Coming to Alaska, then and now

The 49th State keeps attracting newcomers

Alaska is unlike the rest of the country. Alaska beats all of the other states in size with a land mass stretching over 650,000 square miles. Although it has a vast landscape, the state is among the smallest five in terms of population.

Alaska, and its biggest city, have undergone major transformations in the last century. In 1960, just after Alaska gained statehood, the population of Anchorage was a little over 82,000. Today Anchorage is a city of 300,000 residents who have brought a variety of stories and cultures to this community.

“When I was in Minneapolis during the war, they were sending mechanics to Guam but when I wanted to go, they told me that they weren’t sending any employees to Guam anymore,” said Elmer A. Patson, a resident since 1949. “I asked them where is the next best place to work. They told me Anchorage.”

Patson has seen the city grow exponentially. The 92-year-old adjusted his glasses and smiled when he recalled memories of his early days in the state. Patson said when he, his wife and their children landed in Anchorage in the late 1940s, there were only about 35,000 people in town.

“I have seen everything here grow. There was no electricity or sewage, and there was only one paved road, and that was Fourth Avenue,” Patson recalled.

“My first trip to Alaska was in 1947, I came to Fairbanks.” He was 24 years old. The move to Alaska meant enduring a long separation from family and friends. He was already married, and his wife stayed back in Minnesota with their children while Patson spent a year and a half working.

“I bought a car and drove back to Minnesota from Alaska. I was there from October to July, and I didn’t find anything interesting there. I told the wife, ‘Let’s go back to Alaska.’”

Younger residents see a different side to Alaska. Instead of coming here for work, many young adults view Alaska as one of the last natural places in the country. Although many towns and cities in Alaska have been growing over the past few decades, there are still parts of Alaska that remain virtually untouched by humans. Wilderness and wildlife are close by.

“I came out here solely because the air is crisp, unlike California,” said UAA student Jeremy Mendez. “I know it is cliché, but I wanted to connect more with Mother Nature.” Mendez, who hails from South Central Los Angeles, told his side of coming to Alaska with a sense of excitement. Mendez made his way to Alaska last summer and explored as many natural areas as he could. Comparing how different it must have been to come to Alaska from how it was 60 years ago, Mendez said, “I would say it was more difficult to travel to Alaska back in the day, with the low amount of access to Alaska such as paved roads and gas stations. Just communicating with one another today compared to several decades ago holds drastic differences with the increases in technology.” But limited transportation and communication infrastructure didn’t stop new settlers.

Different periods of migrations to the state is what has driven population growth over the last century. Many people moved up here after the discovery of gold in the late 1980s and oil in the 1960s.

When Patson thought about why he chose Alaska to become his new home instead of Minnesota, he said, “I had opportunities here. I started my own business and kept it running for 62 years. I named it E.A. Patson — Parts and Equipment.” Patson created a business and helped his family establish a life here.

Some people get to know Alaska first as tourists. They come visit and find they want to find a way to stay. It’s a big deal to come here and see a state with plenty of wide open space.

“I would like for people to stay, not just visit as tourists,” Mendez said. “I would like to have a home here; I could see myself having a house I come back to.”

Patson expressed his thoughts on how the state’s population growth might continue to change the state and affect nature in Anchorage in the next 50 years. “I would be moving out,” Patson said with a chuckle.

“I remember the raspberries used to grow wild all over the place,” he said. “There are still a few that grow from that time, but not nearly as much.”

Despite demonstrating some concern for what continued growth could mean for the state, Patson still showed love for the ever-growing city he has called home for more than 60 years.

Mendez talked about how he moved up here to get away from the poverty in his community and how he needed to branch out and away from his family and find himself. Mendez would like to see more people come to Alaska so they can understand the unique culture and scenic beauty of the Last Frontier in hopes that it could change their lives for the better, much like it has for him. “I want to say that it’s never too late for any one person to be taken out of their comfort zone and to kind of explore the depth of you as a person and how much you can really handle. If by going to Alaska is going to make it so, then so be it.”   

 

About the author

Shay Spatz

Shay Spatz is a media studies student with a minor in environmental communication. As an exchange student from Wisconsin, she loves to travel and hopes to become a media advocate for the National Park Service or to become a documentary filmmaker.

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