Major Cities of Alaska
Alaska, the most northern of the 50 U.S. states, is popularly thought of as being largely uninhabited. While much of the state is only sparsely inhabited, Alaska has a number of large cities that have played significant roles in American history. Cities such as Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Sitka, and Skagway have served as port cities for gold rushes, military installations, trading posts, oil industry service centers, cultural capitals, and much more.
Alaska is one of two states (along with Louisiana) that is not organized into counties. Instead, the state’s first-order administrative divisions are organized into boroughs, though these boroughs do not cover the entire state. Roughly half of Alaska’s land area is part of what is known as the Unorganized Borough due to its sparse population, with 87 percent of the state’s population living within a borough. The Unorganized Borough is divided into ten census areas, but these areas are used solely for statistics gathering and analysis by the U.S. Census Bureau, lacking any local government of their own. Services in the Unorganized Borough are provided by the state government. Additionally, six of Alaska’s boroughs—Anchorage, Juneau, Skagway, Sitka, Yakutat, and Wrangell—are consolidated city-boroughs, with no distinction between city and borough government.
Here is a guide to the largest and most important cities in Alaska.
Anchorage, located along Alaska’s southern coast, is by far the largest city in the state, with a population just shy of 300,000. Indeed, more than 40 percent of Alaska’s population lives in Anchorage; only the state of New York has a higher percentage of citizens living in its largest city. Due to its status as a consolidated city-borough, Anchorage has a land area of over 1,700 square miles, making it one of the largest cities in the U.S. by land area and larger than the state of Rhode Island. Anchorage is located roughly midway between New York City, Tokyo, and Berlin, making it a popular hub for international cargo flights.
Anchorage is somewhat unique among Alaskan cities in that it was not founded as a gold mining or resource extraction boomtown. While gold was discovered in nearby Turnagain Arm in 1888, the Anchorage area itself has never held significant economic resources. Anchorage owes its location and existence due to the founding of a railroad-construction port in 1914. In contrast to other Alaskan towns, the tent city that sprung up around the port was known for its orderliness and lack of corruption, which led to it developing into a full-fledged metropolis. Anchorage was formally incorporated as a city in 1920.
Anchorage’s early growth was driven by the Alaska Railroad, which connected the city to Fairbanks and became an important artery for passenger travel and logistics into the foreboding Alaskan Interior. Starting in the 1930’s, Anchorage became a hub of aviation and military operations in Alaska due to its favorable location along the Pacific Ocean and proximity to Asia. During World War II, Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson were built in Anchorage; in 2005, both bases were combined into Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, a major factor in the city’s economy to this day.
The Good Friday earthquake of 1964 caused significant damage to Anchorage, killing 115 people and causing over $116 million (just shy of $1 billion in 2018 dollars) in damages. The second-largest earthquake in recorded history, the Good Friday earthquake caused many buildings to collapse due to repeated flexing and liquefied large tracts of land, causing them to sink into the ocean. Recovery from the earthquake took several years. The discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay along Alaska’s North Slope in 1968 led to a renewed wave of settlement in Anchorage, as workers and professionals relocated for jobs in the oil industry.
For several decades, some Alaskans have advocated relocating the state’s capital to Anchorage due to its status as the state’s largest city as well as its proximity to the Alaska Railroad, where the bulk of the state’s population is concentrated. In contrast, the state capital of Juneau is located in the Alaska Panhandle and is not connected to the rest of the state by road. While voters approved moving the capital to Anchorage in 1974, residents of Fairbanks and rural Alaskans were opposed because they did not want the state’s largest city to accumulate more power. In 1976, voters approved a plan to move the capital to Willow, located 70 miles north of Anchorage, but in 1978, opponents successfully defeated a $1 billion bond issue to fund construction of a new capitol building. While Juneau remains the capital of Alaska to this day, the state government has compromised by relocating many agencies to Anchorage.
Anchorage is located at roughly the same latitude as Oslo, Stockholm, and Helsinki, and is noted for having a more temperate climate than other major cities in Alaska. The city’s coast largely consists of mudflats, which are avoided by locals and tourists due to the risk of getting stuck and drowned during high tide. The city is also marked by occasional ash hazards due to its proximity to volcanoes. Because of Anchorage’s large land area, much of which is undeveloped, the city is home to a large amount of wildlife, including moose, grizzly bears, mountain goats, Dall sheep, northern timber wolves, beavers, beluga whales, and salmon.
Modern-day Anchorage is economically powered by the military, state and federal government offices, tourism, resource extraction, and transportation. The Port of Anchorage is Alaska’s busiest port, while Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is the world’s fourth-busiest cargo airport. The city is also host to administration offices of many oil companies. As the largest city in Alaska and owing to its location along the Pacific, Anchorage is a popular entry point for tourists.
Anchorage is also a hub for arts and culture in Alaska, being the home of the Alaska Center of the Performing Arts, the Alaska Native Heritage Center, and much more. The city is the starting point of the famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and is located near many national parks and conservation centers, including the Alaska Botanical Center, the Alaska Zoo, the Alaska Native Heritage Center, and the Alyeska Resort. It is also a service center for many rural Alaskan communities.
Anchorage is connected to the greater North American road network via the Parks Highway, which allows travelers to access Fairbanks and to travel to the lower 48 states via the Alaska Highway running through Canada. The city is also connected via the Seward Highway to Seward, a popular departure point for cruise lines. The Alaska Railroad also connects Anchorage to Seward and Fairbanks and remains both a popular tourist attraction and an important artery for transportation in rural parts of the state.
Fairbanks is the largest city in the Alaskan Interior and the second-largest city in Alaska, with a population just shy of 32,000. It also serves as the borough seat of Fairbanks North Star Borough and is the largest city in Alaska that does not have a consolidated city-borough government. A major center for military and oil extraction activity, it has also become a hub for tourism, as it is close to many of Alaska’s major attractions, such as the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, the Alaska Highway, and Denali National Park and Preserve.
Situated in the Tanana Valley and far from Alaska’s coasts, the Fairbanks region was largely uninhabited and unexplored for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence suggests that Athabascan peoples used the Fairbanks area for seasonal hunting, gathering, and fishing, but there were no permanent settlements in the region due to its remote location and frigid winter weather.
Following the Alaska Purchase in 1867, the U.S. began sending expeditions to the Alaskan Interior to map out the region more thoroughly. The discovery of gold in the neighboring Yukon region of Canada spurred large-scale settlement in the area for the first time in history. Fairbanks was founded in 1901 by Captain E.T. Barnette after his ship ran aground on the Chena River while on the way to Tanacross. Set up as a trading post, the city eventually became a major boomtown after the discovery of gold in the surrounding region. The city was named after Charles W. Fairbanks, a Republican senator from Indiana who would later serve as Vice President under Theodore Roosevelt.
While gold mining in Fairbanks petered out by the 1920’s, the city became a hub for military activity after the construction of Ladd Army Airfield in 1939. Large-scale federal investment in the Fairbanks area also led to the construction of the Alaska Highway, running from Dawson Creek in British Columbia and connecting Alaska to the contiguous U.S. by road for the first time. Fairbanks assumed a new role as a service center for the oil industry in the 1960’s following the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay along the North Slope, with the Dalton Highway connecting the oil fields directly to Fairbanks. Fairbanks was also chosen as the site of the University of Alaska in the 1920’s, becoming Alaska’s premier educational hub.
Fairbanks is noted for cold, long winters and brief summers owing to its northerly location, though it is warmer than locations to the north and is situated south of the tree line. Fairbanks is the coldest large city in the United States, with temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit recorded during the winter months. Fairbanks is also noted for the presence of wildfire smoke during the summer and ice fog during the winter owing to its location and the presence of large forests around it.
Today, Fairbanks’ economy is largely driven by the oil industry, as it is a hub for workers and materials traveling north to Prudhoe Bay. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System also runs near the city. Fairbanks is also a popular tourist hub due to its proximity to northern Alaska’s major tourist destinations. Hosting the largest airport in the Alaskan Interior, many tourists visit Fairbanks in the winter in order to witness the Northern Lights, which can sometimes be observed in the city itself despite it being outside of the Arctic Circle. Attractions in Fairbanks itself include
In addition to air links, Fairbanks is accessible by road from the lower 48 states via the Alaska Highway. The Alaska Railroad links the city to Anchorage and Seward and remains both a popular tourist attraction and a vital connection for rural Alaskans traveling around the state. The University of Alaska Fairbanks also draws a large student population to the city.
Juneau is the capital of Alaska and the third-largest city in the state, with a population of just over 31,000. A consolidated city-borough, Juneau is the second-largest city in the U.S. by land area at over 2,700 square miles, making it larger that the U.S. states of Rhode Island and Delaware; only the city of Sitka, also in Alaska, is larger. Juneau is situated in the Alaska Panhandle, in the southeastern corner of the state, and is located on the Canadian border, making it the only U.S. state capital that borders a foreign nation.
Prior to European settlement, the Juneau area was used as a fishing ground by the A’akw Kwáan tribe owing to its favorable position on the Gastineau Channel. It was also a meeting point for the Tlingit and other tribes. While Russia controlled and colonized Alaska from 1784 to 1867, they did not settle in the Juneau area. The first recorded exploration of Juneau was by Joseph Whidbey, a British explorer who captained the Discovery during the Vancouver Expedition of 1791 to 1795.
Interest in the Alaskan Panhandle increased following the California gold rush and the Alaska Purchase of 1867. In 1880, George Pilz, a mining engineer who lived in Sitka, offered rewards to local tribal chiefs who could lead him to gold deposits. The year prior, an expedition by Quebecois prospector Joe Juneau and American Richard Harris to Snow Slide Gulch uncovered gold nuggets at what would be later known as Gold Creek.
Following this discovery, the two men set up a mining camp, which quickly swelled in size as gold prospectors relocated from Canada and the mainland U.S., becoming the first settlement founded after the Alaska Purchase. By 1881, the mining camp was informally known as Rockwell and later Harrisburg and boasted a population of over 100. On December 14, 1881, residents voted to change the settlement’s name to Juneau in honor of Joe Juneau and also to avoid confusion with Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that state’s capital. Juneau formally incorporated as a city in 1900.
Juneau grew rapidly due to both an influx of American settlers as well as Tlingit from nearby villages. Unique among American cities, Juneau is noted for a strong Russian Orthodox Church presence; Orthodox missionaries had come to Alaska during the Russian colonization period, and many Tlingit converted to Orthodoxy as a way of resisting Americanization. St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, completed in 1894, remains the center of Orthodox life in Juneau and is noted for the six large panels in its construction, assembled in Russia.
At the time of Juneau’s founding, Sitka served as the capital of Alaska, but as Juneau’s population swelled and Sitka’s declined due to the lessened importance of whaling and fur trading, pressure mounted to relocate the capital. In 1900, the U.S. government passed a law relocating Alaska’s capital to Juneau, a process completed by 1906. Starting in the 1920’s, Juneau became the largest city in Alaska, surpassing Fairbanks after the decline of the gold rush in the Alaskan Interior. Following World War II, Anchorage surpassed Juneau in population due to growth caused by the founding of several military bases there.
The Federal and Territorial Building, serving as the capitol of the Alaskan Territory, was completed in Juneau in 1931 after numerous delays caused by World War I and difficulty in purchasing land. The Alaska Governor’s Mansion was completed in 1912. During World War II, Juneau’s sizable Japanese population was relocated to inland internment camps, causing controversy.
In the latter half of the 20th century, there was a movement to relocate Alaska’s capital to Anchorage, Fairbanks, or another city close to both, citing larger populations in both cities and Juneau’s distance from both. In the 1970’s, Alaskan voters approved a plan to move the capital to Willow, a city 70 miles north of Anchorage. However, voters also approved a measure requiring a referendum on bondable construction costs before the relocation could begin; Alaskans would later reject the $900 million in estimated costs to move the capital. Votes in 1984 and 1996 to move the capital also failed, and Juneau remains the capital of Alaska to this day, though many government offices are located in Anchorage for convenience purposes.
Juneau is noted for its exceptionally rugged terrain, with high mountains marking the border between it and Canada. Because of this terrain, Juneau is not connected to the rest of Alaska—or to Canada or the mainland U.S.—via road, requiring all passengers and cargo to arrive via sea or air, despite the city being located on the North American mainland. Juneau and Honolulu, Hawaii are the only U.S. state capitals that do not have land connections to the rest of the U.S. Due to its southerly location and presence by the sea, Juneau has a much milder climate than other regions of Alaska, with average winter temperatures of 23 degrees Fahrenheit and summer temperatures averaging 65 degrees.
While gold mining in Juneau has since declined, the city’s status as Alaska’s capital has continued to keep the local economy strong. Juneau’s strategic position along the Alaska Marine Highway also makes it a popular port of call for cruise ships and other vessels traveling between Seattle, Vancouver, and other points in Alaska. Juneau’s reliance on tourism has caused some controversy, with locals frequently voicing their irritation with cruise ships blocking the view across Gastineau Channel. Fishing also forms a plank in Juneau’s economy, though the importance of commercial fishing has declined in recent decades.
Juneau is also noted for its active arts scene, being home to the Alaska Folk Festival, the Juneau Jazz and Classics music festival, and Celebration, an Alaska Native festival. It is home to Perseverance Theatre, the largest theatre in Alaska, and the city-owned ski resort of Eaglecrest, as well as numerous art galleries. Juneau is also the location of the University of Alaska Southeast, drawing a sizable student population.
Due to Juneau’s lack of mainland road connections, the primary means of access to the city are air and sea. The city is part of the Alaska Marine Highway, a state-owned ferry system that travels between Anchorage and Seattle, and Juneau is also served by Juneau International Airport.
Sitka is a city situated on Chichagof Island and Baranof Island in the Alaskan Panhandle, located on the Pacific Ocean south of Juneau. With a population of just under 8,900, it is the fourth-largest city in Alaska. A consolidated city-borough, Sitka is the largest city in the U.S. by land area and is larger than both Rhode Island and Delaware, the two smallest U.S. states. It is also one of the oldest cities in Alaska, with history stretching back to the 1700’s.
Originally settled by the Tlingit people thousands of years ago, Russian explorers founded Fort Saint Michael in the Sitka area in 1799, working for the Russian-American Company. In 1802, Fort Saint Michael was destroyed in a Tlingit attack, killing most of the Russian colonists. Alexander Baranov, the governor of Russian America, returned in 1804 with a large force, wiping out the Tlingit in a two-day bombardment known as the Battle of Sitka. Following the Tlingit surrender, the Russians reestablished Sitka, naming it New Archangel, after the city of Arkhangelsk in northwestern Russia; the city would revert to its old name following the American acquisition of Alaska.
Sitka rapidly grew to become the largest city in Russian America and was designated the colonial capital in 1808, though conflict with the Tlingit persisted, with the Tlingit building a new fort along Peril Strait in an attempt to force a trade embargo. The city became a hub of Russian Orthodox life in Alaska, and was also noted for its heavy Lutheran influence owing to the many Swedes and Finns who migrated to the city to work for the Russian-American Company. Sitka was primarily a hub of fur trading, fishing, and whaling, as Russian settlement and exploration of the Alaskan Interior was limited.
In the latter half of the 19th century, Russia was undergoing economic turmoil following its costly loss to Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire in the Crimean War during the 1850’s. Russian authorities realized that due to the Russian Navy’s heavy losses to the British Navy during the war, they had little chance of defending Alaska should another war break out. As a result, Russia sought to sell Alaska to another country in part due to the cost of defending it and its limited economic potential.
While Russia had considered selling Alaska to Britain due to the colony adjoining Britain’s Canadian colonies, this was considered risky as it would give Britain a large coastline close to the Russian mainland. Additionally, Britain was uninterested in purchasing Alaska due to the fact that it had sufficient access to the Pacific Ocean via British Columbia. This meant that the United States was the only real candidate for the purchase. Secretary of State William Seward had pushed for purchasing Alaska for years as part of Manifest Destiny, and the Alaska Purchase was completed in 1867.
Sitka served as the site of the transfer ceremony between Russia and the U.S., and it remained the capital of Alaska in the decades following. For much of the 19th century, Sitka was the only Alaskan city with significant American settlement due to the region’s remoteness and perceived lack of economic resources. In 1906, the Alaskan capital was relocated to Juneau due to the declining economic power of Sitka; Juneau had grown rapidly due to the Klondike Gold Rush and was closer to both Yukon and the gold boomtowns in the Alaskan Interior.
In 1937, the U.S. Navy constructed its first-ever seaplane base on Japonski Island in Sitka, while in 1941, Fort Ray was established to protect the Navy base. Both bases remained active through World War II, but were decommissioned in 1944 due to their declining importance after Japanese forces were pushed back in the Pacific.
Following the war, Sitka assumed new importance as the home of the Alaska Pulp Corporation, a Japanese company that operated a pulp mill processing timber from the Tongass National Forest. The mill employed 450 people until its closure in 1993. Sitka also became home to a significant Filipino community. Due to their relatively close locations, Sitka and Juneau have a similar climate, with milder weather in Sitka due to its position on the Pacific Ocean.
Today, Sitka’s economy is reliant on fishing, whaling, and education. The city is also a popular port of call for cruise ships due to its strategic position on the Pacific Ocean. The Old Sitka State Historical Park commemorates the city’s original founding by Russian colonists. The city is also home to a satellite campus of the University of Alaska Southeast and is known as a hub for Tlingit culture.
Due to Sitka’s location on a series of islands, the only way to access it is via sea or air. Due to the small size of Sitka’s downtown, many residents forego car travel in favor of walking. Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport offers scheduled flights to other points in Alaska, while the city is part of the Alaska Marine Highway, a ferry service that connects the city to Seattle, Anchorage, and other cities in southeastern Alaska.
Ketchikan is a city located on Revillagigedo Island in the southeastern corner of the Alaska Panhandle, the most southern large city in the state. With a population of just over 8,000, it is the fifth-largest city in Alaska and the seat of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough. Ketchikan is also the oldest incorporated city in Alaska due to city-borough mergers in Sitka, Anchorage, and other cities dissolving those cities’ municipal governments.
Prior to European settlement, Ketchikan was used as a summer fishing camp by the Tlingit tribe. In 1885, the city was founded by Mike Martin, a scout who had been sent to the area by an Oregon canning firm to look for ideal settlement locations. Martin established the Clark and Martin saltery and a general store, which attracted settlers looking for work. Ketchikan was incorporated as a city in 1900.
Ketchikan is famed for its collection of totem poles, the largest collection in the world. Located throughout the city, the totem poles became a major tourist draw in the 1930’s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps began recarving older poles that had been damaged due to age and neglect. The Totem Heritage Center in Ketchikan features a collection of totem poles that have been rescued from abandoned villages in the area.
Ketchikan is known for mild weather, moderated by its southerly latitude and coastal location. The city is surrounded by the Tongass National Forest, which is managed and protected by the U.S. Forest Service. Due to Revilllagigedo Island’s steep and forested terrain, much of Ketchikan is long and narrow due to a lack of suitable terrain for building construction.
The economy in Ketchikan is largely based on fishing, forestry, and tourism, and has been dubbed the salmon capital of the world due to its plentiful waters. Due to its location in Alaska’s southeast, it is a frequent port of call for cruise ships. The city is also host to a U.S. Coast Guard station and is home to a satellite campus of the University of Alaska Southeast.
Due to its presence on an island, Ketchikan can only be reached via air or sea. The city is located on the Alaska Marine Highway, connecting the city to Seattle and other cities along Alaska’s southern coast. The city is also served by Ketchikan International Airport on nearby Gravina Island. Ketchikan became infamous in 2007 due to the “Bridge to Nowhere,” a proposed bridge between the city and Gravina Island, which was derided as an example of “pork barrel spending” due to Gravina Island only having a population of 50 people.
Wasilla is the sixth-largest city in Alaska with a population of just below 8,000 and is located in Matanuska-Susitna Borough roughly 40 miles north of Anchorage. Located within the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, it is a major exurb of the Anchorage metropolitan area and a popular stop for those traveling the Parks Highway or Alaska Railroad between Anchorage and Fairbanks. Its name is derived from the Dena’ina Chief Wasilla, who had the Russian given name of Vasilij.
The Wasilla area was historically inhabited by the Dena’ina tribe, who took advantage of its strategic location along Cook Inlet and its lush lands, suitable for agriculture. European settlement in the area began in 1880 with the foundation of Knik, a mining town at the mouth of the Matanuska River. In 1917, the federal government selected the area where Wasilla is located as an intersection of the Alaska Railroad and Carle Wagon Road, the latter of which connected Knik and nearby mines. Due to the importance of this location, many Knik residents relocated to the intersection, causing Knik itself to become a ghost town.
Wasilla eventually became a major town in the region and its economy was initially focused on mining and fur trapping. Its population was bolstered by a 1935 program that relocated farming families from the Midwest to the Matanuska-Susitna Valley in order to kick-start agriculture in the region. In 1970, the completion of the Parks Highway, which ran through Wasilla, spurred increased population growth, causing the city to overtake nearby Palmer as the largest city in the region. Wasilla was formally incorporated as a city in 1974.
In 1994, Alaskans defeated a ballot referendum that would have relocated the state capital from Juneau to Wasilla. Around this time, the city recovered from an economic slowdown that had occurred during the 1980’s, as Wasilla became a popular commuter town for workers based in Anchorage. Wasilla was also the original home of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, but the race was relocated to Willow in 2002 and Wasilla was removed from the race entirely in 2008 due to excessive suburban growth and reduced snow.
Given its proximity to Anchorage, Wasilla has a similar climate, albeit with slightly warmer days and colder nights due to it being further from the coast. The modern Wasilla economy is largely based around its status as an Anchorage suburb, but the city also boasts a robust agriculture and lumber sector. It is also a popular tourist stop for those traveling between Anchorage and Fairbanks and is home to the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry and the Finger Lake State Recreation Area. Wasilla is connected to Anchorage and the Alaskan Interior via the Parks Highway, and is also served by the Alaska Railroad. The city is also home to Wasilla Airport, which largely services private pilots.
Wasilla became widely known in 2008 when then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was selected as the Republican vice presidential candidate in that year’s election. Palin served as mayor of Wasilla from 1996 to 2002 before being elected governor in 2006.
Kenai is the seventh-largest city in Alaska, with a population just over 7,000, and is one of the oldest settlements in the state. Located within the Kenai Peninsula Borough southwest of Anchorage, its name is derived from the Dena’ina word for “meadow,” noting the area’s relatively flat terrain in contrast to the rest of the Kenai Peninsula.
Kenai was historically inhabited by the Dena’ina tribe, who founded a village at the city’s current location called Shk’ituk’t. In 1741, Russian fur traders established contact with the village, and in 1786, the Russians constructed Fort St. Nicholas, which was the first European settlement on the Alaskan mainland. Hostilities between the Dena’ina and the Russians culminated in the Battle of Kenai in 1797, in which the Dena’ina attacked Fort St. Nicholas; over 100 people were killed in the fighting. In 1838, smallpox killed roughly half of the Dena’ina population.
In 1869, following the Alaska Purchase, the U.S. Army constructed Fort Kenay in the area, though it was quickly abandoned. 1896 saw the completion of the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church, which remains in use to this day. Kenai’s population grew during the early 1900’s as settlement to Alaska increased and the city’s strategic location made it an ideal port. By the 1920’s, Kenai was a major hub for fishing and canning along Alaska’s southern coast.
In 1956, Kenai was connected to Anchorage via the Kenai Spur Highway, while 1957 saw the discovery of oil in the Swanson River just to the city’s northeast; this was the first major oil deposit found in Alaska. Further discoveries of oil in Cook Inlet in 1965 helped fueled Kenai’s growth. Rapid population growth and industrial pollution led to the Kenai River being designated a Category 5 (“impaired”) water body by the Alaskan state government in 2008 under the terms of the federal Clean Water Act.
Kenai has a similar moderate climate as Anchorage owing to its location on the coast, with warmer winters and summers compared to inland Alaska. Modern Kenai remains a hub for fishing and oil extraction, though the city lacks a deep-water port, with most commercial fishing boats choosing to moor in nearby Nikiski. The city is connected via land to Anchorage via the Kenai Spur and Sterling Highways, and Kenai Airport also provides the area with scheduled air service.
Kodiak is the seat of Kodiak Island Borough in south-central Alaska and is the eighth-largest city in the state, with a population just over 6,000. One of the oldest settlements in Alaska, it takes its name from Kodiak Island, which was named by British explorer James Cook when he sighted it in 1778. Cook’s name was derived from an earlier Russian explorer, Stephan Glotov, who had named Kodiak “Kad’yak.”
The Kodiak Archipelago has been inhabited by the Alutiiq tribe for over 7,000 years. In 1792, Alexander Baranov, a manager of the Russian Shelikhov-Golikov Company, established a trading post on the site of modern Kodiak, originally named Paul’s Harbor. The post became a major hub of Russian trading and colonization activity in Alaska and exists to this day as the Baranov Museum. Due to native opposition to Russian trading in sea otter pelts, the Russians fought several wars with the Alutiiq and other tribes in the region. Russian Orthodox missionaries also arrived on Kodiak Island around this time.
Paul’s Harbor served as the capital of Russian America until 1804, when it was moved to Sitka in the Alaskan Panhandle. Due to the profitability of the sea otter fur trade on Kodiak Island, the Russian-American Company was formed in 1799 in order to increase profits; however, overharvesting led to the near-extinction of sea otters by the mid-1800’s. Additionally, by this time, 85 percent of native Alaskans had been killed due to conflicts with the Russians and the introduction of diseases such as smallpox to which they had no immunity.
Following the Alaska Purchase in 1867, Kodiak Island became a hub for fishing in the region, and canneries formed a large part of the local economy until the advent of farm-raised salmon in the mid-20th century. Under President Theodore Roosevelt, the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge was created to help protect endangered species in the region.
Kodiak was incorporated as a city in 1941. During World War II, the U.S. perceived Kodiak as a likely target of the Japanese Navy and responded by constructing Fort Abercrombie nearby and fortifying the city itself. Kodiak was severely damaged by the Good Friday earthquake of 1964, which caused a tectonic tsunami to slam into the city, killing 15 people, causing $11 million in damages, and destroying the native villages of Kaguyak and Old Harbor.
Kodiak is noted for its temperate (by Alaskan standards) climate, with mild winters and hotter summers than other major Alaskan cities. The city remains an important center for commercial fishing and is also a popular hunting location due to the presence of the Kodiak bear and other unique species. Kodiak is also home to the Naval Special Warfare Cold Weather Detachment Kodiak as well as a U.S. Coast Guard installation.
Kodiak is also a popular tourist destination in part due to the Kodiak Crab Festival, which takes place during Memorial Day weekend in May. This festival features a county fair, carnival rides, a kayak race, a marathon, and several other events. It is also home to a satellite campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage and Saint Herman’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, a major Orthodox theology school.
Due to its position on Kodiak Island, Kodiak lacks land connections to other points in Alaska. The city is served by the Alaska Marine Highway, which offers ferries to Homer, Whittier, and other cities along the state’s Pacific coast. Kodiak Airport provides regularly scheduled air service to other cities in Alaska.
Kodiak became known across the U.S. in 2012 when it was the winner of an advertising campaign involving rapper Pitbull and Walmart. Walmart announced that the store with the most Facebook Likes between June 18 to July 15 would have a visit and show by Pitbull; an Internet trolling campaign designed to send Pitbull to the most remote location possible resulted in the Kodiak Walmart winning. Pitbull would later visit the city on July 30 and perform a show at the city’s Coast Guard base.
Located in southwestern Alaska along the Kuskokwim River, Bethel is the ninth-largest city in Alaska, with a population just over 6,000. It is the largest city in Alaska’s Unorganized Borough and is known as a center of Yup’ik culture. Bethel is located within the Bethel Census Area for statistical purposes.
Inhabited by native peoples for thousands of years, Bethel was established in the late 1900’s as a trading post for the Alaska Commercial Company named Mumtrekkhlogamute. In 1885, the Moravian Church constructed a mission in the town, rapidly growing due to missionary William Weinland’s decision to learn the Yup’ik language and translate the Bible into Yup’ik. The Moravian Church missionaries were also responsible for moving Bethel to its current location, which was less susceptible to flooding. Bethel was incorporated as a city in 1957 after considerable growth due to military spending during World War II.
In 1971, the Yup’ik established KYUK, the first Native American-owned radio station in the U.S., and has been cited as a major influence in the revival of Yup’ik culture in recent years. Bethel attracted international attention in 1997 for a school shooting at Bethel Regional High School, in which student Evan Ramsey killed the school’s principal and one student while wounding two others; he would later receive a 210-year prison sentence.
Bethel has a subarctic climate due to its position on the edge of the Alaskan Interior, though cold weather is mitigated in the region somewhat due to its position near the coast. The city is known for the Kuskokwim 300, a popular mid-distance dogsled race that began in 1980, and is also a hub for kayaking, skiing, fishing, and other outdoors activities. It is also home to the Cama-i Dance Festival, a yearly event celebrating Yup’ik culture.
Despite being on the Alaskan mainland, Bethel’s remote location and small size mean it is not connected to the greater Alaskan highway network. The primary means of land transportation is snowmobiles, with an extensive network of trails connecting the city to various villages and cities throughout the state. During the summer, boat travel along the Kuskokwim River is the primary means of travel. The city is also served by Bethel Airport and is known for its large number of taxis, boasting more cab drivers per capita than any other city in the U.S.
Homer is a city in Kenai Peninsula Borough southwest of the city of Kenai. With a population of just over 5,000, it is the tenth-largest city in the world. It is known as the Halibut Fishing Capital of the World due to its plentiful waters and robust fishing industry. Homer is named after Homer Pennock, a gold prospector who settled in the area in 1896. The city is largely located on the Homer Spit, a five-mile long gravel bar that extends into Kachemak Bay. Homer was heavily damaged during the Good Friday earthquake of 1964, which saw much of the Homer Spit submerged into the bay.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the native Alutiiq people once used the Homer area for camping. In the 1890’s, coal was discovered in the area, which led the Cook Inlet Coal Fields Company to found a town, coal mine, dock, and railroad. Coal mining remained a major economic force in Homer until World War II, though it is estimated that as much as 400 million tons of coal remain in the area. Homer was also an early site for gold mining, but a lack of gold deposits kept the gold industry from becoming profitable. Homer was incorporated as a city in 1964.
Similar to other cities on the Kenai Peninsula, Homer has a relatively mild climate by Alaskan standards, with warmer, shorter winters compared to the rest of the state. Homer’s economy is primarily driven by commercial fishing, and it also attracts tourists interested in sport fishing. It is also known for the Pratt Museum and the Salty Dawg Saloon, a historical landmark built in 1897 and originally serving as the city’s first post office.
Homer is the southernmost town that is connected to the greater Alaskan highway system. It is connected to Anchorage and other cities on the Kenai Peninsula via the Sterling Highway. Homer is also served by the Alaska Marine Highway and by Homer Airport, which offers regularly scheduled flights to other Alaskan cities.
Unalaska is the 11th-largest city in Alaska and the largest city in the Aleutian Islands, an archipelago that stretches from the southwestern part of the state to the easternmost regions of Siberia. It has a population of over 4,000 and is located within the Unorganized Borough, and is assigned to the Aleutians West Census Area by the U.S. Census Bureau. One of the oldest cities in Alaska, it is noted for its blend of Aleut and Russian culture.
The Aleut tribe have inhabited Unalaska Island for thousands of years, developing unique folkways that have persisted into the modern day. In 1759, due to its westerly location, Unalaska Island was one of the first regions of Alaska visited by Russian colonists, when an expedition led by Stepan Glotov began trading with Aleut there. Between 1763 and 1766, there was intermittent conflict between the Aleut and Russian traders, which resulted in the deaths of 175 Russians until the revolt was suppressed.
Russia established a permanent trading post on the island in 1774, which was visited by British explorer James Cook in 1778 during his journey around the world. In 1788, Spanish explorers made contact with Russian settlements in Alaska, and while Spain attempted to claim Unalaska that year, the claim was never enforced. In 1825, the Russian Orthodox Church constructed the Church of the Holy Ascension in Unalaska, with its founding priest developing a writing system for the Aleut language and translating the Bible into Aleut. A smallpox epidemic during the 1830’s drastically reduced the Aleut population.
Following the Alaska Purchase, Unalaska became a major port during the various gold rushes of the 1890’s and 1900’s, with nearby Dutch Harbor becoming a hub of commercial activity. The city was also devastated by a number of plagues and epidemics during this time, and was particularly hard hit by the Spanish flu during World War I. Unalaska was incorporated as a city in 1942.
During World War II, Unalaska became a flashpoint for military activity due to its proximity to Japan. The Japanese attacked the city during the Battle of Dutch Harbor in 1942, making Unalaska the first city in the continental U.S. to be attacked by the Axis. Prior to the war, Unalaska had become home to the Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base and Fort Mears, a central hub of naval activity during the war. Following the Battle of Dutch Harbor and the Japanese conquests of nearby Kiska and Attu, native Alaskans in Unalaska were evacuated to camps in the Alaskan Panhandle, where many died from disease owing to poor housing conditions.
Following the war, Unalaska became prosperous as a center of the Alaskan king crab fishing industry, becoming the largest fishing port in the U.S. by 1978. However, a collapse in king crab stocks in the 1980’s wrecked the city. Since that decade, Unalaska fishers have largely switched to bottom fishing, which is considerably more lucrative.
Unalaska’s position by the ocean and its southerly latitude means it has relatively mild weather compared to other parts of Alaska, with warmer summers and winters. The city remains an important commercial fishing hub and has been featured on the TV show Deadliest Catch. Unalaska is served by Unalaska Airport, which has regular flights to other cities in Alaska, though the harsh weather conditions in the city mean that roughly 20 percent of flights in and out of Unalaska are cancelled per year. Unalaska is also served by the Alaska Marine Highway during the spring and summer.
Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow and still commonly referred to by that name, is the 12th-largest city in Alaska, with a population of over 4,000. Located along the North Slope, Alaska’s Arctic Ocean coast, it is the seat of the North Slope Borough and is the northernmost city in the U.S., as well as one of the northernmost cities in the world. Point Barrow, located near Utqiagvik, is the northernmost point in the U.S.
The name Utqiagvik is derived from the native Iñupiat people and is the historic center of that tribe. The city became known as Barrow in the 1890’s due to Point Barrow and the fact that American migrants found the latter easier to pronounce. The city was incorporated under the name Barrow in 1957. In 2016, a voter referendum led to the city being renamed Utqiagvik.
The Iñupiat have lived in the Utqiagvik area for thousands of years, subsisting off of fishing and whaling due to the city’s coastal location and frigid climate. The area was originally mapped and explored by British Royal Navy officers in the early 1800’s. Utqiagvik was also where oil was initially discovered in the North Slope, as merchants who visited the area during the 19th century observed the Iñupiat using oil-saturated peat, known as “pitch,” as a fuel source.
Following the Alaska Purchase, the U.S. Army constructed a meteorological research station in Utqiagvik in 1881. The city became a hub for Alaskan whaling, with a supply and rescue building being constructed in 1889; the building still stands today and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1935, Utqiagvik became nationally known after famed humorist Will Rogers was killed in a plane crash near the city; the Rogers-Post Site marks the location where his plane went down. In the 1970’s, Utqiagvik became a service center for the oil industry due to the fact that it was the only city located on the North Slope. Many oil companies maintain offices in Utqiagvik to provide support to extraction operations in Prudhoe Bay.
Utqiagvik is one of the coldest cities in Alaska, owing to its position on the Arctic Ocean, though its weather is somewhat mitigated by the coast. The city is noted for considerable snowfall, even during the summer, and records below-freezing temperatures for all but 120 days out of the year. Owing to its location in the Arctic Circle, Utqiagvik has near-perpetual daylight during the summer and near-perpetual darkness in the winter.
Utqiagvik’s economy is largely based around oil extraction, fishing, whaling, and government employment. The city also draws tourism due to the midnight sun, the Northern Lights, and Iñupiat culture, and is home to several popular Iñupiat events, such as the Eskimo Games and the Piuraagiaqta spring festival.
Despite being located on the Alaskan mainland, Utqiagvik’s remote location means it is not connected to the state’s highway network. Heavy sea ice during the winter also prevents boat access for much of the year, so air travel via Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport is the primary means of travel in and out of the city. Due to the expense of transporting goods in and out, Utqiagvik is noted for an extremely high cost of living, though salaries in the city are also much higher than the national average. Many residents rely on fishing, hunting, and whaling due to the high cost of purchasing goods.
Soldotna is the borough seat of Kenai Peninsula Borough and is the 13th-largest city in Alaska, with a population of just over 4,000. It is southeast of the city of Kenai and located on the edge of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, a protected area known for its variety of moose, bears, sheep, and other Alaskan species.
Soldotna was founded in 1947 when the U.S. government dissolved a number of townships along what would become the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Under the Homestead Act, World War II veterans were allowed to settle in the area and given preference in selecting and purchasing land. The city was plotted at a strategic location along the Sterling Highway, which connected the Kenai Peninsula to Anchorage. Soldotna was incorporated as a city in 1967. In 1957, oil was discovered in the Swanson River area near Soldotna, inspiring a new wave of economic development and settlement.
Similar to other communities on the Kenai Peninsula, Soldotna has a relatively mild climate that is moderated by the Pacific Ocean. The city’s economy is primarily fueled by the oil industry and education, as it is home to a satellite campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage. Soldotna also attracts tourism through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, the Soldotna Visitor’s Center, the Homestead Museum, and parks such as Swiftwater Park and Soldotna Creek Park.
Soldotna is located at the interaction of the Sterling and Kenai Spur Highways, allowing easy road access to Anchorage and other cities on the Kenai Peninsula. The city is also served by Soldotna Airport, though the airport does not have scheduled service.
Valdez is the 14th-largest city in Alaska, with a population just below 4,000, and is located along the state’s southern coast. Part of the Unorganized Borough and the Valdez-Cordova Census Area, Valdez is perhaps best known as the southern terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which ferries oil from Prudhoe Bay, located along Alaska’s northern coast.
Valdez takes its name from the Spanish explorer Salvador Fidalgo, who explored the Alaskan coast in 1790 and named the region after the naval officer Antonio Valdés y Fernández Bazán. The city increased in size and importance during the Klondike Gold Rush, when a scam to draw away prospectors on the way to Yukon led to a town springing up in 1898. The scam involved steamship companies telling travelers that the Valdez Glacier Trail would allow them to reach the Klondike gold fields more quickly than the traditional route through Skagway, a false claim as the trail was longer and steeper than reported and many travelers died while attempting to cross it.
Despite the scam, Valdez flourished due to its status as an ice-free port located near the Klondike gold fields, and it grew rapidly following the completion of the Richardson Highway in 1899, which connected the city to Fairbanks. Valdez was incorporated as a city in 1901. With the discovery of gold in Fairbanks and other inland regions of Alaska, Valdez rapidly became the preferred supply route into the state’s harsh interior. In 1907, two railroad companies engaged in a shootout in Valdez, which resulted in the city being passed over as a railroad hub to the rich copper mines in the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains.
Valdez was heavily impacted by the Good Friday earthquake of 1964, the second-strongest earthquake in recorded history. Tectonic shifts caused an underwater landslide beneath the city’s shoreline, causing much of it to sink and killing 32 people. In response, the Army Corps of Engineers relocated Valdez to a more stable location four miles down the shoreline, a process that was not completed until 1967.
In the 1970’s, Valdez experienced massive growth after it was chosen as one of the endpoints of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. The discovery of oil in Alaska’s North Slope presented a problem, as the Arctic Ocean was too thick with sea ice to be safe for oil tankers to travel in, and the sparse population of the North Slope meant there was little infrastructure to serve ships. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System solved this problem by transporting oil to Valdez instead, which already possessed an ice-free port that was far easier for ships to access.
Valdez was the site of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, in which the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, spilling nearly 11 million gallons of oil into the ocean. The Exxon Valdez oil spill was the second-largest spill in history and caused extensive damage to marine life in the Valdez area.
Valdez is known for a mild climate compared to inland Alaska, though not as mild as cities in the nearly Alaska Panhandle. It is the snowiest city in the U.S., recording an average of 300 inches of snow per year. Despite this, Valdez is sufficiently warm that it hosts the northernmost year-round ice-free port in North America, making it a vital part of American shipping lanes.
Today, Valdez’s economy is dominated by the oil, fishing, and shipping industries. The city also attracts considerable tourism due to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, its rich marine life, and its abundance of waterfalls and glaciers. Valdez is connected to Anchorage and Fairbanks via the Richardson Highway and is also serviced by the Alaska Marine Highway, offering ferry services to other cities along the coast. Valdez is also served by Valdez Airport, which offers scheduled air service throughout the state.
Nome is the 15th-largest city in Alaska, with a population just below 4,000, and is located along the state’s Bering Sea coast on the Seward Peninsula. Part of the Unorganized Borough and the Nome Census Area, Nome was incorporated in 1901 and was once the largest city in the state. It is perhaps best known for its role in the Alaskan gold rushes of the early 1900’s and for the diphtheria epidemic in 1925.
Prior to Nome’s founding, the area where it is now located was used as a hunting ground by the Inupiat tribe. In 1898, Nome was the site of the Nome Gold Rush, in which prospectors Jafet Lindeberg, Erik Lindblom, and John Brynteson discovered gold on Anvil Creek. With the Klondike Gold Rush winding down, the discovery by the “Three Lucky Swedes” (as they came to be known) inspired a stampede of new settlers, swelling Nome’s population to 10,000 by the next year and to 20,000 in the following decade.
The Nome Gold Rush was distinguished from other gold rushes in Alaska and Yukon by the ease by which gold was found in the area. Unlike in the Klondike Gold Rush, where gold had to be mined, many gold nuggets were found in the beach sand in the coasts surrounding Nome, which lowered the barrier to entry since making claims on land was not required. The Nome Gold Rush became notorious for “claim-jumping,” in which prospectors would file claims on already claimed ground with the aid of corrupt judges. By 1910, Nome’s population had collapsed to 2,600 as the gold rush ended. A series of fires and storms over the next few decades would destroy many of the buildings constructed during the gold boom.
Nome became internationally famous in 1925 for the Great Race of Mercy, in which dog sled teams raced to the city carrying serum in order to prevent a diphtheria epidemic among its residences. Due to harsh weather conditions, the serum could not be transported by air, and Nome’s lack of a port combined with sea ice during the winter prevented the serum from being sent via boat. Balto, the lead sled dog of the final leg of the run, became a canine celebrity and was honored with a statue in New York City’s Central Park. In 1973, in commemoration of the Great Race of Mercy, Nome was made the endpoint of the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race. During World War II, Nome became an important stop on ferry routes bringing material to the Soviet Union via the Lend-Lease Act.
Nome is noted for its extremely frigid climate, with icy winters and cool summers, but it is warmer than locations in the Interior due to its coastal location; Fairbanks, while located at the same latitude, has much more extreme temperature swings due to its inland position. Nome’s economy continues to be fueled by gold mining, though not to the same extent as during the Nome Gold Rush. It also attracts tourism related to the gold rush and Great Race of Mercy, and it is home to a satellite campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Owing to its isolated location on Alaska’s western coast, Nome is not connected to the state’s highway network. Air travel is the primary means in and out of the city, and Nome is served by Nome Airport and Nome City Field. The city is also home to a seaport, which allows boat transportation during the summer months.
Kotzebue is the 16th largest city in Alaska, with a population of just over 3,000, and is the borough seat of the Northwest Arctic Borough. It is situated on the Baldwin Peninsula in the Kotzebue Sound, allowing sea access to the Bering Strait and the Arctic and Pacific Oceans.
Kotzebue has historically served as a trading center for native Alaskans due to its strategic location. Prior to the Alaska Purchase, the town served as a hub for both native traders and Russians arriving from Siberia. The city was named after the Kotzebue Sound, which itself was named for Otto von Kotzebue, a Baltic German explorer who conducted an expedition in the area for the Russian Empire in 1818, searching for the Northwest Passage, an all-sea route through North America connecting Europe and Asia. Kotzebue was incorporated as a city in 1957 and hosts the northernmost wind farm in the U.S. In 2015, President Barack Obama gave a speech in Kotzebue, becoming the first president to visit a city north of the Arctic Circle.
Due to its northerly location, Kotzebue has a subarctic climate that is somewhat moderated by its location on the sea. The city’s economy is based on fishing, whaling, education, and tourism. Kotzebue is located near Kobuk Valley National Park, a popular tourist destination, and is also home to the Northwest Arctic Heritage Center and Selawik National Wildlife Refuge. The Red Dog mine, one of the largest zinc and lead mines in North America, is located 80 miles north of the city.
Kotzebue is not connected by road to the rest of Alaska, with Ralph Wien Memorial Airport being the primary means of travel in and out of the region. The city is also accessible by sea during the summer months, when sea ice dissipates sufficiently to allow ships to travel safely.
Petersburg is an unincorporated city in the Alaskan Panhandle located on Mitkof Island south of Juneau and the seat of the Petersburg Borough. It is the 17th largest city in Alaska with a population slightly less than 3,000.
Prior to European settlement, Mitkof Island had been used as a summer fishing camp by the Tlingit people. In the 19th century, Peter Buschmann, a Norwegian immigrant, settled on the island, building a cannery, port, and other structures; it is from him that the city’s name was taken. Petersburg grew rapidly as a fishing port in southeastern Alaska and was formally incorporated as a city in 1910. It was known as “Little Norway” due to the fact that its population was largely Scandinavian immigrants. In 1939, the Slattery Report named Petersburg as a potential location where Jewish refugees from Europe could be resettled, but the plan was never implemented. In 2013, Petersburg reincorporated as a borough, dissolving the city government and merging it with nearby Kupreanof and uninhabited areas stretching to the Canadian border and Juneau.
Like the rest of the Alaskan Panhandle, Petersburg has a relatively mild climate moderated by its southerly latitude and proximity to the ocean. The city is recognized as the 15th busiest fishing port in the U.S. and at one point had the highest per-capita income of any city in the country. The city is also a port of call for cruise ships and has gained attention for its more laid-back atmosphere compared to other cities in the Panhandle, such as Juneau and Sitka. Petersburg has also gained attention as a skiing destination in Southeastern Alaska, and it honors its Norwegian heritage through Mayfest, a festival in May that coincides with Norwegian Constitution Day.
Due to its location on Mitkof Island, Petersburg can only be accessed by air or sea. The city is part of the Alaska Marine Highway, which connects it to Seattle as well as other cities on the Alaskan Pacific Coast. It is also served by air through the Petersburg James A. Johnson Airport.
Seward is the 18th-largest city in Alaska, with a population just above 2,500, and is situated in the Kenai Peninsula Borough roughly 120 miles south of Anchorage. Named after former Secretary of State William Seward, who negotiated the U.S.’ purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, Seward is known as the southern terminus of the Alaska Railroad, the starting point of the famed Iditarod Trail, and as one of Alaska’s most important ports.
Seward was first settled in 1793, when Russian merchant Alexander Baranov established a trading post at the city’s current site. Following the U.S.’ acquisition of Alaska, Seward became an important port during the various gold rushes of the early 20th century due to its proximity to Anchorage and routes into the Alaskan Interior. It was incorporated as a city in 1901 and saw further growth in the 1920’s following the completion of the Alaska Railroad, which connected Seward to Anchorage and Fairbanks.
The 1939 Slattery Report listed Seward as a potential resettlement location for Jewish refugees from Europe, but the plan never came to fruition; the city would later serve as a focal point of military operations in World War II, hosting Fort Raymond and Walseth Air Force Base. Seward was heavily damaged during the 1964 Good Friday earthquake when a tsunami created by tectonic shifting slammed into the city.
Seward’s climate is relatively moderate by Alaskan standards due to its coastal location, with mild winters and heavy precipitation. The city’s economy is dominated by fishing and tourism, and it is one of the most popular starting points for cruises along the Alaskan coast. It is close to a number of major tourist attractions in southern Alaska, including Exit Glacier, Turnagain Arm, Kenai Fjords National Park, and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.
Seward is connected to Anchorage via the Seward Highway and Alaska Railroad, facilitating commercial and tourist traffic. Unlike many Alaskan communities on the Pacific, Seward is not served by the Alaska Marine Highway, with the closest ferry service in Whittier, roughly 90 miles to the north. While the city is home to Seward Airport, the closest airports with scheduled services are in Anchorage and Kenai.
Wrangell is a consolidated city-borough located on Wrangell Island in the Alaskan Panhandle and is the 19th-largest city in the state, with a population just over 2,000. One of the oldest cities in Alaska, Wrangell was originally incorporated as a city in 1903 and was part of the Unorganized Borough and the Wrangell-Petersburg Census Area until reorganizing as a borough in 2008.
Tlingit people are believed to have inhabited Wrangell Island for thousands of years, creating several settlements and subsisting off the rich waters surrounding the region. In 1811, Russian fur traders began trading with the Tlingit on Wrangell Island, and in 1834, Baron Ferdinand Petrovich Wrangel, from whom the city takes its name, ordered the construction of Redoubt Saint Dionysius on the island.
The Hudson’s Bay Company leased the fort in 1839 and renamed it Fort Stikine. Two smallpox epidemics in the 1830’s also devastated the Tlingit population in area. The Hudson’s Bay Company abandoned Fort Stikine in 1849 following a crash in sea otter and beaver stocks, though it retained control of the area until the U.S. purchased Alaska in 1867. Due to its status as a Tlingit territory, a part of Russian America, a leased British fort, and a part of the U.S., Wrangell is the only city in Alaska that has been governed by four different nations.
In 1868, the U.S. Army constructed Fort Wrangell on the island. Wrangell Island was the site of the Wrangell Bombardment in 1869, a skirmish between Tlingit natives and American traders. In 1877, Wrangell became the site of a major Presbyterian mission that would later grow into the Wrangell Institute, a boarding school for native Alaskans that flourished during the 20th century. Wrangell is also home to the oldest Catholic church in Alaska, St. Rose of Lima, which was built in 1879.
Wrangell grew rapidly in the 1890’s and 1900’s as it was a popular port of entry for gold prospectors heading to Yukon and the Alaskan Interior. Like neighboring Skagway, many businessmen profited off the gold rushes by building saloons, gambling dens, and dance halls. In 1902, the Wrangell Sentinel was founded, and it remains the oldest continuously published newspaper in Alaska. The city also became a popular fishing port in Southeastern Alaska.
Modern-day Wrangell’s economy is primarily based on fishing and logging. The city is also popular among tourists and is a common stop for cruise lines traveling across the Pacific coast of Alaska. Wrangell also serves as a hub of Tlingit culture and is known for several totem poles.
As an island, Wrangell cannot be reached from mainland North America by road. The city is served by the Alaska Marine Highway, which links Wrangell to Washington state, British Columbia, and other communities in the Alaskan Panhandle. The Wrangell Airport also provides scheduled air service to other points in the state.
Dillingham is the 20th-largest city in Alaska with a population just over 2,300. It is located in the southwestern part of the state and is part of the Unorganized Borough and the Dillingham Census Area. Dillingham was incorporated as a city in 1963.
Originally inhabited by the native Yup’ik people, the Dillingham area was originally mapped by Captain James Cook in 1778 as part of his circumnavigation around the world. In 1818, the Russian-American Company constructed a trading post at Nushagak Point, directly across the river from modern-day Dillingham. While the trading post was initially a major hub of Russian merchant activity in Alaska, it was later displaced by other posts that were closer to the Alaskan mainland.
Following the Alaska Purchase in 1867, the U.S. Signal Corps constructed a meteorological station at Nushagak Point. The Arctic Packing Company built a cannery in the area in 1883, and Dillingham became a major hub of fishing and canning along the Alaskan coast. The city was named after William Paul Dillingham, a Senator from Vermont who chaired a subcommittee that investigated conditions in Alaska following the Klondike Gold Rush. Dillingham was heavily impacted by the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 and 1919, killing all but 500 people in and around the city. In 2010, former Senator Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican Senator in history at the time, was killed in an airplane crash near Dillingham.
Dillingham has a subarctic climate like much of southern Alaska, albeit moderated somewhat by the city’s coastal position. The city’s economy is dominated by salmon fishing due to its location on Bristol Bay, one of the largest salmon districts in the world. Dillingham also attracts significant tourism due to its location near Wood-Tikchik State Park, the largest state park in the U.S., and it is also home to the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge.
Dillingham is not connected to the Alaskan highway system due to its distant location, and Dillingham Airport is the primary means of accessing the city. Dillingham can also be reached by sea during the summer months but is inaccessible during the winter due to sea ice.
Cordova is the 21st-largest city in Alaska with a population just over 2,000. It is located in the Unorganized Borough and the Valdez-Cordova Census Area along the state’s southern coast. It is perhaps best-known for the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, which caused significant damage to the city’s ecology.
Cordova takes its name from Salvador Fidalgo, a Spanish explorer who mapped the area in 1790 and named it after Admiral Luis de Córdova y Córdova. The city’s initial settlement was driven by the discovery of copper ore in nearby Kennicott in the late 19th century, with Cordova being formally incorporated in 1906. Over the next few decades, Cordova became a major mining hub in Alaska. Cordova also became an important hub for razor clam fishing, but the industry dried up in the 1950’s due to overfishing and was wiped out in the Good Friday earthquake of 1964.
In 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground northwest of Cordova, spilling several million barrels of oil into the ocean. The oil spill severely damaged Cordova’s fishing industry due to mass die-offs of salmon and herring. While much of the area was cleaned up in the following years, Cordova has not fully recovered from the oil spill.
Cordova has a similar oceanic climate to nearby Valdez, with mild winters and warmer summers compared to the Alaskan Interior. Commercial fishing remains the dominant industry in the city despite the damage to salmon stocks following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Cordova is also home to a number of cultural festivals and attractions, such as the Cordova Historical Museum, the Cordova Iceworm Festival, and the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival. Cordova is also popular among tourists as a hiking, skiing, and kayaking spot.
Despite being located on the Alaskan mainland, Cordova lacks land connections to other cities in the state. While previously accessible via rail, Cordova’s railroad was decommissioned due to extensive damage caused by the Good Friday earthquake. The city is served by the Alaska Marine Highway, with regular service to Valdez and other coastal Alaskan cities, and air travel is also possible via Cordova Municipal Airport and Merle K. Smith Airport.
North Pole is the 22nd-largest city in Alaska with a population of over 2,000 and is located within the Fairbanks North Star Borough in the Alaskan Interior. Despite its name, North Pole is located nearly 2,000 miles south of the actual North Pole and is over a hundred miles outside the Arctic Circle.
North Pole was homesteaded in 1944 by Bon V. and Bernice Davis, and was purchased by Dahl and Gaske Development Company in 1952. The company renamed the town North Pole hoping to attract a toy manufacturer to the area and boost development. North Pole was incorporated as a city in 1953. The city’s economy was initially driven by two trading posts, one of which was eventually rechristened the Santa Claus House. North Pole became the site of the Earth Resources refinery, which opened in 1977 and is connected to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, further spurring growth.
As a part of the Fairbanks metropolitan area, North Pole has a similar subarctic climate, with cold, long winters and brief, cool summers. Due to the city’s name, it attracts Christmas-related tourism, chiefly through the Santa Claus House, a gift shop known for featuring the world’s largest Santa Claus fiberglass statue and a herd of domesticated reindeer. The city’s post office is known for receiving large volumes of letters addressed to Santa Claus around Christmas, and its streetlights feature a candy cane motif.
North Pole is located along the Richardson Highway, which connects Fairbanks to Valdez in the state’s south. It is also served by air via Fairbanks International Airport.
Houston is the 23rd-largest city in Alaska, with a population just under 2,000, and is located in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough north of Anchorage. It largely serves as a bedroom community for workers based in Anchorage and nearby Wasilla.
Houston first served as a siding for the Alaska Railroad in 1917. It was incorporated as a city in 1966 and is largely known for the Miller’s Reach fire, a 1996 wildlife that destroyed over 400 buildings in the city and the nearby town of Big Lake. Houston can be accessed via the Parks Highway, which runs between Anchorage and Fairbanks.
Skagway is a consolidated city-borough in the Alaskan Panhandle and the 24th-largest city in Alaska, with a population just over 1,000, though its population is much larger in the summer due to seasonal tourist traffic. One of the most famous cities in Alaska, Skagway rose to prominence as a port of entry for prospectors heading to Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush.
Skagway was founded by William “Billy” Moore in 1887, a surveyor who had been tasked with mapping the border between Alaska and Canada. Moore believed that the Klondike region in the nearby North-West Territories held gold due to the fact that similar mountain ranges in California, Mexico, and British Columbia also held gold. Moore was the first recorded person to explore the White Pass, a trail that connected Skagway to the Klondike region, and settled in Skagway because he believed the White Pass was the easiest way to reach the gold fields. The city’s name was derived from the Tlingit word “Shԍagéi,” a mythical woman cited in Tlingit mythology as the cause of the rough winds in the area.
Moore’s gamble paid off, as the discovery of gold in the Klondike region in 1896 sparked a wave of prospectors migrating to the area. Skagway grew to a population of 30,000 in the late 1890’s, becoming the largest city in Alaska, swelled by Americans heading to the gold fields and ships transporting gold back to the continental U.S. In 1900, Skagway was connected to Dawson City, the center of the Klondike gold fields, via the White Pass and Yukon Railroad. Skagway was incorporated as a city that same year, becoming the first city officially incorporated in the Alaska Territory.
Skagway developed a reputation for lawlessness and anarchy during this time, with fights and prostitutes on its streets and little in the way of policing. The city was dominated by Soapy Smith, a swindler who ran a fake telegraph service and a private militia that engaged in thievery. Smith was killed in 1898 during the Shootout on Juneau Wharf. Smith’s saloon, Jeff Smith’s Parlor, was later renovated into a museum. In 1899, with the Klondike gold rush fading, Skagway began to collapse, its population shrinking to a fraction of what it had been.
Skagway was at the center of the Alaska boundary dispute, a long-running border dispute between Alaska and British Columbia. As early as 1821, the British and Russian Empires disagreed over the border between the two regions, with both sides claiming the Skagway area for its access to the Pacific Ocean; the dispute was unresolved when the U.S. purchased Alaska in 1867. The formation of the Dominion of Canada that same year and the later Klondike Gold Rush worsened the dispute, as Canada desired an all-Canadian route connecting the Klondike region to the sea. In 1903, the Hay-Herbert Treaty between the U.S. and Britain (which was responsible for Canada’s foreign policy at the time) largely ruled in favor of the U.S., setting the modern border between Alaska and British Columbia and ensuring that Skagway would remain part of the U.S. Canadians were outraged at the decision, believing that Britain had sacrificed Canada’s interests in favor of improving relations with the U.S.
In 1923, President Warren Harding visited Skagway during his tour of Alaska, becoming the first president to visit the region while in office. The city also became the southern terminus of the Canol Pipeline in the 1940’s, supplying oil to British Columbia and Yukon. Skagway reincorporated as a consolidated city-borough in 2007.
As a part of the Alaska Panhandle, Skagway has a moderate climate similar to that of Juneau and other nearby cities, with warmer winters and summers than other parts of the state. Modern Skagway’s economy is largely based on tourism revolving around its role in the Klondike Gold Rush, with many cruise ships calling at its port. It is also home to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, and the White Pass and Yukon Railroad continues to operate tourist tours in the summer. Jack London’s famous novel The Call of the Wild is partially set in Skagway, and the 1960 film North to Alaska, starring John Wayne, was also filmed in the city.
Skagway is one of the only cities in the Alaskan Panhandle that is connected to the Alaskan and North American road networks. The Klondike Highway, opened in 1978, runs from Skagway to Dawson City and intersects with the Alaska Highway in Whitehorse, allowing motorists to travel to Fairbanks and Anchorage. Skagway is also a significant stop on the Alaska Marine Highway, which runs ferries between the city, Seattle, and other communities in southern Alaska. Air travel is possible through Skagway Airport.
Talkeetna is an unincorporated city in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the 25th-largest city in Alaska, with a population just under 900. Located near the Parks Highway connecting Anchorage and Fairbanks, Talkeetna is known for its eclectic culture and was the inspiration for the TV show Northern Exposure.
Talkeetna was first settled in 1916 as a district headquarters for the Alaska Railroad, which was under construction at the time. Located roughly two and a half hours north of Anchorage, Talkeetna boasts a slightly cooler climate due to its inland location. The city’s downtown is listed on the register of National Historic Places due to its preponderance of early 1900’s buildings such as the Talkeetna Roadhouse and Nagley’s General Store.
Due to its proximity to Denali National Park and Preserve, Talkeetna serves as a base for tourists heading to the mountain. Other popular recreational activities in the area include flightseeing, salmon fishing, and rafting. The city is known for a number of cultural events such as Winterfest, the Oosik Classic Ski Race, and the Wilderness Woman Contest. Due to its unincorporated status, Talkeetna does not have an elected government; however, the city’s Community Council named a cat named Stubbs as honorary mayor, which lasted from 1997 until his death in 2017.
Talkeetna is close to the Parks Highway, making it accessible for motorists traveling from Fairbanks or Anchorage. It is also served by the Alaska Railroad and Talkeetna Airport.
While it may be one of America’s youngest states, Alaska is a land rich with history. From the Russian colonization period to the Klondike Gold Rush to the discovery of oil in various parts of the state, Alaska has been shaped and molded by a unique confluence of factors. Alaska’s cities reflect its history and heritage, featuring beautiful natural wonders and sights related to its economy and native peoples. Regardless of which cities in Alaska you visit, you’ll be sure to find something that interests you.
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