Why Is Juneau the Capital of Alaska?

Why Is Juneau the Capital of Alaska?
Sometimes, it may seem like there is no rhyme or reason for how a state capital is chosen. What we might think sounds logical – the city with the largest population, or the one that is most widely known – often doesn’t really factor in much when it comes to picking a capital. But there are definitely reasons behind why certain cities are picked over others. Take the example of Juneau, Alaska. Anchorage or Fairbanks might be more well-known today, but neither is capital of Alaska. So, why is Juneau the capital of Alaska?

A Quick History of Juneau

The first settlers in the area that is now known as Juneau were members of the Auke tribe of Tlingit Indians. These early settlers took advantage of the abundance of food and natural resources in the region, helping them survive in the rugged terrain and an often harsh climate.

Various Russian and British explorers would pass through the area. But it wasn’t until 1880 that the first European settlement was established. It was actually two men, Joe Juneau and Richard Harris, who would come to the area first. They came in search of gold, and called their small camp “Harrisburg”. Perhaps to avoid confusion with Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, they ultimately changed the name to “Juneau”.

With guidance from Chief Kowee of the local tribe, Juneau and Harris were able to find gold. Mines were eventually set up in the surrounding area. Gold mining in the region continued for 60 years, and during that time, the city of Juneau had three of the world’s largest gold mines, producing more than $150 million worth of gold. During WWII, the Alaska Juneau Mine was closed because it became too expensive to keep it running. Other mines in the area would also close.

Why Anchorage and Fairbanks Are NOT the Capital of Alaska

Juneau was established as the capital of Alaska in 1906. At the time, Anchorage wasn’t in existence, and Fairbanks was only a remote settlement. Juneau, on the other hand, had a thriving mining industry and was easy to access from ships that left from Seattle.

Throughout the years, there have been campaigns and ballot initiatives to move the capital of Alaska to a different city. However, all relocation efforts in the past have either been voted down or stopped. It turns out, it costs a lot of money to move a capital to a new place.

More recently, efforts to move the capital of Alaska to a new place have slowed down, largely due to advances in technology that make communication across this very large state easier.

Why is Juneau the Capital of Alaska?

The short answer to why Juneau is the capital of Alaska: Mining.

Beginning in the late 1880s, Juneau saw a wealth of activity, all spurred by the discovery of gold in the area. Juneau became an important hub for gold prospectors as it was easily accessible to ships travelling to and from Seattle. Seattle, in turn, began to boom as it was the popular departure spot for gold miners traveling to Alaska to take part in the Klondike Gold Rush.

Juneau was officially made capital of the territory of Alaska in 1906, 53 years before becoming a state. Prior to Juneau, the city of Sitka had served as territorial capital. However, by the early 1900s, the whaling and fur industries that had led to Sitka’s prominence began to fade, and the town became less important. Juneau, on the other hand, was the largest city in Alaska during the interwar period, only to be displaced by Anchorage in 1950.

The Capital of Alaska Today

Juneau’s  position as an easy to reach port city has always been contrasted by the fact that Juneau is an incredibly isolated place. The rugged terrain makes it incredibly difficult to develop and maintain a road system in and out of the town. In fact, to this day there are no roads in or out of the city. It can only be accessed by ship or airplane.

The downtown area of Juneau is where the State Capitol sits. This building houses the Office of the Governor, the chambers for the Alaska House of Representatives and Senate, and more than 20 legislative offices. In 2017, the city had an estimated population of 32,094.

In addition to being the state capital of Alaska, Juneau draws its revenue by appealing to tourists. With breathtaking landscapes and an abundance of wildlife, there is a lot to see and do in the area, including whale watching and boating. All these factors make Juneau an incredibly exciting place to visit.


Did you like this post? Want to read about more capitals? Check out the following links. Or, test your trivia knowledge with some fun Alaska quizzes on Sporcle, like the one below!


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Mark Heald
About Mark Heald 180 Articles
Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.