By Laurel Downing Bill
Senior Voice Correspondent 

Vices abound in Anchorage's early history

Aunt Phil's Trunk


April 1, 2024 | View PDF

University of Alaska Fairbanks George & Lilly Clark Collection UAF-1986-109-2

These four men appear to be playing cards with stacks of chips. The notice on the right reminds players that gambling for money is strictly forbidden.

The seeds of Alaska's biggest city were planted in April 1915 when the federal government authorized construction of a new railroad to connect Interior Alaska to tidewater in Seward and hundreds of hopeful workers made their way north to the construction camp on Ship Creek.

And although the government tried to keep a handle on illegal activities in its new railroad town, prostitution, gambling and bootlegging flourished. One didn't have to go far to find the vice of his choice in Anchorage, according to "Anchorage, A Pictorial History," by Claus M. Naske and Ludwig J. Rowinski.

"The licensed saloon at Knik, 30 miles from Anchorage, supplied much of the 'booze.' There were wide-open gambling games, and characters with nicknames such as 'Dago Jim,' 'Creampuff Bill,' and 'The Pale-Faced Kid' brought a certain professionalism to the games.

"In shacks and tents southeast of the town, some 30 or 40 prostitutes 'entertained' the construction workers."

An eyewitness account of Anchorage's early days where vice ran rampant comes from Kenneth Gideon, author of "Wandering Boy," who visited the town late in 1915.

"The government had decreed that there was to be no liquor sold in Anchorage nor in a five-mile strip on either side of the railroad right of way. The effect was to make bootlegging a science in Anchorage. Liquor came in over the trail, on hand sleds and by dog team in the winter. In the summer, when navigation opened up, it might be found in five-gallon cans inside bales of hay. Cases of canned tomatoes would prove other than tomatoes."

Gideon also experienced firsthand what life was like on "The Line," located on land within the Chugach National Forest on the outskirts of town. Foresters often complained about having to issue camping permits to prostitutes.

"There was quite a gap between the main town and the block of houses where these women were, but a person could have found the place in a London fog. There must have been 15 or 20 phonographs going at once, old-time phonographs of the scratch and screech variety, and the evening air was shuddering under the impact of sound...."

The young man had heard of the "fancy joints" that housed women of the night, but the reality of the Anchorage establishments did not meet his expectations.

"... I looked around. No rose petals. No silk curtains. The wallpaper didn't match, and the divan was an iron bedstead in the back room, with a patchwork quilt instead of a leopard skin. The bedstead had the paint knocked off in spots."

In an effort to combat increasing crime in the five-year-old railroad community, the newly formed Anchorage City Council officially established its police department in December 1920. After sifting through several applications, it appointed John "Jack" Sturgus as its first chief of police. The 60-year-old peace officer took office in January.

On Feb. 3, 1921, the Anchorage Daily Times reported that the council urged the chief to crackdown on gambling:

"The police and jail committee reported that there were several complaints made in regard to open gambling in pool rooms, cigar stores and other places in town. The chief of police was in attendance at the council meeting and was called upon for his views on the matter. After a thorough discussion, the council instructed the chief of police to rigidly enforce the provisions of the ordinance relative to gambling."

Armed with his marching orders, the one-man police department spent the next few weeks patrolling the streets of Anchorage. But somewhere along the way, Sturgus may have stepped on the wrong toes. Someone shot the chief in the chest with his own gun less than three weeks after that news article appeared. His murder remains unsolved to this day.

This column features tidbits found in Aunt Phil's Trunk, a five-book Alaska history series written by Laurel Downing Bill and her late aunt, Phyllis Downing Carlson. The books are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at


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