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Juneau-Douglas City Museum

Niemi, William J.

by Celia Niemi Handley

August Niemi was born in Ylistaro, Vaasanlaani, Finland, in 1871, and arrived in the United States in 1900, settling in Houghton, Michigan. In 1902, he married Maria Sofia Mikkola, who was born in Lahtaja, Finland, in 1880, and immigrated to Michigan in 1901. After a sojourn in Michigan, August with Maria and two children, Helen and William, moved to Itabo, Cuba. Two more children, Hilma and Waino, were born there while August was working on the Panama Canal.

The family moved to Alaska in 1910, and spent five years in Douglas where he worked at the Treadwell Mine and son, Walter was born. In 1915, they arrived in Eska where Gus worked for the Alaska Railroad and also built a store and rooming house. Their daughter, Hilda was born in 1919. When the children became of high school age, they moved to Anchorage and “batched” together until 1926, when Maria moved to Anchorage; August followed in 1927, after disposing of his store. In 1928, he opened Niemi Hardware at the corner of 4th and “D” and operated it until his retirement. August died in 1945, and Marie in 1947.

William J. Niemi was born in Calumet, Michigan, in 1904, to August and Maria, the second of six children. He went to grade school in Douglas, Alaska, graduated from Anchorage High School and received a mining engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines in 1926. He married Bernice Kingsbury in 1929, and they had two children, Miriam Anne and Celia Beth.

He lived in the Gastineau Channel area from 1910 to 1918, and later in Anchorage and other locations in Alaska where his employment took him. His career began with the Alaska Railroad and then the U.S. Smelting and defining in Fairbanks until he became construction engineer for the Alaska Road Commission in several locations in the interior part of the state from 1930 to 1941. During World War II, he was the commanding officer of the Anchorage Territorial Guard and then assigned to an engineering unit, which saw action for three years all through the Aleutian Campaign. He was then in Okinawa from the first landings there and was responsible for the construction of aviation airfields and facilities. He finished the war as a Colonel with the 807th Aviation Engineer Battalion.

He returned to civilian service as an engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation Columbia Basin Project in Pasco, Washington, until once again in 1950, he returned to Alaska as Chief Engineer for the Alaska Road commission in Juneau. In 1956, The Alaska Road Commission was abolished, and the Bureau of Public Roads assumed those responsibilities. Bill Niemi remained as Regional Engineer until his retirement in 1967, when he moved to California. In 1964, Mr. Niemi received the Department of Commerce Meritorious Service Silver Medal for federal highway work. It was with this special mention, “When Alaska was admitted to the Union, he assisted the new state in establishing a highway department capable of assuming its full responsibilities under the Federal aid highway legislation.” He was elected to Alaska Press Club’s 49er Hall of Fame in 1967. He died in California in 1992.