World War II transformed Anchorage. Before war was declared, Anchorage was a small railroad town in the remote Alaska Territory known for isolation and cold winters. Just 3,500 people lived in Anchorage. The only way to the United States or "Lower 48" was by passenger boat, freighter, or a rare airplane. The Alaska Railroad ran only between Fairbanks and Seward, while all the roads ended near town at the edge of the forest. To make a long-distance telephone call to Seattle was impossible, because Juneau was the "end of the line."
The Alaska Gold Rush had diminished, leaving some operating gold mines mainly near Nome and Fairbanks. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal offered 203 families from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan the chance to start fresh in the Matanuska Valley, the biggest thing to happen in the area since the railroad was completed. The large vegetables enjoyed at the Alaska State Fair are a legacy from those hardy pioneers.
The military Alaska-Canadian (Al-Can) Highway Project in 1942, and simultaneously the build-up for the Aleutian Campaign in 1942-43, changed all that. Booming with military personnel and construction workers, Anchorage's population jumped dramatically. The Al-Can Highway and other roads linked Anchorage to “the Outside,” with phone lines strung along the road right-of-way. Soon it became possible to drive, or call, all the way across the country.
Because of the impacts of World War II, Anchorage's role in Alaska and the world had changed from a quiet backwater to a hub of progress in the Alaska Territory. Anchorage’s Elmendorf Field and Fort Richardson continued to grow. With the establishment of the United States Air Force in 1947, Elmendorf became an “Air Force Base” and continues to figure prominently in our national defense strategy.