America’s purchase of Alaska for $7.2 million in 1867 was regarded as such a bad idea at the time that people referred to it as Seward’s Folly, named after Secretary of State William H. Seward, who negotiated the deal with Russia.
But Alaska’s abundant resources and also its strategic value during World War II (see LIFE’s story on the Aleutian campaign) helped ease its journey from territory to full-blown statehood, which the U.S. Congress approved on July 7, 1958.
While statehood would not become official for Alaska until President Dwight D Eisenhower signed the paperwork on Jan. 3, 1959, the congressional vote was enough to set off celebrations. Here’s how LIFE described the scene in its July 14, 1958 issue, in a story headlined “A Jubilant Land of Promise: Alaska Makes It As a State”:
The whooping and hollering around a huge bonfire in Anchorage and the ear-splitting smiles in the Capitol in Washington were set off by the same fine news: Congress had approved statehood for Alaska. The battle, first begun in 1916 and marked by disheartening defeats through the years, was over. From Umnat to Umnak sirens screamed, toasts were drunk and there was wild jubilation….Alaskan statehood, said Texas congressman Jim Wright, “proves there is still something dynamic and attractive and growing in the American experiment in free government.”
The pictures from LIFE photographer Dmitri Kessel capture the jubilation in the 49th state, where headlines declared “We’re In” with the biggest typeface possible. In Anchorage residents danced, built a massive bonfire and raced around it on horseback. They unfurled an American flag big enough to cover a downtown building and affixed to it an oversized 49th star. Alaska’s status as the largest state in the union was proclaimed with a sign hung on a moose during a downtown parade.
In its coverage LIFE dubbed Alaska “The Last Great U.S. Frontier” and all these years later the state, with its challenging climate, abundant wildlife and vast expanses of undeveloped land, retains that character. In 1957 a mere 231,000 people occupied Alaska’s 665,400 square miles, and today the state’s population remains a relatively sparse 733, 583. Perhaps that it why it has been a magnet for reality shows and occupies a unique place in the American landscape. While being part of the union, it also remains a world apart.