Seventy-five years ago today, the Chief of Engineers ordered the establishment of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District. With the stroke of a pen on General Order No. 6, the agency was born.
Originally, the focus of the newly formed district was the design and construction of wartime military facilities. World War II demonstrated the strategic importance of Alaska, then still a territory, and led to a boom in military construction in the state as the nation moved into the Cold War.
“As an organization, we have come a long way from the early days,” said Col. Damon Delarosa, commander of the Alaska District. “From the original 93 engineers and administrative staff that we started with on April 9, 1946, we have grown the workforce to about 400 employees, embraced an increasingly diverse mission and become the nation’s leader in arctic engineering and construction.”
Tom Sloan, chief of the Geomatics Section, joined the district in 1981 and will celebrate 40 years of federal service a few months after the agency’s 75th anniversary.
“The first project I worked on was the Tanana River Levee,” Sloan said “I was a survey technician at the time – a student hire – and they were building it in front of us as we were out there conducting surveys for the as-built drawings.”
Over the years, he has watched coworkers come and go, and seen the organization’s priorities shift. But, he still enjoys his job and takes pride in coming to work every day at the district headquarters on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.
“It is always fun to come on base and see the projects we have done,” Sloan said. “Especially for me, I get to see buildings and projects I did survey work for decades ago. I am in awe of all the great projects we have built.”
With the organization’s 75th anniversary on the horizon, the district activated its history committee about a year ago. The team was assigned the task of delivering a project that celebrates the achievement of this significant milestone by showcasing past accomplishments that will serve as a reminder for future generations. One resource that stood out was a history book commissioned for the 50th anniversary celebration in 1996.
“It’s a great book full of information, pictures and maps,” said Lt. Col. Penny Bloedel, deputy district commander and head of the history committee. “It also tends to sit on shelves gathering dust.”
To tell the story of the organization’s history in a more visually appealing way, while adding highlights from the past 25 years, the group settled on creating a timeline of events in the main hallway of the headquarters building. The intent is to inform, educate and inspire both visitors and employees alike.
“For the 75th anniversary, we wanted to bring our history to everyone in a way that’s hard to miss, and that you can stop and read in snippets—and then maybe become interested enough to dust off that old history book and read a little deeper into something the district has done,” Bloedel said.
The timeline display depicts how the organization has grown alongside the state of Alaska. Featured are objects from the agency’s history borrowed from the Alaska Veterans Museum, such as the uniform of Maj. Keith Staley, an engineer officer who worked on the Whittier Tunnel during World War II. Additionally, items collected from the agency’s archives or received as donations from employees include the front page of the Anchorage Daily Times the day after the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake.
The wall also includes about 100 photos of various communication systems the district constructed, the 1967 flood in Fairbanks, the Snettisham Hydroelectric Power Plant near Juneau, dredging projects, groundbreakings, ribbon cuttings and many more notable activities from over the years. The display also presents photos of original employees, known as the charter members of the district, who worked out of two mobilization-style wood buildings on Fort Richardson.
In 1947, the district moved into its newly constructed headquarters building located on present day Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, the very same facility the agency continues to operate from today. As tiles were laid on the floor and drafting tables hoisted through windows, the workforce was primarily focused on the construction of military facilities across the state.
A mere three years after the formation of the district, the Chief of Engineers transferred civil works responsibilities to the organization. Two years later in 1951, the Alaska District completed its first project under that program – a seawall in Nome.
“I’m happy to say that 75 years later, we are still working closely with the community in Nome,” said Delarosa. “Just this year we received funding for the preconstruction, engineering and design phase of the Port of Nome Modification Project. We value and appreciate the continued partnership we have with this great community.”
As the agency has evolved and its mission has expanded, the Alaska District now not only constructs military and civil works projects, but also conducts environmental cleanup and restoration activities. In addition, the organization provides contracting, regulatory, real estate, emergency management, international and interagency services, along with operations and maintenance functions.
“The most impressive thing to look back at is all the work we have completed together,” Sloan said. “Not just military construction and civil works, but look at how we came together after the 1964 earthquake. I went to Scenic Park Elementary School, which was designed by the Corps after the earthquake. Throughout Anchorage, all these schools are based on a design from the Alaska District.”
For the next 75 years, the organization’s employees look forward to continuing to make a positive impact in the state. Guided by the knowledge and experience passed down from those who came before, they remain committed to revolutionizing arctic engineering – one project at a time.
The district hopes to celebrate the milestone with a ceremony this summer as the weather improves and COVID-19 restrictions lessen.