Earnest Bilbe Collins
1873 - 1967
Photo courtesy of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks Polar Archives.
E. B. Collins had a long and very successful Alaska career, beginning in 1904 when he "came into the country", and he pursued small scale mine ventures, a private law practice, and decades of public service. Listing his occupation as 'Lawyer and Miner', he held an honored position as one of the delegates to the Alaska Constitutional Convention during 1955-1956.
Collins was born on July 19, 1873, at Farmland, Indiana to William John and Elizabeth nee Robbins Collins. He attended public schools in Indiana and graduated from college in California (now Chico State) in 1896. He read law at an attorney's office in Chico from 1896-1904. He married May Imogene Kimball in November 1900; the couple had one daughter, Margaret Henshaw (Mrs. Robert Cooper).
Triggered by news of the gold discovery at Fairbanks, Collins left California and entered the Alaska Territory. From 1904-1918, Collins was primarily a gold miner in the Fairbanks district. Collins did well mining placer gold on Upper Cleary Creek north of Fairbanks, but also successfully mined placer gold near Ester. He began to divide his time between mining and studying and practicing law. In 1915, he passed the Alaska Bar. Earlier E. B. began a public career and was very active in politics as a Republican.
E.B. Collins was elected as a representative to the First Territorial Legislature in 1913 and served as Alaska's first Speaker of the House during 1913-1915. Collins was sensitive to discrimination whether it was sourced in gender or race. On March 14th, 1913, E.B. Collins introduced House Bill No. 2, "To extend the elective franchise to women in the Territory of Alaska". House Bill No. 2 passed the Territorial Senate with Senate President L.V. Ray's signature on March 18th, 1913, and signed into law by Territorial Governor Walter Clark shortly afterwards. This brief landmark legislation granted women the right to vote in all elections held within the Territory of Alaska. Known as the 'Shoup Women's Suffrage Bill', it is also known as the 'Collins Women's Suffrage Bill', in recognition of the key leadership provided by the Speaker of the House, E.B. Collins. It is interesting that the First Territorial legislature sought to give women the right to vote in one of its first official legislative acts.
The First Territorial House of Representatives at the Elks Hall in Juneau. Presiding officer E. B. Collins is standing in the center, circa March 1913.
Photo from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks Digital Archives
Collins served as U.S. Attorney, Fairbanks (4th Judicial District) from 1921 until 1933 when he resigned to co-found the law firm Collins and Clasby. He was elected and served as Mayor of Fairbanks from 1935-1939, overseeing some notable advances to the interior Alaska gold-mining community, including the maturity of the USSR&M Company dredge fleet near town and the transformation of the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines into the University of Alaska. Following the untimely death of his wife, May Kimball Collins, E.B. remarried to Mrs. Jenny Larson on January 23rd, 1936.
While serving as Senate President in 1947, one summary of Collin's long career noted that he was only one of three surviving members of the First Territorial Legislature. Collins was first elected as a Territorial Senator in 1921 and served subsequently as late as 1951, including the 1949 'Extraordinary Session' of the 19th legislature, which created the official Alaska Statehood Committee. That year Senate Bill 49, the number of which was deliberately selected to promote Alaska as the future 49th State, was introduced by an outstanding native legislator, Frank Peratrovich of Klawock, and Victor Rivers of Anchorage. The bill passed both houses of the Territorial Legislature, led in part by senior leadership, including E.B. Collins. In June, 1950, a Statehood Bill was introduced to the U.S. Congress by Collin's long-time friend and Alaska Territorial Delegate to Congress, E.L. 'Bob' Bartlett. Although the more youthful Bartlett was a 'New Deal' Democrat, the senior Republican Collins worked with the fellow Interior 'past' placer miner Bartlett on issues ranging from sea wall protection at Nome to more funding for the University in Fairbanks. Perhaps they reminisced about previous gold mining days-both the Bartlett family and E.B. Collins had done very well mining gold on Upper Cleary Creek during the early Fairbanks gold rush years.
Collins chose to retire from the Territorial Legislature before the very contentious 1952 elections that swept in Dwight Eisenhower as President and a Republican dominant, territorial Senate and House-but an election that also saw the Democratic Delegate to Congress, Bartlett, incredibly, surviving by beating the highly favored, Alaskan aviator Republican Bob Reeves.
In 1953, Collins was chosen as one of the 'Grand Officers' of the Pioneers of Alaska, serving with 12 other distinguished Alaskan Pioneers representing various regions of Alaska. Collins represented Fairbanks along with James Barrick and C. J. Wooftes.
From November 8th 1955 to February 6th, 1956, E.B. Collins served as a delegate to the Alaska Constitutional Convention (ACC) in Constitution Hall on the campus of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. By this time, he was, at the age of 82, one of three surviving representatives of the First Territorial legislature. Collins served as Chair of the Committee on Direct Legislation, Amendment, and Revision and as a Member of the Committee of Rules-both considered to be important positions during the ACC deliberations. During a cold Fairbanks winter, Alaska's State Constitution was designed by E.B. Collins and, of course, 54 other delegates. The ACC produced a document so well written that many believe it helped convince a skeptical US Congress that America's far north residents could take care of their own matters as the 49th State of the United States. Collins was asked by his ACC colleagues to give the keynote ending address at the Convention. A tearful Collins briefly spoke:
"Bear with me just a moment. I realize that this has been a great emotional scene. It brings back in my mind the organization of the First Territorial Legislature. We met there, as the members of the Convention are meeting here today, to organize a first session of the Legislature forty three years ago; it brings back to my mind that there are only three surviving members of that legislative body-the Honorable Henry Roden of Juneau, the Honorable Charles E. Jones of Nome, and myself. In that legislature, we formed a friendship that was enduring, and in all those years, that friendship has become stronger and closer between the three of us. I can see here today that the association and friendship of those within this Convention is going to bind the personalities of each and every one of you… for the time when we finally enjoy Statehood for Alaska".
Following his service as a constitutional delegate, E.B. Collins retired and entered the Pioneers Home at Sitka in 1961; he later moved to the Pioneers Home in Fairbanks in May, 1967 and died there in September, 28th, 1967 at the age of 94. He was buried in Birch Hill Cemetery in Fairbanks.
Earnest Bilbe Collins was a man of quiet energy and ability, who retained the respect and affection of Alaskans for more than 60 years of professional service to the Alaska Territory. Although a gold miner and attorney at heart, he served with distinction in both the Territorial House and Senate during crucial decision making times in Alaska's sometimes turbulent but always dynamic history.
By Thomas K. Bundtzen and Charles C. Hawley, 2008
Cole, Terrence, 1994, The Cornerstone on College Hill, University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, Alaska USA, 378 pages.
Light, R.E., Chief Clerk, 1913, Facsimile of House Bill No. 2 "To Extend the Elective Franchise to Women in the Territory of Alaska": Alaska Territorial House Bill March 21, 1913, Alaska State Library, 2 pages.
Harrison, Gordon S., 1986, Alaska's Constitution, A Citizen's Guide, Second Edition: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Alaska, Anchorage Alaska, 134 pages.
Naske, Claus M., 1979, Edward Lewis 'Bob' Bartlett-a Life in Politics: University of Alaska Press, Fairbanks, Alaska, USA, 278 pages.
Unauthored, 2006, Convention Delegates-Alaska's University Celebrates the Milestones of Alaska: Website summary of Alaska Constitutional Convention delegate Earnest B. Collins: 2 pages with photos.