South-central Alaska, where more than half of the state's population resides, stretches along the Gulf of Alaska from Icy Cape to the west side of Cook Inlet and encompasses the land north to the Alaska Range. This area includes the Saint Elias, Chugach, and Kenai mountain ranges, which have extensive glacier systems and are largely uninhabited. The region also has broad plateaus between river systems, including the agricultural heartland of the Matanuska and Susitna valleys. Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound account for a significant portion of Alaska's tidal shoreline. The climate is primarily maritime, although in the mountains temperatures can range sharply. Anchorage, in a bowl protected by the Chugach and Kenai mountains, gets only 15 inches of precipitation annually, while Whittier, on Prince William Sound, receives 174 inches.
Although the South-Central Region was inhabited by Natives, Russians, and Americans, evidence of the converging cultures is much less noticeable than in other regions. Creeping urbanization has swallowed up Native villages so that they survive distinctly only in the remote areas. No buildings of the Russian era are extant in this region, although the Russian Orthodox churches illustrate the Russians' cultural influence on the Natives. The building fabric of the region today dates from the American period.
Pacific Eskimos inhabited the coastal areas, and Athapaskans dominated the inland parts. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, both groups traded with the Russians, who established several settlements in the South-Central Region, not all of them successful. Aleksandr Redoubt (English Bay) dates from about 1790, and within a few years the Russians founded a boat-building enterprise on Resurrection Bay (Seward). By 1803, the Russians supported three forts on Cook Inlet, two on Prince William Sound, one at Cape Saint Elias, and two on Yakutat Bay. The Russian-American Company continued to build outposts in the nineteenth century, although none of them developed into major posts, and no buildings remain today.
The Americans' first interests in the region lay in salmon and gold. A cannery was established in Cook Inlet as early as 1880. The existence of gold was known, even by the Russians, but the first gold rushes did not occur until the late 1890s, in both the Willow Creek region, north of Cook Inlet, and on the Kenai Peninsula. These gold strikes, as well as known deposits of copper in the Wrangell Mountains and the potential for coal mining, stimulated railroad construction. Two private railroads were built, the Copper River and Northwestern, which began at Cordova and followed the Copper River north to the Kennecott copper mines, and the Alaska Central, which was reconstituted as the Alaska Northern and finally bought by the Alaska Railroad.
It was the Alaska Railroad in 1915 that opened up the region and accounted for the founding of Anchorage and several other towns along its route. From the port of Seward in the south, the 470-mile line crossed the Kenai Peninsula, passed through Anchorage, and continued across the agricultural lands of the Matanuska Valley and the Willow Creek mining district on its way to Fairbanks. Because one of the avowed purposes of the government-run railroad was to facilitate the development of Alaska, townsites were marketed heavily and private enterprises were encouraged to mine coal and gold.
Several other government endeavors helped attract the concentration of population that exists today. In the 1930s, a New Deal program to provide new farms to farmers and to attract new settlers to Alaska brought midwestern farmers to the Matanuska Valley, amid national attention. A heavy buildup of Fort Richardson (now Elmendorf Air Force Base) during World War II and continued military investment in the region after the war brought thousands of soldiers, as well as contractors, to the government.
By the time oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay in 1968, Anchorage was the largest city in the state, and oil companies naturally located their regional headquarters there. Anchorage quadrupled in size during the oil boom, dominating the region, if not the rest of the state. Some major public buildings in Anchorage have brought a new sophistication to the architecture of the region, but not without diluting its vernacular appeal.
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