Tag Archives: Alaska Railroad

Classic Books on Alaska

Six non-fiction books briefly noted in the inaugural issue of Alaskan History Magazine, presented here with links to their digital versions, free to read online, where available.

The Ascent of Denali (Mount McKinley), by Hudson Stuck (1918)

Ascent of DenaliHudson Stuck, an Episcopal Archdeacon, organized, financed and co-led the first expedition to successfully climb the South Peak of Mt. McKinley (Denali). With co-leader Harry Karstens (later the first Superintendent of Mt. McKinley Nat’l Park), and four native youths, Stuck departed Nenana on March 17, 1913 and reached the summit of McKinley on June 7, 1913. Walter Harper, a native Alaskan, reached the summit first. Illustrated with Stuck’s photos from the journey and published in 1918 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, “The Ascent of Denali” is Stuck’s fascinating account of that pioneering expedition.

 Project Gutenberg Edition


A Woman Who Went to Alaska, by May Kellogg Sullivan (1902)

Woman Who Went to Alaska“Two trips, covering a period of eighteen months and a distance of over twelve thousand miles were made practically alone. Neither home nor children claimed my attention. No good reason, I thought, stood in the way of my going to Alaska…”

With these words the plucky and determined May Kellogg Sullivan opens her book, recounting her extensive travels to Yukon and Alaskan gold camps and beyond, seeking adventure and her fortune,  at a time when few women ventured anywhere alone. Published in 1902 by James H. Earle & Co.

Project Gutenberg Edition


Golden Alaska, An Up-to-Date Guide, by Ernest Ingersoll (1897)

Golden Alaska

Subtitled “a complete account to date of the Yukon Valley; its history, geography, mineral and other resources, opportunities and means of access.” 

The Dial, a literary journal of the time, noted in their July 1, 1897 issue that Ingersoll’s book was “a timely publication just issued,” citing the author as “a well-known writer of books of travel,” and noting the book was “well printed and contains numerous half-tone reproductions from photographs of Alaskan scenery.” Published in 1897 by Rand, McNalley & Co. 

Project Gutenberg Edition


The Alaska Railroad 1914-1964, Bernardine Prince (1964)

The Alaska Railroad 1914-1964Bernadine LeMay Prince, who joined the U.S. Government-run 470-mile Alaska Railroad company in 1948, worked with seven Alaska Railroad managers. In the early 1960’s she used her almost 20+ years of experience and knowledge of the railroad to compile a remarkable two-volume photographic record of the construction and growth of the Alaska Railroad.

Utilizing photos from the Alaska Engineering Commission’s photographers, among others, she traced the railroad’s history from it’s beginnings in 1914 through decades of sometimes difficult change, to the earthquake of March, 1964. Included are over 2,100 b&w photographs and line drawings. Published by Ken Wray’s Print Shop, Anchorage, 1964.

Not available in digital format. 


Compilation of Narratives of Exploration in Alaska (1900)

Collected RepostsBy the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, United States Congress, 1900. An important gathering of reports by Frederick Schwatka, Ivan Petrof, W.R. Abercrombie, Henry T. Allen, and many others, comprising the records of expansion of non-natives’ knowledge of the territory. Assembled to facilitate a review of territory covered, and the possibilities of opening all American routes to the interior of Alaska. 

“Henry Allen in his report of the reconnaissance of Copper River and Tanana River valleys states that the Indians drew a number of maps. The one he reproduces …. shows the route to Cook Inlet via Suchitno river.” Sixteen reports with 27 folding maps and 33 b/w plates. U.S. Gov’t. Printing Office, 1900. 

Google Books Edition


Old Yukon Tales-Trails-Trials, James Wickersham (1938)

Old Yukon Tales-Trails-TrialsTerritorial judge James Wickersham describes his career as a pioneer attorney, judge, and later as a congressional representative, assigned to a district extending over 300,000 square miles. He made the first recorded attempt of Mt. Denali in 1903; the summit he attempted is now known as Wickersham’s Wall. 

Once seated as a congressional delegate for the District of Alaska, beginning his term in 1909, Wickersham orchestrated changes to Alaska’s relationship with the federal government, in passage of the Second Organic Act in 1912, establishing Alaska officially as a United States territory with a legislature. Wickersham would go on to serve several more terms as Alaska’s delegate to Congress, his last term running from 1931-1933. Published by Washington Law Book Co., 1938.

Not available in digital format.



 

S. S. Nenana

oie_22193644K9uupFSWFrom the September-October issue of Alaskan History Magazine:

At one period in Alaskan history, there were over 300 flat-bottomed sternwheelers navigating on the Yukon River and its tributaries. These sternwheelers were essential in the development of the history of Alaska. Of all these lifelines of the rivers, only one remains, the Steamer SS Nenana, located in Pioneer Park in Fairbanks. The wooden-hulled, western rivers-style steam sternwheel passenger boat Nenana is one of only three steam-powered passenger sternwheelers of any kind left in the U.S., and the only large wooden hulled sternwheeler. She is a living museum of history that must be preserved for perpetuity.

oie_22193533uv0oBLYkShe was built and operated by the Alaska Railroad. With the completion of the railroad from Seward to Fairbanks in 1923, a way to haul freight to the villages and towns was needed. On September 16, 1922, the War Department deactivated the steamers General Jeff C. Davis, and General J. Jacobs from the U.S. Army and made them available to the Alaska Railroad free of charge by Executive Order.

The article about the SS Nenana is by Patricia De Nardo Schmidt, who came to Alaska in 1959, growing up in Anchorage and Fairbanks, and living in Fairbanks since 1969. Patricia watched the history of Fairbanks being lost over the years as buildings were being demolished or falling into ruin and collapse, and when she heard the Steamer SS Nenana was closed to the public in March of 2018 and in danger of being demolished she knew she had to take action. Joining with others who had the same interest in saving the Alaskan steamship, the group Friends of SS Nenana was formed.

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SS Nenana being built, 1932. [1968-013-025 Bill Berry Coll. [Property Pioneers of AK Museum of Fairbanks.]

For more information about Friends of SS Nenana or how to get involved, go to their website (friendsofssnenana.com) or their Facebook page: Friends of SS Nenana. Donations to help support the SS Nenana can also be made through these sites or the North Star Community Foundation SS Nenana page (www.nscfundalaska.org/FSSN).

National Historic Landmark  https://www.nps.gov/places/nenana.htm

Sept:Oct cover smallThe Sept-Oct issue of Alaskan History Magazine, which also features articles about Josephine Crumrine’s sled dog menu covers for The Alaska Steamship Company, the unprecedented luxury cruise of railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman and his carefully selected passenger list of scientists and artists, the story of sea otters in the Aleutian Islands, the history of Alaska’s flag, and an excerpt from Josiah E. Spurr’s 1896 expedition to map and chart the interior of Alaska for the USGS.  The issue can be ordered from the Alaskan History Magazine website.

 

Frank Carpenter

oie_132243cSE042UPThe July-August issue of Alaskan History Magazine includes an article about the venerable world traveler, Frank Carpenter (1855-1924), a photographer, journalist, and lecturer whose writings helped popularize world geography and cultural anthropology. With his daughter Frances (1890-1972), Frank Carpenter photographed Alaska and collected the images of other Alaskan photographers between 1910 and 1924. The article in Alaskan History Magazine tells of a trip he and Frances made across the Kenai Peninsula in 1916, from Seward to Sunrise, a gold mining camp near Hope, on Turnagain Arm.

First working as a journalist for the Cleveland Leader, Frank Carpenter became a correspondent for the American Press Association in 1884. By 1878 his writings were being widely syndicated in newspapers and magazines, and in 1888 he and his wife embarked on a trip around the world, describing life in the countries they journeyed through. Carpenter’s real estate holdings in Washington made him a millionaire, and he was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, the National Press Club, and numerous scientific societies. In 1898 the Carpenters traveled 25,000 miles in South America, and from the mid-1890s until he died, Frank Carpenter traveled around the world almost continuously, authoring nearly 40 books and hundreds of magazine articles about his extensive travels. Carpenter wrote standard geography textbooks and lectured on geography, and he wrote a series of books called Carpenter’s World Travels which were very popular between 1915 and 1930.

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First hospital in Anchorage [Library of Congress Carpenter Collection]

In 1893 The San Francisco Morning Call wrote “He stands at the head of the syndicate correspondents of the United States.  What he writes is read every Sunday in twenty of the biggest cities of the Union, and his newspaper constituency must at the lowest amount to a million readers every week.”

A collection of over 5,000 images were donated to the Library of Congress by Frances at her death in 1972. The Frank G. Carpenter Collection at the Library of Congress totals approximately 16,800 photographs and about 7,000 negatives.

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Frank Carpenter (right) with Jafet Lindberg, one of the founders of Nome, Alaska.

The Library includes this notation about the prints: “Within the albums, English captions accompany most images, but dates are not consistently indicated. The Carpenters may have taken many of the images, especially those made 1910-1924, but the albums also include images that they collected, and the origin of such images is not always noted.”

An excerpt from Carpenter’s 1923 book, Alaska, Our Northern Wonderland:

“The biggest thing in Alaska is the government railroad. By that I do not mean so much its five hundred miles of tracks, its cars and equipment, or the number of tons and passengers it will haul, but what it stands for in the future of the territory. It means the building of feeder wagon and motor roads and the construction of other railroads. It means cheaper coal, lower freight rates, lower living and mining costs. It means more lands and resources flung open to the settler and the prospector. It means a new era of development and prosperity for Alaskans. “

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Frank George Carpenter

Carpenter died of sickness in 1924 while in Nanking, China, on his third trip around the world, at age 69. The Boston Globe obituary observed he “always wrote fascinatingly, always in a language the common man and woman could understand, always of subjects even children are interested in.”

More photos and excerpts from Frank Carpenter’s travels and writing can be found in this book:

CoverFinal Alaska & the Klondike, Early Writings and Historic Photographs, by Helen Hegener, published May, 2018, by Northern Light Media. An engaging journey through the literary history of Alaska and the Klondike, and an introduction to some of the most compelling books ever written about the North. $24.95 (plus shipping), 320 pages, over 100 b/w photos, ISBN-13: 978-1717401991. Click here to order.

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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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.

Last Train

“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 first three digital issues will be free to view by anyone; issues after Sept-Oct, 2019 will be available only to subscribers and anyone who purchases that print issue of the magazine. 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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AAHP Most Endangered List

Screen Shot 2019-06-03 at 8.58.55 PMThe Alaska Association for Historic Preservation has released its annual list of the ten most endangered historic properties in the state, and included this year are the 4th Avenue Theatre in Anchorage, the Jesse Lee Home in Seward, and the photogenic Eldred Rock Lighthouse near Haines. The Alaska Association for Historic Preservation annually helps several of the properties on the list get started with preservation work and leverage funding from other sources.

The sternwheeler Nenana was selected for inclusion. Patricia De Nardo Schmidt is President of the Friends of the SS Nenana, one of only three steam-powered passenger sternwheelers of any kind left in the U.S., and the only large wooden sternwheeler.

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Sternwheeler Nenana

Built in Nenana in 1933 for the Alaska Railroad, for service on the Yukon, Nenana, and Tanana Rivers, the Nenana opened up much of the territory of interior Alaska long before roads could be built. The Nenana carried military cargoes during World War II including lend-lease aircraft on the way to Russia. Retired in 1955, the SS Nenana now resides at Pioneer Park in Fairbanks. It was designated a National Historic Landmark on May 5, 1989.

The most endangered historic properties program started in 1991 and helps get public attention of cultural and architectural properties that are threatened. The complete list for 2019 includes:

Nenana Sternwheeler, Fairbanks
Eldred Rock Lighthouse, Haines vicinity
Coastal Archaeological Sites
Stevenson Hall (Sheldon Jackson School), Sitka
Leonhard Seppala House, Nome
4th Avenue Theatre, Anchorage
Government Hill Community Center, Anchorage
Pioneer School House, Anchorage
Bristol Bay Sailboats, Naknek, King Salmon, Egegik
Jesse Lee Home, Seward

To donate or learn more about the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation, contact Amber Sawyer at 907.929.9870 / akpreservation@gmail.com / http://www.aahp-online.net/

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The Bristol Bay salmon fleet circa 1948. (Ward Wells collection / Anchorage Museum)