Casey Durand's History of the Alaska Railroad
Over time the railroads of Alaska have helped build this state to what it is today. From the early days of the Alaska Central and the Tanana Valley RR, the land and its people have been changed forever. From opening the interior to commerce, supporting industry, and providing defense transportation, the railroads have been an important part of Alaskan history.
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Starting in 1902 the Alaska Central RR (ACR) was one of the three railroads that led to the building of the present day Alaska Railroad Corp. (ARRC). Starting at Seward the line went north 51 miles to Spencer. Located 13 miles south of Portage, Spencer was the point at which the ACR fell into receivership in 1909. This route carried passengers, freight and mail to the upper Turnagain Arm. From there these goods were taken by boat at high tide, and by dog team or pack train to Eklutna and the Matanuska Sustina Valley.
In late 1909, the ACR was reorganized into the Alaska Northern Railroad Company (ANR). This new company extended the track 21 miles to just south of present day Girdwood. From here the ANR's goods were floated down Turnagain Arm in small boats. But this company did not last long and soon fell into financial troubles in 1915.
At this time the U.S. government was surveying for a railroad route from Seward to the Matanuska coal field, and north to the interior mining town of Fairbanks. In 1914, the U.S. Government railroad was established and purchased the ANR. Shortly after this transaction, the headquarters was moved from Seward to Ship Creek, which later became Anchorage.
The town of Ship Creek was centered around the railroad offices and shops, which were the only permanent buildings at this time. The rest of the town was mostly made up of tents occupied by construction workers. At this time the U.S. Government and the railroad were responsible for the survey of, and planning of Anchorage. Lots were auctioned in 1919 and until the early 1930's, the railroad operated the only fire dept, police dept, and hospital in this area.
After many delays the U.S. Government established the Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC) to construct the Government Railroad. By the early summer of 1916, the railroad had pushed its way across the Kinik Rivers to Matanuska. Matanuska, Palmer, and Wasilla later proved to be the gateways to the Mat Valley for colonists during the 1930's. From Palmer, the route stretched to Chickaloon and Sutton. These were the two major coal mining areas at this time, and opening up these areas was one of the goals set by the U.S. Department of the Interior, then the owner of the railroad.
In 1917 the Tanana Valley Railroad (TVRR) in the interior was falling into bankruptcy. The small narrow gauge route saw 40,000 riders and 15,000 tons of freight along its 44.7 miles. This route serviced Chena, Fairbanks, Nenana and the riverboats of the Tanana River. After troubles with mines closing due to WWI, the TVRR was bought by the Alaska Railroad Commission. This line was soon converted from 3-foot narrow gauge to 4' 8.5" standard gauge.
By 1923 the ARR track had reached the town of Nenana on the Tanana River. Nenana then became the interior head of navigation for all river traffic on the Tanana and Yukon rivers. This is also where the 700ft Mears Memorial Bridge was built, connecting the Government RR and the rebuilt section of the TVRR. At this time the bridge was the world's largest, single span, steel bridge ever built. With this link made, the Government RR was completed and a continuous rail line from Seward to Fairbanks was a reality. The first train through carried the usual dignitaries and press, but it also carried the U.S. mail, livestock, and mining machinery.
With the completion of the now called "Alaska Railroad", a whole new era in communication and transportation began. The railroad not only carried the mail but alongside the tracks was the nation's longest, publicly owned, telegraph line. This line was connected by marine cable with Seattle in 1934, connecting Alaska to the rest of the country with instant communication.
These first trains also hauled the latest and greatest machinery into the interior. Before the railroad was completed, this large equipment had to be shipped to Valdez, then hauled up the Richardson trail to Fairbanks. This trail usually took two to three weeks to cover. An even longer seasonal route was across the Pacific and Bering Sea and up the Yukon and Tanana Rivers on stern wheel steamers. This route often took a month or more to complete. But now with the railroad, you could get your equipment from the ship at Seward to Fairbanks in four to five days. The railroad not only took freight from the Richardson trail and river boats, but it also took passenger and tourist business.
To accommodate the tourists, the railroad built resort hotels at Curry and Mt. McKinley Park. This service was advertised across the country and it drew people internationally, until the depression struck. When this occurred few people had the money to travel and the whole system stopped.
With the Stock Market crash of 1929 and the ensuing depression, Alaska changed forever. At the time before the depression 48% of the Territory's population lived along the rail line. During the depression, this rose to 64%. This was due to development of the Matanuska Valley colony project. This was one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's many relief projects. Social service workers were sent out across the farm land of the Northern Midwest looking for volunteers to move to Alaska. In 1935 the migration started. Seven colony camps were formed in the Matanuska valley. All these people started to clear land to farm. Once these pioneers built a house, got a well and turned a crop (if they could), they were given the land. Due to this project the Territory never really felt the full effect of the depression. These new families brought new money into the state, which touched just about everyone.
After the depression the land saw another great surge of immigration, this time due to WWII. People from the armed services came to protect the Territory, and families moved here for the wealth of jobs. During the pre-war and war years the Territory's population grew by 1/3. Jobs could be found everywhere, and especially on the Alaska Railroad. With the boom of new construction the railroad's traffic doubled, carrying people and military goods from the new port of Whittier to Anchorage and Fairbanks. The demand on the railroad was so great that the management was taken over by the U.S. Army Railway Engineering Battalion, commanded by Col. Johnson. This age of rapid growth and military control continued into the early 1950's when war reconstruction was completed.
The next big growth in the state that affected the railroad was the building of the Alaska Pipeline. This project started in the mid 1970's and lasted to the early 80's. The migration was different in that the people that moved here to work did not stay as they did before. But this huge project changed industry statewide along with the railroad. The biggest commodity hauled on the railroad during this period was pipe and related equipment.
The next big change for the railroad was its takeover by the State of Alaska. This occurred in 1985. The State of Alaska bought the entire railroad from the Federal Government, and formed The Alaska Railroad Corporation. This is the present day organization that controls and runs the ARR for the people of the state.
Today, the ARRC is still a major transportation and communication corridor in the state. With 82% of the state's population now living along the rail belt, everyone is touched by the railroad. With the building of Northern Fiber Star (a state-wide fiber optics system, part of which is buried along the ARRC main line), the railroad is once again a communications corridor.
Hauling (in order of quantity) gravel, export coal, Mapco fuel, tourists, lumber, and general freight, the ARRC is a vital link to the state's economy. The railroad has, and still does, provide industry with a safe and cheap way of transporting goods in and out of the state. The railroad is also an environmentally friendly way of transporting goods. Per ton-mile, trains produce 1/4 the emissions that highway trucks produce.
Alaska's railroad is a vitally important link for the state's economy and industry. Serving both business and the people of the state, the railroad will always remain. With possible extensions planned for the North Slope, Mt. Sustina, and Sutton areas, the ARRC is still growing, as are the State of Alaska and it's people.