A place to write a new Alaska

Constitutional Convention

Bill Egan, president of the convention and a future governor, signs the proposed Alaska Constitution in the gymnasium, now Signers’ Hall, on Feb. 5, 1956.

The constitution for the proposed state of Alaska might logically have been written in Juneau, the territory’s capital. Why meet instead at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, where the temperature dropped to minus 18 on Nov. 8, 1955, the first day of the Alaska Constitutional Convention?

For the climate, of course.

“A secluded university affords ideal environment and atmosphere for constitutional deliberation,” attorney and Anchorage delegate John Hellenthal wrote after the convention.

The people of Alaska had elected 55 delegates. They included attorneys, business leaders, miners, pilots, homemakers, fishermen, a clergyman and a photographer.

They gathered in the Student Union Building, now Constitution Hall. For 76 days, they consulted with experts, debated and finally wrote the Alaska Constitution.

“There are a number of inspired actions that accompanied the creation of this convention,” said former territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening in his opening speech. “Perhaps the most was selecting the University of Alaska as a site for holding it. A university is really the keeper of the soul of a modern society. … I think the university will play a part in launching Alaska on destiny's sea as a state.”

The convention concluded Feb. 6, 1956. Alaska voters ratified the proposed constitution in an election in April by a 2-1 ratio. That helped spur Congress to pass a bill in June 1958 outlining the terms of statehood. Voters endorsed the deal in August 1958 by a 5-1 ratio. On Jan. 3, 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the proclamation declaring Alaska the 49th state.

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