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Raising the Statehood Flag in Juneau, July 4, 1959

On the library property is the Alaska Statehood Site, significant as the official site of the statehood ceremony and first raising of the 49 star flag on July 4, 1959.  Territorial delegate James Wickersham introduced the first bill for Alaska statehood in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916.  Low population, geographical separation from the other states, and how Alaskans would pay the expenses of statehood delayed statehood for more than forty years.  Finally, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the proclamation admitting Alaska as the 49th state on January 3, 1959.  By executive order the new 49 star national flag did not become the official ensign until July 4th of the year.

As the statehood battle raged, it became clear that political power was shifting from Juneau and Southeast to Anchorage and Southcentral Alaska.  By 1955, Juneau felt the need for an organized political effort to retain the capital.  The city was able to win support from political groups in Southeast communities and Fairbanks.  The support was critical in turning back efforts during the Constitutional Convention to have the capital transferred to Palmer or to require a statewide vote on where to place the capital once Alaska became a state (Metcalfe, 2000). 

Alaska's entry into the United States drastically altered the former territory’s place with the U.S. and also represented a big step for the Nation as a whole.  According to a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Alaska’s admittance was a “novel and historic experiment”(The 49th Star, 1958).  The joining of Alaska with the rest of the union was met with both joy and unease.  While Americans welcomed the new state, there was an equal amount of concern for how Alaska would connect politically and culturally as a co-equal with the rest of the Nation (Ibid, 1958).  Alaska was and continues to be unique among the states in terms of its geographic location, size, and “Last Frontier” character, which contributes to the overall character of our nation today.

The period of significance for the Alaska Statehood Site includes the date of the official statehood ceremony and flag raising.  An estimated 3,000 stood at attention as the first 49-star flag was raised slowly at the Memorial Library by a military honor guard in an impressive fourth of July ceremony, 1959.  Author, lecturer, world traveler and New Yorker, Lowell Thomas was master of ceremonies.  At 3pm on the July 4th, Governor Egan spoke to the crowd while the flag was being raised.  Former Governor Waino E. Hendrickson was also present.  The large commemorative marker between the flagpoles was also dedicated at this time.  Two large weather balloons carrying flags of Alaska and the nation were released from the city in the hopes that they would carry the news of Alaska statehood to the rest of the world.  According to the Daily Alaska Empire statehood caption, “Fourth of July crowds cheered when this float passed during the parade.  It featured Thlingit Indians wearing the colorful garb of their ancestors.  The Indians chanted an authentic war chant while the float was decorated in the fashion of a war canoe.”  Other groups noted by the paper were the Fourth Queen Dodie Peterson surrounded by her court of seven smiling princesses was seated at the base of a impressive float decorated to represent a huge star topped by the number, “49”., The Women of the Moose Drill Team, and the 9th Army Band.  “Special guests from across the nation observed the 49th star flag raising ceremonies from stands at one wing of the State Office Building.  The State signs were carried by members of a delegation of Westinghouse appliance dealers who flew to Juneau for the ceremonies (Alaska Daily Empire, July 6, 1959).”

The flag raising ceremony is remembered with two flagpoles at the site, one flying a 49 star flag, and a marker.  To date, only two other sites in Alaska with an association with Alaska statehood are documented and designated historic places.  Constitution Hall on the University of Alaska campus at Fairbanks was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on November 3, 2005, for its association with the 1955-1956 Constitutional Convention.  The Alaska Flag Raising Site at Sitka, designated a National Historic Landmark on October 15, 1966, is another site of official statehood ceremony, but it is better known as the site of the ceremonial transfer of Alaska from Russian to U.S. administration in 1867.

For Juneau residents, the Juneau Memorial Library building stands as a tribute to their commitment to the community, and the well-being and education of its residents.

(Excerpted from the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Juneau Library to be admitted to the National Register of Historic Places.)