Story Time with Aunt Phil: Judge James Wickersham
One Alaska legend died this week in 1939, but his legacy and light live on in Alaska’s history. Judge James Wickersham left a legacy rivaled by few who came before or who have lived here since.
With one mountain, three creeks, two domes, several subdivisions, a ferry and a house named after him, Alaskans have plenty of reminders that Wickersham profoundly impacted the state.
Born in Patoka, Ill., Wickersham emigrated west. His first judicial headquarters at the turn of the century was at Eagle, which was one of the largest settlements on the Yukon. He traveled to Nome to sort out the mining claims disputes caused by a crooked judge during the Poor Man’s Gold Rush, and he also started traveling courts in Alaska and held court in any building that could house small crowds, including a laundry building in Valdez.
He moved his headquarters to Fairbanks when it became the center of gold mining in 1903. And along with Capt. E.T. Barnette and Felix Pedro, he is credited with founding the town and naming it Fairbanks, after Sen. Charles Fairbanks of Indiana.
Wickersham started the “Fairbanks Miner” that year, too, to finance his attempt to climb Mt. McKinley – now known as Denali. It was the first newspaper in Fairbanks and the Tanana Valley, although he only published one issue of the paper.
In August 1908, an overwhelming majority elected Wickersham as Alaska’s third delegate to Congress. Elected for five successive terms during this turbulent time in our state’s history, he was in the thick of struggles between conservationists, who wanted to save the resources from monopolists, and those who wanted to develop Alaska’s resources. Independent by nature, Wickersham ran on nearly every political ticket in Alaska. And as one source suggested, “Wickersham could have been elected Jesus Christ, had he sought the office.”
Wickersham also brought together all the Indian chiefs of Interior Alaska and organized the first Indian Council held in Fairbanks in order to discuss the effects of the railroad and homesteading on the Native way of life – one of the early considerations of Native land claims in Alaska.
While serving Alaska, Wickersham found the Library of Congress had no Alaska section. He remedied the situation by preparing a bibliography of Alaska literature, amassing 10,380 items in his tremendous undertaking – perhaps the most gigantic historical task ever attempted by a single man.
Alaskans reap the benefits of many of Wickersham’s efforts, including bills that created: the Alaska Railroad, which led to the railroad camp that today is better-known as Anchorage; the University of Alaska; and the first national park in Alaska at Mt. McKinley – now better known as Denali. He also introduced the first statehood bill on Oct. 18, 1916.
Wickersham retired from politics in 1932 and lived in Juneau until his death on Oct. 24, 1939. As his obituary aptly read:
“Alaska’s wick burns out, but his light shines on … Alaska will not forget James Wickersham. His place in our history is secure.”
(No. 24 had special meaning in Judge James Wickersham’s life. Not only was he born on Aug. 24, 1857, but President Taft signed the most outstanding piece of legislation Wickersham managed through Congress – the Alaska Home Rule Bill – on Aug. 24, 1912, and he died on Oct. 24, 1939)