The United States Attorney's office for the District of Alaska has had a rich and interesting history. In 1868, "Seward's Folly" quickly became a national treasure with the discovery of gold and other natural resources. Waves of settlers and fortune hunters arrived, some of whom were intent on breaking the law. The treaty that ceded the land from Russia did not provide for any laws, however, and the territory remained unregulated in its first year of American possession. The Act of July 27, 1868 extended jurisdiction of the United States District Courts of Washington, Oregon, and California to include the people and lands of Alaska. Minor offenses were tried before military courts administered by the United States Army and Navy, and Major offenders were transported to the United States District Court in Portland, Oregon.
In 1884, Congress enacted the legislation which defined the territory of Alaska as a civil and judicial district with its seat at Sitka. Court sessions were held at Wrangell and in other such places as the judge deemed expedient. The Act of March 3, 1891 extended appellate jurisdiction of Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to include Alaska. The District Court located at Sitka had administrative responsibility for the entire territory, as the territory was later divided into several divisions. The first United States Attorneys in Alaska operated under this territorial system and were based in Sitka. One of the earliest exceptions to this court session in Sitka was the water lane circuit. In this perhaps unique situation for an Office of the United States Attorney, a session of the district court was administered on board the revenue cutter, Bear, a ship that transported the court up and down the coast of Alaska.
Organization of the Courts
In 1900, provision was made for removal of the territorial capital from Sitka to Juneau. At the same time the district was divided into three division with courts meeting at Juneau, Nome, and Eagle (later moved to Fairbanks). In 1909, a fourth division came into existence. The first two division remained the same with the headquarters of the third division being moved to Valdez (later moved to Anchorage in 1943), and the newly created fourth meeting at Fairbanks. Each division had its own United States Attorney appointed by the President. This organization of the courts remained until statehood in 1959 when the unified District of Alaska was created.
Keystone Canyon Riot
Nathan V. Harlan was United States Attorney in the early part of this century when one of the most famous and notorious cases in Alaskan history came to trial. Referred to formally as the E.C. Hasey case, it became popularly known by its precipitation event, the Keystone Canyon Riot. Rival factions had competed for access to the right-of-way to what became the lucrative Copper River Railway. On one side of the argument stood the Morgan-Guggenheim interest, known as the "Alaska Syndicate." Just as interested in the land was their competition, the Alaska-Reynolds Company. The competition evolved into a battle when a shoot-out ensued at Keystone Canyon resulting in one man's death. Fictionalized in the novel, The Iron Trail, the episode became a struggle over the question of the environment, an issue that commands attention even today.
United States Attorney - Later Years
Other prominent United States Attorneys served this district. Joseph W. Kehoe (1934-1942) gained recognition as a watercolor artist of Alaskan scenes. Warren N. Cuddy (1929-1933) founded the First National Bank of Anchorage, one of Alaska's two largest banking enterprises. Ralph Julian Rivers (1933-1944) was Alaska's first elected Representative in Congress, serving from 1959 to 1966. Theodore Fulton (Ted) Stevens was appointed in Fairbanks from 1954 to 1956 and later elected Senator in 1968. Michael Spaan (1981-1989) served the longest term as a United States Attorney for this district. He also personally tried the longest criminal case in the history of the state which resulted in RICO, fraud, and extortion convictions of two well-known lobbyists and political brokers. Spaan also gained widespread reputation for this vigorous enforcement of laws designed to protect Alaska's rich fishing grounds.