Deering Roadhouse

Anna Ruhl's Roadhouse

Anna Ruhl’s Deering Roadhouse

The handwritten caption on the front of this photo by early Alaskan photographer Frank H. Nowell, showing three women, five men and three dogs, reads, “Anna Ruhl’s Road House – Deering, Alaska, September 25th 03.” There are two signs on the gable end of the building (to the viewer’s right): one reads ‘Restaurant,’ the other says ‘Bunk Room.’

The village of Deering, located on a sandy spit on the Seward Peninsula where the Inmachuk River flows into Kotzebue Sound, 57 miles southwest of Kotzebue, was established in 1901 as a supply station for interior gold mining near the historic Malemiut Eskimo village of Inmachukmiut. According to Donald J. Orth‘s Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, a post office was located here in 1901 and the name came from the schooner Abbie M. Deering, which was present in the area around 1900.

Illustration from Capt. Winchester's book.

Capt. Winchester’s sketch of the Schooner Abbie M. Deering from his book: “Leaving Lynn, Nov. 10, 1897”

A first-hand account, written by Captain James D. Winchester and published in 1900, relates the story of the wooden schooner Abbie M. Deering, built in 1883, which was bought by a company of twenty men who wanted to sail to the Alaskan gold fields during the Klondike Gold Rush. They left Massachusetts in November 1897, with Winchester, a merchant marine and the only seafaring man among them, at the helm. Capt. Winchester taught his crew to sail en route, and they sailed around the tip of South America, passed through the Straits of Magellan, and arrived at San Francisco five months later. They sold the ship, which was nicknamed ‘Diver,’ according to Capt. Winchester, “for the vigorous way in which she dove into a sea, giving many of us a good wetting in spite of every precaution.”

Records kept by the U.S. Department of the Interior show the schooner did eventually make it to Alaska, and some reports say the community of Deering was settled by its crew. There are apparently no records of Anna Ruhl’s roadhouse at Deering, and an extensive search turned up only the photograph above.

On August 26th, 1903, the town’s namesake, the Abbie M. Deering, departed Nome with a cargo of thirty tons of cigar case and mats, bound for Seattle and way ports. On September 4th, the schooner met heavy currents and an early morning fog, and drifted onto a reef on a small island on the northwest side of Akutan Pass, in the Aleutian Islands. The crew worked for thirty-eight hours trying to pull the vessel off of the reef. The schooner’s master assisted the crew of the U S Revenue Cutter Manning, upon their arrival, in the removal of the thirty one passengers and eight crewmen. The mate was left in charge of the wreck, and all the passengers and crew, except a few who remained in Dutch Harbor, went on to Seattle. The ship and its cargo was reported a total loss. Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 novel Captains Courageous mentions the Abbie M. Deering by name.

 

 

 

This article is an excerpt from the book by Helen Hegener, Alaskan Roadhouses, Shelter, Food, and Lodging Along Alaska’s Roads and Trails, published in 2015 by Northern Light Media.

 

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Barrett Willoughby

oie_2132217v9Yn62AlThe July-August issue of Alaskan History Magazine features an article about Barrett Willoughby, Alaska’s first commercially successful female novelist. Her romantic stories, set in various parts of Alaska, were serialized in the most popular magazines of the day, and two of her books, Rocking Moon and Spawn of the North, were made into motion pictures. In addition to her popular novels, she wrote short stories, travel books, and character sketches of significant Alaskan pioneers.

oie_21323170HlUIHvEThe daughter of a riverboat captain and named after her mother, Florence was raised on Alaska’s waters. Some of her earliest Alaskan experiences are recounted in her first novel, Where the Sun Swings North (1922), available to read online free at Gutenberg.org. Florence – later taking the family name Barrett as her first name – grew to love Alaska, its land, history, and people—and all but one of her novels have an Alaskan setting. Many of her male protagonists were, like her father, riverboat captains, and all of her female protagonists shared her love of Alaska.

Barrett Willoughby bioBiographer Nancy Warren Farrell wrote in Barrett Willoughby, Alaska’s Forgotten Lady (University of Alaska Press, 1994): “Willoughby’s novels were romantic adventures. And therein existed one of the keys to Willoughby’s personality and her writing. If one word depicted Barrett Willoughby as a person and as a writer, it would be ‘romance.’ It was the romantic outlook which urged her on, which kept her excited about the future. Her journey in life was like a steamer trip north: ‘A warm and magical Alaskan wind that fills me with expectancy and makes me sure that ahead––up around that next beckoning bend––lies something I’ve always longed for. I don’t know what it is exactly, but it’s beautiful; and it has in it youth and bouyancy––and that elusive, golden will o’ the wisp––Romance.’”

Sondra O'MooreBibliography
Where the Sun Swings North (1922)
Rocking Moon (1925)
Gentlemen Unafraid (1926)
The Trail Eater (1929)
Sitka, Portal to Romance (1930)
Spawn of the North (1932)
Alaskans All (1933)
River House (1936)
Alaska Holiday (1940)
The Golden Totem, a novel of modern Alaska (1945)

Filmography
Rocking Moon
Spawn of the North

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Alaska Nellie

Screen Shot 2019-07-15 at 6.44.33 PMOn the editorial pages of the May-June issue of Alaskan History Magazine there is a small photo of an Alaskan legend whose spirit inspired the publication of the magazine. Nellie Neal Lawing, known as Alaska Nellie by generations of Alaskans, left a legacy of courage, service to others, and dauntless resilience which the publisher of Alaskan History Magazine aspires to with each issue. The following article, written by Alaskan author Helen Hegener, first appeared in Alaska Dispatch a few years ago, and then on the website for Northern Light Media, which publishes Alaskan History Magazine:

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“There were possibilities of an extensive business at this place for at least three years, as I saw it, and now I would be needing a dog team and dog kennels, a place for harnesses and a small building in which to cook dog food. On the mountain above the lodge I cut logs for the kennels and the cookhouse.”  ~Nellie Neal Lawing in her autobiography, Alaska Nellie

Nellie Trosper Neal Lawing, familiar to Alaskans as “Alaska Nellie,” lived a life much larger than most, even by Alaskan standards. She was a fisherman, a hunter, a trapper, a cook and a roadhouse keeper; she fed the crews building the Alaska Railroad, welcomed princes and presidents into her home, guided big game hunters and developed an impressive trophy collection of her own. She mushed a dog team, kept a pet bear cub, became famous for her strawberry pies, and saw a movie made about her adventures. She was one of a kind, an Alaskan original, and she lived life to the fullest.

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Grandview Roadhouse, Alaska Railroad mile 44.9, 1915

Nellie arrived in Seward on July 3, 1915, just as construction of the Alaska Railroad was getting underway. She wrote in her autobiography, Alaska Nellie, that she set out to seek a contract “to run the eating houses on the southern end of the Alaska Railroad,” and she described her effort: “On my first time out on an Alaskan trail, I had walked one hundred fifty miles and as usual was alone. This accomplishment, in itself, might have satisfied some, but I was out here in this great new country to contribute something to others, and I felt this means could best be served by becoming the ‘Fred Harvey’ of the government railroad in Alaska.”

Nellie’s early life is succinctly described in an article written by Lezlie Murray, Visitor Services Director, Chugach National Forest, and published in Fall 2011 issue of SourDough Notes:

“The oldest of 12 children, Nellie Trosper was born into a farm family in Saint Joseph, Mo., where she dreamed of coming to Alaska. As a young child she learned to trap and hunt in the countryside around her parent’s farm, becoming a good shot and capable woods woman. She left home in her late twenties after she had helped to raise her brothers and sisters and could be spared. A diminutive woman barely five feet tall, Nellie began to work her way to Alaska in 1901, stair-stepping her way through the west. She spent the most time in Cripple Creek, Colorado, where she worked at a variety of jobs, owned her own hotel and married a prominent assayer. Unhappy in her marriage due to abuse at home, she made the decision to divorce and moved on to California, where she booked steerage to Seward, Alaska.”

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Nellie Neal with a mannequin on porch of the Grandview Roadhouse, 1915

Likely due in part to her plucky approach, she was awarded a lucrative government contract to run a roadhouse at mile 44.9, a scenic location she promptly named Grandview. Her agreement with the Alaska Engineering Commission was to provide food and lodging for the government employees; her skill with a rifle filled out the menu, and her gifted storytelling kept her guests highly entertained. Nellie described the accommodations at Grandview in her book, ‘Alaska Nellie’:

“The house was small but comfortable. A large room with thirteen bunks, used as sleeping quarters for the men, was just above the dining room. A small room above the kitchen served as my quarters. To the rear of the building a stream of clear, cold water flowed down from the mountain and was piped into the kitchen. Nature was surely in a lavish mood when she created the beauty of the surroundings of this place. The timber-clad mountains, the flower-dotted valley, the irresistible charm of the continuous stretches of mountains and valleys was something in which to revel.”

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Nellie in her later years, with her treasured gold nugget necklace

Wiry and independent, Nellie was an excellent shot and a respected big game guide, and she rapidly accumulated an impressive array of wildlife trophies. She maintained a dog team in winter, and trapped along the corridor which would later become the Seward Highway. Once during a blizzard the local contract mail carrier, Henry Collman, didn’t arrive when he was expected, so Nellie hitched up her dog team and set out to find him. She located the mail carrier badly frozen in an area which had claimed several lives. Nellie took the young man back to her roadhouse to warm up, and then set off to finish delivering his mail sacks and pouches, which she later learned contained valuable goods, to the waiting train. For her courageous efforts the town of Seward declared her a hero and awarded her a gold nugget necklace, with a diamond set in its large pendant nugget. Nellie treasured her necklace to the end of her days.

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Nellie Neal

Nellie tells another dog team story in her book: “One cold winter day in December when the daylight was only a matter of minutes and the lamps were burning low, two U.S. marshals, Marshals Cavanaugh and Irwin, together with Jack Haley and Bob Griffiths, arrived at the roadhouse.

“The heavy wooden boxes they were removing from their sleds had been brought from the Iditarod mining district. They contained $750,000 in gold bullion.

“‘Where do you want to put this, Nellie?’ called the men, carrying their precious burden.

“‘Right here under the dining room table is as good a place as any,’ I answered.

And it was as simple as that. There it stayed until the men carried it back to the sleds, next day. They were able to go to sleep, for it was as safe right there in my dining room as it would have been in the United States Mint. No one would dare to touch it.”

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Nellie and her trophies in front of the Dead Horse Road House

As work on the government railroad progressed, Nellie moved north and operated a roadhouse near the Susitna River, at a railroad camp known as Dead Horse. Because Dead Horse Hill was such a key location in the construction of the Alaska Railroad, a large roadhouse was built at the site in 1917 to accommodate the construction workers, officials, and occasional visitors. Management of the new roadhouse was given to the intrepid roadhouse keeper who had proven herself at Grandview.

Nellie took on running the Dead Horse Roadhouse with all the pluck and dedication she’d shown at Grandview, cooking meals on two large ranges for the dining room which seated 125 hungry workers at a time, and filling 60 lunch-buckets each night for the construction crews to take on their jobs the following day. In her autobiography she wrote, “I dished out as many as 12,000 to 14,000 meals per month, having two cooks, two waitresses and several yard men as help.”

In his book about the era and the area, Lavish Silence, Kenneth Marsh described the roadhouse accommodations: “…spring-less wooden bunks, straw mattresses and oil- drum wood-burning stove, all in one large room at the top of a flight of rickety stairs, held together by a warped wooden shell (which, at times, put up an uneven fight against the elements).”

oie_7412486P3ZjB7PIn July, 1923, President Harding, his wife, and Secretary of State Herbert Hoover stayed at the Dead Horse Roadhouse on their way to the Golden Spike-driving ceremony at Nenana. The next morning Nellie served heaping plates of sourdough pancakes in her warm kitchen, commenting, “Presidents of the United States like to be comfortable when they eat, just like anyone else!”

“Before the Curry Hotel was built, Curry featured a famous old building called the Dead Horse Roadhouse. The proprietor was the famous Alaska Nellie, who was known for her incredible cooking abilities and extraordinary hunting skills. It is said she killed the largest grizzly bear ever seen at that time.” ~Steve Mahay, in The Legend of River Mahay

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Nellie’s last home, on Kenai Lake

Finally in 1923, Nellie used her life’s savings to purchase her final home, a roadhouse on Kenai Lake. The railroad stop along the blue-green waters was renamed Lawing when Nellie Neal married Bill Lawing, and together they built the roadhouse into a popular tourist stop on the Alaska Railroad. Vegetables from Nellie’s garden were served with fresh fish from the lake or with game from the nearby hills, and Nellie’s stories, often embellished with her rollicking tall tales, kept her audiences delighted. Celebrities, politicians, tourists and even locals came to enjoy the purely Alaskan hospitality at the Lawings’ roadhouse on Kenai Lake.

oie_7409DnmPhc24Alaska Nellie became known far and wide, and the foreword to a 2010 reprinting of her autobiographical book, “Alaska Nellie,” by Patricia A. Heim, sums up her legendary status:

“Nellie Neal Lawing was one of Alaska’s most charismatic, admired and famous pioneers. She was the first woman ever hired by the U.S. Government in Alaska in 1916. She was contracted to feed the hungry crews on the long awaited Alaska railroad connecting Seward to Anchorage. The conditions were harsh and supplies were limited. She delivered many of her meals by dogsled, fighting off moose attacks and hazards of the trail, often during below-zero blizzards. She always brought with her a great tale to tell of her adventures along the trail, how she had wrestled grizzlies, fought off wolves and moose, and caught the worlds largest salmon for their dinner, always in the old sourdough tradition. The workers listened and laughed with every bite. 

“Nellie was an excellent cook, big game hunter, river guide, trail blazer, gold miner, and a great story-teller! It wasn’t long before Nellie became legendary and was known far and wide as the female ‘Davy Crockett’ of Alaska, her wilderness adventures and stories of survival on the trail spread like wildfire. Letters addressed simply ‘Nellie, Alaska’ were always delivered. 

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Nellie at her Kenai Lake cabin

“Nellie finally established herself at “Lawing, Alaska” on Kenai Lake, and converted an old roadhouse into a museum for her multitude of big game trophies. It was a great railroad stop and the highlight of any Alaskan visit. Her guest register of over 15,000 read like the Who’s Who of the early twentieth century: two U.S. Presidents, the Prince of Bulgaria, Will Rogers, authors, generals and many silent-screen movie stars. 

“Nellie would entertain them all. Colt pistol on her hip and a baby black bear by her side, Nellie was always ready with one of her outrageous tales of adventure. ‘I was just minding my own business on Kenai Lake when a huge grizzly showed up, I fired my Colt, but as luck would have it, somehow, it misfired, I then had to kick the heck out of the brute and he ran off, but before he ran off he bit me good, right on the wrist, see here.’ She would then fold back her sleeve to show a scarred arm. 

“Nellie was so popular and loved that she was honored with an “Alaska Nellie Day” on January 21, 1956.”

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Bill and Nellie Lawing at their cabin beside Kenai Lake.

Nellie’s happiest days were spent with the love of her life, Bill Lawing, in their log cabin on the shores of beautiful Kenai Lake. She fondly mentions it in the opening paragraph of her autobiography, ‘Alaska Nellie’:

“Glancing out through an open window of a large log home on the shores of Kenai Lake at Lawing, Alaska, the rippling waves had become glittering jewels in the full moonlight of a summer’s night.

Mountains covered with evergreen trees and crowned with snow were reflected in the mirror-like water of Kenai Lake. Was I dreaming, or was the curtain of the past rolling up, so that I might glance back over twenty-four years spent in the great North-land and say, ‘No regrets.'”

In 1939 a short movie clip, ‘The Land of Alaska Nellie,’ was produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios:

 

oie_7433fQBZmUW8Alaska Nellie’s grave is in the city cemetery in Seward, Alaska, a pretty place at the base of the mountains, guarded by towering Sitka spruce trees. Her gravestone bears the image of a pineapple, a symbol of hospitality which began with the sea captains of New England, who sailed among the Caribbean Islands and returned bearing cargos of fruits, spices and rum.

According to tradition in the Caribbean, the pineapple symbolized hospitality, and sea captains learned they were welcome if a pineapple was placed by the entrance to a village. At home, the captain would impale a pineapple on a post near his home to signal friends he’d returned safely from the sea, and would receive visits. As the tradition grew popular, innkeepers added the pineapple to their signs and advertisements, and the symbol for hospitality was further secured as needle-workers preserved the image in family heirlooms such as tablecloths, doilies, potholders, door knockers, curtain finials and more. It seems a fitting final tribute to a legendary hostess of the north.

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Nellie Lawing’s property on Kenai Lake, 1938.

For more information about Alaska Nellie, including resources for further reading and research and photos of her homesite in Lawing taken in recent years, visit the Northern Light Media website: Alaska Nellie | The Story of Nellie Neal Lawing

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Sled Dog Tales

 

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Tanana Flats, April, 1912 

The May-June issue of Alaskan History Magazine included an article on the All Alaska Sweepstakes sled dog races, which ran from Nome to Candle and return from 1908 through 1917. The races spotlighted the hardy sled dogs which made travel in Alaska’s harsh winters possible, the ever-reliable dog teams being the primary mode of travel in territorial Alaska. It is to our good fortune that thousands of photographs of mushers and their teams were captured, such as the one above, showing a musher and his dog team crossing the Tanana Flats in 1912.

Ten Thousand MilesThe colorful history of dog team travel in the north country was surprisingly well documented, and to read the exploits of these early-day mushers is to venture back to a time when men depended on their dogs for their very lives. Driving a team of huskies for hundreds of miles through mountain ranges, across glaciers, over frozen lakes and rivers, and through vast unpeopled valleys required a caliber of strength and endurance almost unimaginable today. The mail drivers and freight haulers of old left civilization behind when they hit the trail, and they were on their own when trouble or tragedy struck, as it often did.

In the frozen north, the singular capabilities of a good sled dog often meant the difference between life and death. In the Nome Daily Nugget newspaper, April 2, 1917, a poem by Esther Birdsall Darling told the tale of a heroic rescue which had taken place only a few weeks before. Sled dog driver Bobby Brown, working at Dime Creek on the Seward Peninsula during the winter of 1916-17, was badly mangled in a sawmill accident. The man who would later become a legend in the north country, Leonhard Seppala, was nearby with his team, and he loaded the injured man onto his sled, wrapped him in wolf robes and set out for the nearest hospital, at Candle, over fifty miles away. With a dog named Russky in the lead, they made the hospital and delivered Bobby Brown to the doctors, but his injuries were too great and he died a few days later.

Dog-Puncher on YukonThe mail drivers, freight haulers, and other early mushers faced danger on a regular basis, but it was just part and parcel of their job. By 1901, a network of mail trails throughout Alaska was in use, including a system that followed almost the entire length of the Yukon River. Adolph “Ed” Biederman was a contract mail carrier between the towns of Eagle and Circle. Delivering the mail on the Yukon River by dog team over the 160-mile section took six days one way, then a day’s rest, and six days back. Biederman ran this route thirteen times over the course of each winter, with loads of mail often exceeding 500 pounds, following a string of roadhouses located at intervals along the river.

“I spent almost the entire winter freighting with my dogs to the outlying creeks, and so was away from civilization most of the time. There was more money in it than in ordinary freighting to the mines, and the life suited me better. I had to camp out, but this was less difficult now than formerly, as by this time we all had tents and stoves.” — Arthur Treadwell Walden, ‘A Dog-Puncher on the Yukon’ (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1928)

Baldy of NomeDog teams were indispensable to Arctic explorers, missionaries, lawmen, doctors, gold seekers, mail drivers, and anyone who needed to travel the winter trails in Alaska, leading the venerable Judge James Wickersham to state in 1938, “He who gives his time to the study of the history of Alaska, learns that the dog, next to man, has been the most important factor in its past and present development.”

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Many stories of early Alaskan mushers and their dog teams are featured in the book, Alaskan Sled Dog Tales: True Stories of the Steadfast Companions of the North Country, by Helen Hegener, published in 2016 by Northern Light Media. $24.95 plus $5.00 shipping & handling. 320 pages, 6′ x 9″ b/w format, includes maps, charts, bibliography, indexed. Click this link to order. A wonderful gift for any dog-lover!

Sled Dog Tales“These trustworthy creatures could be relied upon to do the heavy work, while remaining—as Hegener eloquently reminds us—our most treasured friends. Relying upon material written from the late 1890s through the early ‘30s, [Hegener] catalogues how sled dogs provided Alaskan residents the ability to traverse enormous distances, deliver critical supplies and maintain communication from within and outside Alaska. The episodes she recounts are stirring, filled with human and animal bravery. Some are simply mind-boggling, filling the reader with awe and enormous respect for dog and driver alike.” David Fox, in the Anchorage Press

Alaskan Railroads

arr-coverThe May-June, 2019 issue of Alaskan History Magazine features an article and photographs of the construction of the Alaska Railroad, from 1902, when the Alaska Central Railroad was begun in Seward, through 1923, when President Warren G. Harding drove the golden spike in Nenana to open the Alaska Railroad. The article is based on the book by Helen Hegener, The Alaska Railroad 1902-1923 (Northern Light Media, 2017), and the broader railroad history below is edited from the book. Part 1, the first seven chapters, is available to read free online at this link.

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In the American west, during the latter half of the nineteenth century, the proliferation of railroads provided a rapid, versatile, and relatively low-cost means of transportation across the vast distances of the midwest and the Great Plains. But the railroads did not come easily, and they did not come without a large measure of doubt and ridicule. One prominent government official reportedly scoffed about the proposal of railroad travel, certain that it was not forthcoming anytime soon and pronouncing, “I would not buy a ticket on it for my grandchildren!”

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Daniel Webster

Development of the west was considered a fool’s errand in the early years, the land deemed fit only for cattle and the wild and reckless cowboys who tended them on long drives to market. The great statesman Daniel Webster had growled about the West in 1845, “What do we want with this region of savages and wild beasts, of deserts, of shifting sands and whirlwinds of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs?”

By 1852 there was only a single five-mile track of rails west of the Mississippi River, but within a single generation more than 116 million acres of land would be granted to the railroads, and only eighteen years later, in 1870, more than 72,000 miles of track would criss-cross the western territories. When the last spike was driven to complete the Great Northern Railway’s track in 1893, five railroads spanned the West, and these five railroads would change the course of western history.

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The Yakutat and Southern Railway

Those early western railroads had an impact on the development of Alaska, for wise men noted that what had worked to open the American West to pioneering settlement and sowing the seeds of progress might work as well in the frozen north. And so, in the history of Alaska, as in other parts of the world, railroads played a large role, and were a major influence. In the early part of the twentieth century there were almost two dozen railroads at various stages of operation in the territory, including the Alaska Anthracite Railroad, Alaska Central Railway, Alaska Home Railroad, Catalla and Carbon Mountain Railway, Copper River and Northwestern Railway, Council City and Solomon River Railroad, Golovin Bay Railroad, Nome Arctic Railway, Northern Alaska Railway, Tanana Valley Railroad, Valdez-Copper River and Tanana Railroad, Wild Goose Railroad, and the Yakutat and Southern Railway.

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White Pass & Yukon, 1899

Many of these railroads were built and operated by various mining interests, others were funded by farsighted groups or individuals who understood the potential profitability of steel rails providing reliable access to a new and growing land. Of the many attempts and endeavors, only two remain in operation today, the White Pass and Yukon Railway from Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory; and the Alaska Railroad from Seward to Fairbanks. Over the years all of the other railroads have either been absorbed by larger, more successful lines, gone bankrupt when funding ran out or resources were depleted, or simply outlived their usefulness as times changed and populations moved on.

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“Last Train to Nowhere.” The Council City & Solomon River Railroad, near Nome.

There are still many signs of the old railways across Alaska, and some have become almost iconic, such as the long-abandoned steam engines of the Council City & Solomon River Railroad, known as the “Last Train to Nowhere;” or the photogenic bridges and trestles of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway along the McCarthy Road. But colorful legacy or none, hundreds of miles of steel rails which opened the territory of Alaska to development now sit silent, unused, untraveled; mute reminders of a time when the forbidding terrain and harsh climate of Alaska yielded to the building of an Iron Trail.

An almost 100-year-old publication offers a unique look at the Alaska Railroad:

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 7.22.51 PMThe 1923 edition of Polk’s Directory, published shortly after the official opening ceremony of the railroad in Nenana, included the following description of the Alaska Railroad’s construction, the broader operations which fell under the railroad’s authority, a vivid look at the profound impact the railroad had on transportation within the territory, a suggestion for adventurous tourists, and a short but compelling description of the route followed from sea level to interior Alaska.

THE U.S. GOVERNMENT RAILWAY IN ALASKA
By Colonel James Gordon Steese, E.R.G.S. Chairman, The Alaska Railroad

The U. S. Government Railway Project in Alaska was originally reported on by the Alaska Railroad Commission, appointed by President Taft in 1912, and headed by General Jay J. Morrow, now Governor of the Panama Canal. Upon receiving authority by the Act of March 12, 1914, to go ahead with location, construction, etc., the President placed supervision of the project under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior and designated the Alaskan Engineering Commission as the construction agency to be permanently resident in Alaska to handle the work.

After additional surveys and investigations, the President selected the route in the spring of 1915, and active construction continued since that date except for the greatly curtailed activity during the war. On the 15th of July, 1923, the late President Harding drove a golden spike at the north end of the Tanana River Bridge, Nenana, Alaska, thereby officially completing the construction of The Alaska Railroad.

OPERATIONS OF THE ALASKA RAILROAD

The distance from Seward to Fairbanks, over the operated line, is 470.3 miles. Spurs to the Eska, Jonesville, and Chickaloon coal mines in the Matanuska District, and to the Healy River coal mines in the Nenana District, aggregate an additional 46 miles of standard gauge. A four and one-half mile narrow gauge spur to the Moose Creek coal mines and a 39-mile narrow gauge branch from Fairbanks to the gold creeks as far as Chatanika bring the total operated mileage up to 560 miles. The Alaska Railroad also operates a River Boat Service on the Tanana and Yukon Rivers between Nenana and Holy Cross, a distance of 750 miles, carrying passengers, mail, express, and freight.

It has through billing agreements covering freight service from Seattle or Tacoma to points on the Yukon River and its principal tributaries between the International Boundary at Eagle and Bering Sea at St. Michael. It also has an agreement covering automobile service on the Richardson Highway from Fairbanks to Chitina and Valdez, 410 miles. In addition, it operates telegraph and telephone lines, coal mines, docks, power plants, hospitals, hotels, and commissaries.

In 1915, Seward and Fairbanks were flourishing towns, each being the distributing center for an immense hinterland. Seward received its supplies all year round by ocean service from Seattle. Fairbanks received all its supplies by river boat during the open season of navigation. The country between was an almost uninhabited wilderness. The only overland route then in existence was the Richardson Highway, some 200 miles eastward of the route selected for the railroad. It was necessary therefore to develop and carry various agencies along with the actual railroad construction. Ocean docks, towns, and camps, machine shops, hospitals, schools, etc., all had to be provided. Rolling-stock, construction equipment and supplies of all kinds had to be shipped in from Seattle. Such supplies were then carried inland by boat or pack-horse in summer and by horse-sled or dog-team in winter.

In the actual construction, clearing of right of way, grubbing, grading, excavation and other kinds of labor which could be standardized, were let out to station-men. All tools, powder, camp equipment, subsistence supplies, etc., were rented or sold to the station-men by the railway supply department. Building of bridges, snowsheds, laying of track etc., were performed on force account. Several large steel bridges were fabricated and erected by contract, the piers and approaches being built on force account.

TRANSPORTATION SITUATION

The entire transportation situation in the Territory has been changed by the completion of The Alaska Railroad. Whereas, heretofore it had been necessary for all supplies for an entire year to be shipped up the Yukon River during the short summer season, with the attendant heavy charges for interest on investment, insurance, storage, deterioration, and depreciation, it is now possible to distribute the same shipments throughout the entire year. Frequently shipments missed the last boat, causing great inconvenience and even distress.

For example, in the fall of 1920 an important bridge was ordered for a stream crossing about 28 miles out of Fairbanks. This bridge was shipped from Seattle to St. Michael in the summer of 1921 soon after navigation opened. It caught the last boat up the river. An early freeze-up caught this boat 200 miles short of destination. As it would have cost $135 per thousand board feet for freighting over the snow, the bridge as well as all other supplies lay there till the summer of 1922, when it reached Fairbanks, was freighted overland and erected. Meanwhile, about $1,200 was spent on patching up the old bridge to carry the 1921 traffic. Last winter, a 250-foot highway bridge was taken down, using ice as false-work, freighted three miles by bob-sled to The Alaska Railroad, hauled about 400 miles over the Alaska Range into the interior, freighted 12 miles again over the snow by bob-sled and re-erected over another river, again using ice as false-work, and all in less than 90 days.

In another case, a rush order of 200 tons of heavy mining equipment left Seattle in January of 1923. In sixty days, these supplies traveled 1,600 miles by ocean freighter to Seward, 470 miles by rail to Fairbanks, and 86 miles by bob-sleds drawn by caterpillar tractors over the Richardson Highway and tributaries to their final destination. Without The Alaska Railroad, that equipment would have landed in Fairbanks during the summer of 1923, where it would have lain till mid-winter of 1924 when snow conditions would permit it to be handled over the last 43 miles of sled-road tributary to the Richardson Highway.

TOUR OF ALASKA

With the completion of The Alaska Railroad, a most remarkable circular tour through the interior of the Territory is now possible. This tour included a 1,600-mile ocean voyage from Seattle or Vancouver up the Inside Passage, then across the Gulf of Alaska, through Prince William Sound, and up Resurrection Bay to Seward, touching at all Alaskan ports; then 470 miles over The Alaska Railroad to Fairbanks, then 320 miles over the Richardson Highway to Chitina, then 130 miles over the Copper River & Northwestern Railway to Cordova, and then a 1,400-mile return ocean voyage through Prince William Sound, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Inside Passage. This tour was formally inaugurated last summer by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle party of 70 people, over half of them being ladies. The entire tour requires three weeks from Seattle back to Seattle and costs about $350, all expenses included.

Leaving Seward, The Alaska Railroad crosses the Chugach Range through two passes amidst snow-covered mountains, glaciers, and lakes, then follows the shore of Turnagain Arm to Anchorage, Mile 114. It then follows Knik Arm, crosses the Matanuska Valley, and follows up the Susitna River to the summit of the Alaska Range through Broad Pass, Mile 313, elevation 2337 feet. Several large glaciers are passed within a stone’s throw of the track. There are tunnels, trestle spirals, and one complete loop where the track makes two reversed horseshoe bends and then crosses under itself. The Susitna River is crossed upon a simple steel truss of 504-foot span. Hurricane Creek is crossed upon a steel arch of 384-foot span, 300 feet above the creek.

After leaving Broad Pass, The Alaska Railroad follows down the north slope of the main Alaska Range, past Mt. McKinley National Park, through the Nenana and Healy River Canyons, and across the Tanana River bottom to Nenana. At Nenana the Tanana River is crossed on a 700-foot bridge, 45 feet above the highest high water. The railroad then follows up the valley of Coldstream, across a low divide, and into Fairbanks.  ~•~

Excerpted from the Preface and Introduction:

ARR CoverThe Alaska Railroad: 1902-1923, Blazing an Iron Trail Across The Last Frontier, by Helen Hegener, published in May, 2017 by Northern Light Media. 400 pages, over 100 b/w historic photos, maps, bibliography, indexed. The book can be ordered via PayPal for $24.00 plus $5.00 postage, by clicking here (credit cards accepted). The Alaska Railroad: 1902-1923 is also available at Amazon, IndieBound, and can be ordered through your favorite bookstore. Part 1, the first seven chapters of the book, is available to read free online at this link.

 

 

 

 

May-June at issuu

M:J at issuuThe May-June issue of Alaskan History Magazine is available to read online, download, or share via email, Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest at the digital magazine site issuu, an electronic publishing platform which was named one of Time magazine’s 50 Best Websites.

The 48-page May-June issue, which carries no advertising in its 8.5” x 11” format, is an anthology of excerpts from books published by Northern Light Media, featuring a look at the construction of the Alaska Railroad; a 1918 trip by Margaret Murie, traveling the Fairbanks-to-Valdez Trail as a 16-year-old girl; Addison Powell’s 1902 adventures in the Copper River Valley, the great All Alaska Sweepstakes sled dog race, the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, and the 1935 Matanuska Colony barns. Shorter articles include a photo-feature of snowshoes, a look at a few Alaskan photographers, and brief reviews of a half-dozen classic books on Alaska.

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The inaugural issue will be free to view by anyone; future issues will be available only to subscribers and anyone who purchases that print issue of the magazine. The July-August issue is currently in production. For more information and to subscribe or purchase a single issue (also available at Amazon), visit the Alaskan History Magazine website.

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