of his presence are to be found from the almost tropical jungles of southeastern Alaska to the barren grounds of the north which skirt the Arctic Ocean.”

While today’s scientists can sometimes use satellites to gain information about Alaska without leaving their offices, Brooks and his contemporaries at the U.S. Geological Survey spent their entire summers on traverses of the land at the turn of the century. They performed their work without the help of the airplane, which had not yet been invented, nor the internal combustion engine.

Brooks wrote of an 1899 expedition he made with topographer William Peters to map the country from Lynn Canal near Haines west through the mountains of the St. Elias Range and northward through what is today Wrangell St. Elias National Park. They filled in a void in Alaska’s map until they reached the settlement of Fortymile on the Yukon River.

“The journey was made with horses, with only five out of the original 15 reaching the Yukon,” Brooks wrote.

Scientists of the USGS penetrated Alaska by following rivers and trekking overland when they could, mapping one-fifth of Alaska by 1904. Brooks attributed the agency’s success to its ability to choose a few good men.

“Of the twenty or more parties which the Geological Survey has sent to Alaska, hardly a single one has failed to execute the work allotted to it,” Brooks wrote. “This is largely because those who were entrusted with their leadership were specially fitted, by nature as well as by experience and training, for the undertaking. The parties have usually been made up of a few carefully chosen men, and the physical work and discomforts, as well as hardships, have been shared by leaders and men alike.”

Brooks, who later wrote about his personal experiences in Alaska, concluded his section on exploration of the territory in “Geography and Geology of Alaska” by addressing critics of government spending who had no idea of the hazards and difficulty of travel in Alaska.

“Alaskan surveys and explorations have never been and never will be easy,” Brooks wrote. “Throughout its history, the geographic investigation has been a tale of hardship and suffering and not infrequently of death. Let those who are not personally familiar with the character of the difficulties not judge it too harshly.”

This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer at the institute. This column first appeared in 2003.

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