In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed John Weir Troy as Alaska’s sixth territorial governor. Alaskans, in a rare moment of accord, greeted the president’s appointment with a sigh of relief that a “sourdough” — someone who had lived, worked, and loved the territory for 35 years — represented their interests. As the leader of the territory during the Great Depression, Troy’s greatest accomplishments included his support of the Matanuska Colony, the construction of numerous small airfields, setting the stage for the construction of the Alaska Highway, and changing the name of the Alaska College to that of the University of Alaska. When he resigned his post in 1939 due to ill health, the Alaska Sportsman remembered him fondly as “Johnny,” an Alaskan to the core who had spent his adult life promoting and writing about the Great Land.
Troy was actually more influential as an Alaskan newspaper editor than as a politician. Throughout his life, he mixed his unquestioned talent as a journalist with his political aspirations. In an era when newspapers unabashedly supported one political party over the other, Troy’s newspapers openly supported Democratic candidates, reform ideals, and home rule. He pulled no punches when promoting the development of Alaska’s natural resources — fish, furs, timber, and minerals.
Laura Bass Troy gave birth to John Weir on Oct. 31, 1868 in Dungeness, Washington. His father, Smith Troy, was a member of the First Washington State legislature and Laura’s brother, Allen Weir, was a member of the Washington State constitutional convention in 1888 and its first secretary of state. Uncle Allen owned the Port Angeles Argus, where the young Troy became a cub reporter upon his graduation from high school. Through his connections with Democrats in Washington State, Troy became the auditor of Clallum County and by 1893 he owned and edited the Port Angeles weekly Democrat-Leader.
On July 17, 1897, the S. S. Portland landed in Seattle with more than a million dollars in gold on board, all taken from the tributaries of the Klondike River in Canada’s Yukon Territory. The Klondike gold rush had begun, and Troy was not to be left out of the excitement. He arranged with the Seattle Times to become their gold rush correspondent and booked passage north on the S. S. Islander from Victoria. It would become one of the first ships to disgorge stampeders at Skagway. Unfortunately, Troy would miss the ship, as he had to return to Port Angeles to answer charges that he had issued warrants illegally and appropriated proceeds to his own profit. While Troy was exonerated of the charges, he was not able to get to Skagway until a month after the rush began. He would continue to return to Port Angeles every few months over the next year to address continuing legal challenges and appeals.
During his intermittent stay in Skagway, Troy supplemented his correspondent’s salary by taking over the management of John Brooks’ pack train. Brooks was one of the largest and most successful packers over the White Pass Trail, which was just barely passable to pack animals. Later, Brooks would become involved in what became known as the Packers’ War, in which the packers revolted against the tolls imposed by the owners of the Brackett Wagon Road.
Troy wrote many of the first dispatches that came out of Skagway in the month to follow. His stories about the gold rush became weekly features in the Seattle Daily Times. His wife, Minerva, joined him in late September, having travelled north with Harriet “Ma” Pullen. Although going to Skagway with the stated purpose of starting a newspaper there, Troy found that his frequent travel to Clallum County to face embezzlement stymied that intention. As a result others founded the Skaguay News (a weekly) and the Dyea Trail, and in February 1898, Oscar W. Dunbar began publishing the Morning Daily Alaskan. A jury cleared Troy of the embezzlement charges in April 1898, and he began to write copy for Skagway’s daily newspaper. When its name was changed to the Daily Morning Alaskan in February 1899, Troy was listed as an editor.
Although formally identified as an editor, when the census was taken in Skagway in April 1900, Troy modestly stated that he was a newspaper reporter. He became entrenched in the Democratic party in Alaska, and often represented Skagway at party conventions in Juneau. When Skagway became the first city in Alaska to incorporate under the Alaska Code of 1900 that August, Troy became the city’s first auditor and clerk. He continued in that function while still editing the Daily Alaskan.
But Troy’s growing success in Alaska would face another hurdle. Within a year, he became ill with “camp fever,” a paralytic disease that had become epidemic in the Alaskan communities. He was forced to return to Port Angeles, where he convalesced for twelve months. In March 1902, Troy returned to Skagway, where new owners of the Daily Alaskan promptly rehired him as their editor.
For the next five years, Troy would dominate Skagway politics from his chair as editor of the city’s only daily newspaper. As a prominent Democrat, city leaders appointed him head of a nominating committee for the seven members of the city council. For five years, Troy ensured that the candidates he nominated to run for the council were the only ones on the ballot. In essence, John Troy hand-picked the people who would write the city’s first laws. The citizens of the city rebelled at his leadership in 1906 with the formation of a Labor party to run against his nominees. In 1907, the Labor candidates won the entire slate of seven seats on the council, and Troy’s influence in Skagway politics ended.
Wounded by the rebuff from his adopted town, Troy retreated to Port Angeles. In Seattle, he began the publication of the Alaska-Yukon Magazine, and returned to Juneau in 1912 to take over the editorship of the Alaska Daily Empire. This newspaper was owned and operated by J. F. A. Strong, who was appointed as Alaska’s second territorial governor. Strong sold the newspaper to Troy, and the latter became the single most important voice of Alaska in news media for the next twenty years. Troy’s devotion to the promotion of Alaska to commercial interests, and his committed resolve to establishing local rule, earned him the governorship in 1933.
When Troy died on May 5, 1942 in Juneau, he was honored as “the greatest man in the history of Alaska, wise and strong—a great politician” (Alaska Daily Empire, May 6, 1942). A striking monument marks his grave in the Evergreen Cemetery in Juneau.
Sources: Alaska State Library, John W. Troy Biographical File; Evangeline Atwood and Lew Williams, Jr., Bent Pins to Chains: Alaska and Its Newspapers; Evangeline Atwood and Robert N. DeArmond, Who’s Who in Alaska Politics; (Skagway) Daily Alaskan; Skaguay News; (Portland) Morning Oregonian; Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Seattle Daily Times; Tacoma Daily News; Ancestry.com John W. Troy Family Tree.
Catherine Holder Spude has published five books on Alaska history, including her most recent, All for the Greed of Gold: Will Woodin’s Klondike Adventure (Washington State University Press). She is currently writing a biography of Alaskan U. S. Marshal Josias M. “Si” Tanner.