Rampart Rhetoric: The Role of Frontier Mythology in the Development of Alaska’s Natural Resources and Identity
After a summer of deep exploration, the story that I felt compelled to tell was the story of an attempt in the early 1960s to build a hydroelectric dam on the Yukon River at a place called Rampart Canyon. Though few people have heard about the dam today, it was the subject of a fierce battle in the 1960s. Referred to variously as a “monumental boondoggle” and the “Greatest peacetime project in the history of the free world” the dam was shrouded in controversy. A news reporter predicted that the dam would “erupt into a terrific emotional battle that could rip the state apart.” Alaska Congressman Ralph Rivers described Rampart Dam as a “slumbering giant waiting to be awakened.” In an effort to tell the story of Rampart Dam, I asked myself what I though would be simple questions: why was the dam proposed? Why was it never built? What did this mean? In the process of answering these questions, I realized that I was not really telling the tale of the would-be dam on the Yukon River at all. The story that I found- the story that dominates this project- is the story of Americans facing an identity crisis. The crisis began in 1959 when Alaska became America’s 49th state. In a process that I term “Alaskan adoption,” the United States began a confusing ritual of attempting to incorporate its new state into the nation. In its search for bridges, America probed its cultural archives and found another crisis: the closing of the American frontier in 1890. The most lasting legacy of this crisis was historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis about the significance of the frontier to American development. Americans seized on Turner’s story as a way to incorporate the northern land into its most cherished national myth: the settling of the American West. The new state was deemed the “last frontier” and set on a trajectory to echo this paradigm. But Alaska was a very different place than the American West it was charged to mimic. Twentieth century America was a different place as well. In the 1960s the United States was facing what Stewart Udall termed a “quiet crisis” of environmental destruction and a parallel social revolution. Against this backdrop, Rampart Canyon Dam was proposed. Two sides, boosters and environmentalists, arose to argue for and against the dam. Both spoke the language of frontiers, but they did so with radically divergent interpretations. The difference in interpretation was rooted in a dispute over the lessons of frontier history, conflicting value systems, and opposing visions for Alaska’s future. The success of environmental interpretation and rhetoric in the Rampart debate indicated a shift in the way Americans told their favorite story. The stories we tell as a nation are important because they form the basis for national identity and shape our actions. By studying the non-story of Rampart Dam, I hope to reveal new insights pertaining to how Americans construct a common identity through national mythology and how this self-understanding manifests in the choices we make pertaining to our relationship with the natural world.
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