James Wickersham


My daughter is a freshman at Pacific Lutheran University located in southern suburb of Tacoma, Washington. On my visit to Tacoma of September 26, 2013 I brought my camera along, as I was searching for a bit of Alaska Railroad history.
The Tacoma Municipal Cemetery is located along South Tacoma Way. It's a downtrodden neighborhood of auto body shops, ethnic restaurants, pay day loans, and medical marijuana dispensaries. The cemetery is a green oasis in a literal concrete jungle.
The staff was very helpful when I explained that I was looking for a historical figure buried in their cemetery. Wickersham was buried here in 1939.
While Frederick Mears built the Alaska railroad, in many respects Wickersham fathered the railroad. He had received his appointment to the bench in Alaska in return for his support of a Republican congressman in Washington State. While originally from Patoka, Illinois, he had been practicing law in Tacoma for several years. While in Tacoma he successfully sued Charles Wright, the city's main benefactor, on behalf of the City of Tacoma. On a down note he narrowly avoided conviction of a crime in a sex scandal. He got off when his female accuser admitted that she had been hired by some of Wickersham's adversaries. This isolated indiscretion would dog him the rest of his life. He was an honest and capable judge in Alaska and decided a mining case in favor of Stephen Birch who then sold the claim to the Guggenheims. Birch tried to hire Wickersham on several occasions, but things never worked out. Alaska would be vastly different today had Wickersham gone to work for the Guggenheims.
He was among the first group of Americans to try an assent of McKinley. He was also interested in documenting native life and had an extensive collection of books and artifacts from the territory.
After serving as a judge  in Alaska, he was Alaska's first congressional delegate. His landmark five hour long speech on the floor of Congress on January 14, 1914 was the tipping point in favor of construction of a federal railroad in Alaska.
When asked how he felt the next day Wickersham stated: “like a woman who has had a baby – very proud but damned sore!” A modified version of the act introduced by Wickersham was signed into law less than sixty days later.
For more information on this legendary Alaskan read: “Frontier Politics: Alaska's James Wickersham” by Evangeline Atwood. Binford and Mort, Publisher 1957.
James Wichersham was indeed a legendary figure in Alaskan history.



© 2013 Jonathan Fischer