The 63rd Congress was drawing to a close in early March 1915 as James Wickersham, Alaska’s territorial delegate, tried to get a bill passed to reserve some land for a college in far-off Alaska.
Not all of Wickersham’s congressional colleagues thought a college in Alaska was a good idea. In fact, some were doing their best to torpedo Wickersham’s plan as the session’s end neared.
The tension of the House floor debate still comes through in the gray text of the March 3 Congressional Record.
“I submit to the gentleman,” Rep. Jacob Falconer of Washington told Wickersham, “that if he wishes to cut out the establishment of an agricultural institution I will not object to the bill. Otherwise I will object to it.”
“Of course I do not intend to do that,” Wickersham snapped back, “and the gentleman can, of course, object.”
“Then I object,” Falconer retorted.
Falconer’s objections notwithstanding, Wickersham won the day. The House passed the bill, and, on March 4, President Woodrow Wilson signed it.
As Wickersham noted many times during the debate, this was only a first step. The bill did not create a college. It simply reserved the land for one.
With the inertia behind that first act, though, Wickersham and other dreamers eventually established and built the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, renamed the University of Alaska in 1935.
Here on the Fairbanks campus, the carillon today will ring a special tune shortly after noon to mark the 100th anniversary of Wilson’s signature.
Wickersham had hoped his success would spur the Alaska Territorial Legislature to establish the college before it adjourned as well in 1915. It did not.
So, in an attempt to maintain the inertia, Wickersham poured a cement cornerstone on the designated site and gathered a ceremony to dedicate it on July 4, 1915. Two years later, the legislature finally approved the college.
The university will rededicate that cornerstone on July 6.
Wickersham’s victory in the 63rd Congress came despite much derision. In addition to a site for the university, the bill reserved revenue-producing land not only for the college but also for Alaska’s public elementary and secondary schools. The legislation’s broader purpose didn’t make the idea any more palatable to some.
“I do not believe that now is the time to put an educational institution in the Territory of Alaska,” Falconer, the Washington representative, told his colleagues during debate on the House floor March 3. “With 35,000 people in the Territory, one-quarter as big as the United States, they could not find a man in a hundred square miles at this time. We had better wait until we develop the rich country in Alaska, which is in the vicinity of but south of the Yukon River.”
The college location, on federal land earlier reserved for an experiment station near Fairbanks, was chosen “irrespective of the desire of the people of Alaska as may be expressed by their legislative assembly,” said Rep. Patrick Norton of North Dakota during a Feb. 24 debate on the House floor. The provision, he said, “savors altogether too much of special congressional legislation for the benefit of a particular city or locality in Alaska.”
Wickersham couldn’t let that provocation pass unchallenged. When the bill came back to the House floor on March 3, he didn’t even wait for opponents to bring up the point.
“I have here a telegram,” he said in his opening remarks, “signed by the governor of Alaska and by 19 out of a possible 24 members of the legislature, approving the location of this agricultural college and school of mines upon this identical tract of land. And for the benefit of the gentleman from Washington, I will read it.” Which he did.
The Senate passed the bill first, on Feb. 17. In addition, Wickersham had the Wilson administration’s support. “I feel that Alaska in its present undeveloped state needs encouragement, and believe that the Territory should be favored by the reservation of lands for educational purposes,” said Secretary of Agriculture David Houston in a Feb. 10 letter to the House committee considering the bill.
Sometimes during the House debate, though, Wickersham seemed damned by the faint praise of his supporters.
“An agricultural college anywhere else in Alaska — and I’m not sure but one at this place — would be a joke,” said Rep. James Mann of Illinois. “But if it is to be located up there at all, at present, it ought to be located at the experiment station.”
Despite such lukewarm endorsements, House members passed the bill before the March 3 legislative day ended. It was the last bill approved in the 63rd Congress.
A few pages later in the Congressional Record of March 4, a brief note marks the victory and the first official act toward creation of the University of Alaska:
“A message from the President of the United States, by Mr. Latta, one of his secretaries, announced that the President had, on the 4th instant, approved and signed the following bills and joint resolution: … S. 7515. An act to reserve lands to the Territory of Alaska for educational uses, and for other purposes.”
With passage, Wickersham had the momentum needed to justify pouring his cornerstone for the university on July 4, 1915. The university, in turn, served as a cornerstone institution for Alaska, bolstering the state’s successes during the past century. Many Alaskans look forward to another such century.
(This article was written by Sam Bishop, UAF Marketing and Communications.)