The bluff on the bluff

The bluff on the bluff
On July 4, 1915 the dedication of the cornerstone for the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines .Photo courtesy of Historical Photograph Collection, Rasmuson Library.

James Wickersham admitted to his private diary that he was bluffing. In public, though, standing before 300 people atop a small rocky outcrop just west of Fairbanks on July 4, 1915, Alaska’s territorial delegate to Congress omitted all doubts from his grand 5,000–word speech. They were gathered, he said, to dedicate a cornerstone to a future university that would “become a fountainhead for the general diffusion of knowledge.”

Wickersham, writing in his diary two weeks earlier while preparing for the ceremony, acknowledged that he was pushing the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines as a “bold bluff” and “without the authority of law.” In addition, Wickersham wrote, his decision to hold a Masonic dedication ceremony (pictured here) so annoyed the Catholic Rev. Francis Monroe that he refused to attend the event.

Nevertheless, Wickersham’s bluff on the bluff worked. One hundred years after the cornerstone’s dedication, Wickersham’s vision flourishes as the University of Alaska Fairbanks. On July 6 this year, the university will rededicate the cornerstone as a first step toward celebration of the institution’s centennial in 2017.

Three months before Wickersham’s speech, Congress approved land for the college on the ridge that indigenous Dene people called Troth Yeddha’ — wild potato hill. But the Alaska Legislature didn’t agree until 1917, having been delayed by Anchorage opponents who described Fairbanks as a “temporary placer camp” and the college as a way to “loot” the territorial treasury.

The cornerstone never served more than ceremony. It sat in Cornerstone Plaza for most of the past 100 years. Before construction began on the new engineering building in 2012, it was moved to storage for its protection. The rededication July 6 will return the cornerstone to public display. All are invited, and, with good weather, the crowd should eclipse the original.

Source: “The Cornerstone on College Hill,” by Terrence Cole ’76, ’78