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Nowadays, Alaska’s Marine Highway System ferries are named for glaciers. But it was not always so.
The state’s second vessel was the M/V Wickersham, which joined the fleet in summer of 1968 and operated as part of our ferry system until 1974. The 363-foot vessel was an uncommon ferry — originally the Stena Britannica, purchased by rather than built by the state in the system’s earliest days — named for an uncommon man.
The Wickersham was named after James Wickersham, for whom the state declares Wickersham Day on Aug. 24, the late judge’s birthday in 1857.
His home — a three-story white Victorian on Seventh Street in Juneau — is a state and national historic site now, open to the public May through September.
Wickersham is described on the Department of Natural Resources site about the House of Wickersham as “a statesman, author, historian and scholar. Evangeline Atwood, author of Frontier Politics, had this to say about Judge Wickersham: ‘No other man has made as deep and varied imprints on Alaska's heritage, whether it be in politics, government, commerce, literature, history or philosophy. A federal judge, member of Congress, attorney and explorer, present-day Alaska is deeply in debt to him.’”
Wickersham, born in Illinois, became a lawyer there and moved to the Washington territory in 1883. He came to Alaska, along with the 20th century, in 1900, and stayed for the rest of his life.
As a judge for the territory’s Third Judicial District, the Juneau Empire reported, Wickersham “crisscrossed his circuit by snow-shoe, sled dog and steamer, and delivered justice to the largely lawless region,” from the North Slop to Nome.
He was Alaska’s delegate to Congress for seven terms, during which the Empire reports he secured the OK for an elected Legislature, the Alaska Railroad, and the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, which would become the University of Alaska.
He loved the out of doors, too, and in 1903 became the first white man to attempt to climb Mount McKinley. (He made it to 8,000 feet). In Fairbanks, his day is celebrated with a hike on Wickersham Dome, with camping near the Wickersham Trail Shelter.
Wickersham was a writer “on ethnological and historical subjects,” according to the Biographical Directory of the United State Congress, and edited Alaska Territory Law Reports and “Old Yukon and Alaskan literature.” He died in 1934, the age of 82.
We salute Judge Wickersham on the 156th anniversary of his birth, and appreciate the opportunity to look back at that graceful ferry, too.