I have just finished the book Anchorage: From its humble origins as a railroad construction camp by Dr. Elizabeth Tower and wish to recommend it to all relative Alaskan newcomers like myself. I think it would be of value to anyone wanting to understand Alaska and Anchorage a bit more.
The best feature of this book is its use of short biographical stories at the end of each chapter. These chapters are mostly about Alaska pioneers (i.e. non-Native Alaskans who came to Alaska prior to 1959), but not always. In every case, the person being profiled helps to personify the theme of the chapter. For example, strip mall developer Peter Zamarello is profiled after the chapter on Alaska's boom and bust 1980s.
The stories following each chapter also provide a good resource for teachers and others looking for strong female role models. I'd especially recommend the stories of Irene Ryan, Evangeline Atwood (contained in a joint profile with publisher Robert Atwood), and Nancy Davis (under Skyjacking, Alaskan Style).
The chapters themselves are short and informative, making this an excellent break or lunchtime read over three or four days. I have lived in Alaska for eight and half years, worked at the State Library and still learned a lot of new information from this book. Like how equipment used to build the Panama Canal was shipped up to Anchorage to help build the railroad camp and harbor. Or how Senator Ted Stevens flew unescorted supply missions for the Flying Tigers and earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for flying behind enemy lines. Or how the idea of using icebreakers to ship North Slope oil was considered and discarded in favor of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System. The list goes on and on.
For a history book, Dr. Tower does a good job of making her readers ask "Then what happened?" at the end of each chapter. For this reason, I'd recommend this book to someone who might be reluctant to read history of any kind. Especially if they have any interest in Alaska and/or adventure.
As a librarian and Alaska researcher, I'm especially happy with the fact this book contains both a bibliography and an index. Indexes aren't as automatic as they used to be as many publishers have decided they are too expensive to prepare. In some cases authors who care about their readers will pay to have an index done. It is my hope that Dr. Tower did not have to do this.
Dr. Tower sounds like her life would make an interesting book in itself. According to the About the Author section, Dr. Tower moved with her husband to Alaska in the 1950s. After spending 25 years with the Alaska Division of Health, Dr. Tower became a historian, writing several books and being named Alaska's Historian of the Year in 1996.
If you decide to buy this book rather than (or after) check it out from a library, know that Dr. Tower intends to donate her book royalties to the Cook Inlet Historical Society for use in developing the Alaska Gallery at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.