Beer foments history in Alaska — Prohibition didn’t stop brewing predilection

bh 5.21.15_beer_image_webBy Bill Howell, for the Redoubt Reporter

In my last two columns, I’ve made passing reference to my newest book, “Alaska Beer: Liquid Gold in the Land of the Midnight Sun,” which was released in mid-May and is finally on the bookshelves here in Alaska. It’s a history of beer and brewing in our great state, from the period of Russian rule to current day. It represents a year’s worth of research and writing on my part, during which I came across some fascinating stories regarding the role alcohol, in general, and beer, in particular, has played in Alaska history.

During the Gold Rush period in Alaska, breweries were key businesses in the establishment of towns. What typically “put a town on the map” was the establishment of three key businesses — a bakery, a brewery and a brothel. Given the poor sanitation of many mining towns, beer was often a much healthier choice than water, plus it contained vitamin C, which helped prevent scurvy, one of the most common ailments. From 1874 until the coming of territorial prohibition, some 34 different breweries operated in 15 different towns in Alaska. Their main competition, then as still today, was not other Alaska brewers, but larger breweries from Outside, such as Rainier, Olympia and others on the West Coast. These breweries were eager to capture the Alaska market and did everything in their power to undercut the local brewers. Despite this fierce competition, Alaska brewers more than held their own until they were put out of business when the citizens of the territory voted to ban alcohol.

Why prohibition? Scholars continue to ask that question to this day. The idea of outlawing a substance which had been enjoyed by a large segment of the population since time immemorial seems a strange one to be adopted by popular vote in a country as freedom-loving as the United States.

It seems even more so in a territory as fiercely individualistic as Alaska. Nevertheless, in November 1916, Alaskan voters chose prohibition by a 2-to-1 margin. After approval by Congress and President Woodrow Wilson in 1917, territorial prohibition went into effect Jan. 1, 1918. As of that date, the Territory of Alaska was, at least in theory, bone dry with regard to alcohol.

As anyone with a basic grasp of human nature could predict, territorial prohibition was a colossal failure. With its large size and small population, Alaska was a bootleggers’ paradise. Here are a few examples that I came across in my research:

The town of McCarthy could only be reached by train from Cordova. When federal marshals were on the train, the engineers would add material to the train engine’s firebox to change the color of its smoke, thus alerting everyone in town to hide or dispose of any alcohol.

In Ketchikan, Creek Street was the place to go for a drink. In the mid-1920s there were over 20 brothels on Creek Street, as prostitution was Ketchikan’s No. 1 industry at the time. Brothels were frequented by men looking for a little company and some liquor, so bootleggers would smuggle in Canadian whiskey to supply the houses of prostitution and backroom saloons.

Creek Street is built over the water, and the bootleggers would simply wait until a high tide at night and row their boats up under the street to deliver their goods under the cloak of darkness. Most of the structures on the street had hidden trap doors in their floorboards to receive such deliveries.

Every town in Alaska had its own methods. It quickly became clear that trying to keep alcohol from the hands of those who wanted it was a fool’s errand.

Sometimes, trying to enforce prohibition was more than futile, it could be downright deadly. On Nov. 23, 1920, Anchorage was incorporated as a first-class city. Prior to that, law enforcement was the responsibility of U.S marshals.

On Dec. 22, 1920, the city council appointed John J. Sturgus, an experienced lawman from Montana, to begin as chief of police on Jan. 1, 1921, at a salary of $200 a month. Sturgis lasted just seven weeks. He was shot and killed with his own gun on Feb. 20, 1921. His murderer was never caught, and this death was to be the Anchorage Police Department’s first unsolved homicide.

The death is believed to be related to the smuggling of alcohol. The second chief of the Anchorage Police resigned after only a few months on the job, citing overwhelming danger. The third chief of police, Harry C. Kavanaugh, lasted eight months in office before being gunned down by a crazed drunk with a shotgun on Jan. 3, 1924. Seems the second chief had the right of it!

As these, and the many other fascinating bits of history I came across during my research, detail, you really can’t understand Alaska history without taking into account the role that beer has played.

Until next month, cheers!

Bill Howell has been an avid craft beer drinker and homebrewer since 1988. Upon retiring from the U.S. Navy in 2004, Howell moved to Alaska, where he blogs about the Alaskan craft brewing scene at alaskanbeer.blogspot.com. In 2007 he created a beer appreciation course titled “The Art and History of Brewing,” which he teaches annually at Kenai Peninsula College. He is the founder of the Kenai Peninsula Brewing and Tasting Society and serves as a media consultant to the Brewers Guild of Alaska.

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Filed under beer, Drinking on the Last Frontier

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