Historic cottages in Anchorage spotlight Alaska Engineering Commission’s role as landlord
The U.S. Congress passed The Alaska Railroad Act in March 1914, authorizing construction of a federally-owned railway from an ice-free port on Alaska’s southern coast to Fairbanks in the territory’s Interior. President Woodrow Wilson consequently created the Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC) to survey possible routes and eventually construct the railway.
The AEC opened offices in Seattle and Seward to oversee survey work, and a field camp was established at Ship Creek (now Anchorage). In April 1915 President Wilson announced the final route selection (the western or Susitna route), and the Ship Creek camp became construction headquarters.
Ancillary to the AEC’s mission of building the railway were more “mundane” duties like establishing townsites along the railway. To maintain order in the new communities, the AEC, through deed restrictions and other means, retained control over townsites for five years after their creation.
After Anchorage’s townsite was established in 1915, the AEC built streets and sidewalks; installed and operated utilities including water, telephone and electricity; and provided services such as police and fire protection. For practical purposes, until Anchorage’s residents approved a municipal government in November 1920, Anchorage was a government-run railroad town. It’s city manager, police force, utility workers and other employees all worked for the AEC.
Due to the housing shortage in early Anchorage, in 1915 the AEC built 14 wood-frame employee cottages on Government Hill, on the north side of Ship Creek.
In 1916, much to the dismay of Seward residents, the AEC closed its Seward office, moving its administrative headquarters to the more-centrally-located Anchorage area. That same year the AEC began constructing an additional 19 wood-frame cottages within the Anchorage townsite south of Ship Creek.
According to the book “Patterns of the Past, An Inventory of Anchorage’s Historic Resources,” most AEC cottages were based on seven different designs, with only a few of those designs represented in surviving cottages. Several of the larger cottages, occupied by senior AEC officials, were one-of-a-kind residences.
After the railway’s completion in 1923, the AEC morphed into the Alaska Railroad and all AEC property along the railway was transferred to the new agency. In 1926 leaseholders of the cottages were given the opportunity to buy their homes and almost all the cottages passed into private ownership.
Most AEC cottages built in 1916-1917 were located on the northern edge of the Anchorage townsite, on two blocks between Third and Second avenues and G and E streets, just uphill from the AEC’s Ship Creek headquarters.
Sixteen AEC cottages were built in this area, but only five survive. All of the surviving cottages have been modified over the years, with the most common changes being the enclosing of front porches and the addition of dormers to the upper story. Two of the survivors are on the National Register of Historic Places.
The building shown in the drawing, AEC Cottage No. 25, is on the National Register. It sits at 645 Third Ave., and there are two AEC cottages beside it. National Park Service documents indicate that all three are 1 1/2-story buildings, approximately 36-feet-long by 32-feet-wide, with centrally-located front entrances and low-pitched gable roofs.
All three originally had shiplap siding and rolled roofing. Cottage No. 25 still retains its shiplap, but the rolled roofing has been replaced with shingles.
Cottage No. 25 was first occupied by the AEC’s townsite engineer, who later became townsite manager. It was one of the few retained by the federal government after 1926. For a time it was utilized by the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and later by the Army and Coast Guard. It is now owned by the Municipality of Anchorage.
- “A.E.C. Cottage No. 25, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.” Karen Theirmer. 1995
- Municipality of Anchorage property database
- “Patterns of the Past, An Inventory of Anchorage’s Historic Resources.” Michael Carberry & Donna Lane. Municipality of Anchorage. 1986
- “The Alaskan Engineering Commission: Its History, Activities, and Organization.” Joshua Bernhardt. D. Appleton and Company. 1922