Judge James Wickersham was the Renaissance man of Alaska. Not only was he an author, judge, and territorial delegate to Congress, but he also enjoyed dog sled travel and mountain climbing.
He came to Alaska by appointment to the 3rd Judicial Division. The territory needed “cleaning up” after Judge Noyes was embroiled in the Nome claim jumpers’ conspiracy. Wickersham was the perfect person for the job, and he energetically traveled throughout the district putting things in order. He was a firm believer in justice for all, including Alaska Natives, which at the time was not a sentiment shared by some who migrated there.
Dog mushing across Alaska gave him a taste for the outdoors. He did not shy away from the hard life, and participated in the first recorded expedition to Denali (Mt. McKinley) in 1903. That attempt to summit led to the mountain’s Wickersham Wall being named after him. Nearby Mount Deborah is named after his wife. His book Old Yukon: Tales, Trails, Trials describes some of his travels and adventures during his time as judge.
He also worked with E. T. Barnette to promote the town of Fairbanks as a hub for the interior of Alaska, and was instrumental in getting federal help to rebuild the town after the 1906 fire. That’s how he came to have a cameo role in my book Golden Days. The photo here is of his Fairbanks home, moved to Pioneer Park. His house in Juneau is also preserved for posterity.
Wickersham is mentioned in my upcoming book, Gold Nuggets, because of his role in establishing Mount McKinley National Park (now called Denali National Park and Preserve). As Alaska’s delegate to Congress, he introduced the bill and encouraged the measure for years until it passed in 1917. He also persuaded his fellow congressmen to pass the Home Rule Act, and the creation of the Alaska Railroad and what is now the University of Alaska.
Judge Wickersham was a remarkable man in a remarkable time. His name is still revered by many Alaskans. He enjoyed Alaska’s people and natural wonders, and did his best to make it a better place.