Why was the University of Alaska originally located in Fairbanks?

Fairbanks residents gathered on College Hill to hear Governor Scott C. Bone dedicate the new college on Sept. 13, 1922. Photo: University of Alaska Archives

William Cashen excerpted this story from “Farthest North College President”

Newcomers and visitors to the University of Alaska often ask, "Why was the university originally located in Fairbanks rather than in Anchorage, Juneau, or some other more southern Alaskan city?"

The most direct answer is that when the location of the university was selected in 1915, Anchorage was a tent city only a few months old; and the reason for its existence-—to serve as headquarters for the construction of the Alaska Railroad —fully occupied the attention of its pioneering residents. Juneau, the center of population, government, and industry at the time, had little interest in having an agricultural college, since southeastern Alaska's climate and geography were not favorable for farming.

Truck carrying water, cement, and sand for cornerstone on newly cut road atop College Hill. Pictured are (probably) the Wickershams and auto owner J.J. Groves in 1915. Photo: UA Alumni Association

Agricultural college? Yes, indeed. The University of Alaska began as the Agricultural College and School of Mines under the same federal laws as similar land-grant colleges throughout the continental United States.

Alaska was different in one respect, however. The location of its land-grant college was selected by one man, rather than by its legislature. He was the legendary James Wickersham, the foremost public figure on the Alaskan scene during the first third of the 20th century.

Coming to Alaska as a federal judge in 1900, Wickersham earned early fame in bringing law and order to Nome, as one of the founders of Fairbanks, and as Alaska's six-term delegate to Congress, 1909-1921. In the 1914 election, his opponent, the Democratic nominee for delegate, was a young Valdez lawyer, Charles E. Bunnell. Wickersham was victorious with 4,876 votes to Bunnell's 3,091.

History plays ironic tricks from time to time. It was Wickersham's bill in Congress in 1915 which gave Alaska a land-grant college; it was his political opponent, Bunnell, who became its founding president.