In June 1778, Captain James Cook sailed up what’s now Turnagain Arm  in Cook Inlet, reaching another dead end on his amazing search for the Northwest Passage. But he did dispatch William Bligh (of HMS Bounty fame) to explore, and he saw some Tanaina Indians in rich otter skins. George Vancouver, who’d also been on Cook’s ship, returned in 1794 and noted Russian settlers in the area.
A century later, prospectors began landing in the area and heading north to Southcentral Alaska’s gold country, and in 1902 Alfred Brooks began mapping the Cook Inlet for the U.S. Geological Survey. In 1913, five settlers occupied Ship Creek, the point on the inlet where Anchorage  now stands.
A year later, Congress passed the Alaska Railroad Act, and in April 1915 the route for the federally financed railroad from Seward  to Fairbanks  was made official: It would pass through Ship Creek, where a major staging area for workers and supplies would be located. This news traveled fast, and within a month a ramshackle tent city of nearly 2,000 railroad job seekers had sprung up.
Things developed so quickly that in July, the U.S. Land Office auctioned off 650 parcels at the new town site. The settlement, renamed Anchorage, grew quickly, with water, telephone and power lines, sidewalks, and schools in place within a year.
Railroad laborers, earning 37 cents per hour (low for Alaska), went on strike in 1916, after which the minimum wage was raised to 45 cents per hour. The population continued to boom, topping out at around 7,000 in 1917. With World War I and completion of the southern portion of the railroad, the number of people dropped below 2,000 in 1920, when the town incorporated, electing its first mayor and city council.
Through the 1930s, Anchorage held steady at 3,000–4,000 people, but World War II changed that in a hurry. The town’s strategic location led to a huge influx of military personnel, when the Army’s Fort Richardson and the Army Air Corps’s Elmendorf Field were constructed outside of town. By 1950, Anchorage was a prosperous small city of over 11,000. In the following decade Anchorage also experienced the postwar boom, with the attendant shortages of housing and modern conveniences, which created the city’s own construction mini-boom.
In 1957, when Richfield Oil discovered black gold on the Kenai Peninsula , the oil companies started opening office buildings in the city, and the economy stabilized.
Much of Anchorage  collapsed in the incredible Good Friday earthquake of March 27, 1964, which lasted an interminable five minutes, registering 9.2 on the Richter Scale. The north side of 4th Avenue wound up 8–10 feet lower than the south side of the street. A very rich residential section on the bluff overlooking Knik Arm was destroyed. Nine people were killed and upward of $300 million in damages were recorded. Anchorage was rebuilt, and because only a few large buildings survived the quake, nearly everything in the city was put up after 1964.
Though the pipeline doesn’t come within 300 miles of Anchorage, oil money towers over the city in the form of tall office buildings scattered around town. The military still plays an important role in the local economy, with Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson right on the margins of town, and military jets and surveillance planes a common presence in the sky. Tourism also affects Anchorage enormously, especially in the summer months when the city is a waypoint for many travelers.
Anchorage fancies itself quite the cosmopolitan city, boasting dozens of arts organizations, a modern performing arts center , a 16-theater cinema  with stadium seating, plus many fancy hotels , restaurants, cafés , and bars  catering to the thousands of suits who fill the skyscrapers that gleam in the light of the midnight sun. Indeed, if Juneau  is bureaucratic Alaska, and Fairbanks  is rank-and-file Alaska, then Anchorage is corporate and commercial Alaska.
If you can’t find it at an Anchorage  store, it probably isn’t sold anywhere in the state. And if you find it elsewhere, you’ll probably pay more. For bush dwellers, Anchorage is a shopping trip disguised as a city. Put people from Bethel, Nome, or Homer  in Anchorage for a day and they’re likely to spend most of their time at Costco and Wal-Mart.