During World War II, the Alaska Railroad was used by the army to transport military personnel, supplies, and construction materials between Seward, Whittier, Anchorage, and Fairbanks. To facilitate these activities and to provide security for railroad operations the 714th Railway Operating Battalion was assigned to operate the railroad in May of 1943 in cooperation with civilian railroad personnel. In addition to its rail activities, the Alaska Railroad also operated a river line between the railhead at Nenana and Marshall on the Lower Yukon, and modernized and operated the Eska Coal Mines north of Anchorage in order to adequately supply the coal needs of the army and the railroad during the war. In addition, the 1,150 men of the Battalion helped construct the Whittier cut-off and 31 miles of branch lines from Fairbanks to nearby air bases. The army operation ended in May, 1945. [See additional historical reference here]
Carl Freshour was assigned to the 714th Railway Operating Battalion from March of 1943 until January of 1945. He was stationed at Anchorage for twenty two months and his base was just west of where the old roundhouse was located. He was a conductor, promoted by the Alaska Railroad in 1943. He worked just about every place on the line and also put in many hours on snow plow crews in the winter of 1943/1944. The following is an abbreviated version of his experiences.
"We were three days plowing out the snow with the snow removal train. Counting both the train and engine crews there were two engine crews and two conductor's for the rotary snow plow, four engine crews for the steam engines for power, and two train crews for a total of fourteen. Also there were a few maintenance of way men with us. We each worked 12 hour shifts without stopping. The temperatures were 40 degrees below zero."
"There was a bunk car for sleeping, cook's car (where we ate our meals), two locomotives, a caboose and a rotary snow plow. It was staffed by an engineer, a fireman and a conductor, besides two complete train and engine crews. Sometimes when we hit real hard plowing, we would cut off from the train and just take the two steam engines and rotary to buck out the drifts. In real tough going where it had drifted in real hard, we would back up quite a distance and rev up the rotary wide open with the engines going ahead full force and hit the drifts. It was something like a hydraulic jack slowly coming to a stop and we immediately reversed the engines to get back out before the snow settled in around the rotary and engines. Sometimes we did not get back out of the drifts fast enough and got stuck. Then it was "man the shovels" and dig out by hand."
Headed north to Grandview Section men had to pick ice away from the rail before we could plow out the siding at Tunnel Snow fleet crew at Tunnel The snow is higher than the locomotive! Ice encased rotary #2 taking a break Entire snow fleet train A fabulous front view of the rotary plow in action Two engines pushing a rotary snow plow north of Hurricane Gulch
"We proceeded back to pick up the rest of the train and I got my first good look at the Loop that I had heard so much about. Sure enough it was a loop and going south, you would pass under the railroad. Then the railroad made a big right hand turn before going back over top. It was built that way because of the steep grade."
Just south of Tunnel at the start of the Loop (winter) Just south of Tunnel at the start of the Loop (summer) Going up the mountain from Tunnel Part of the Loop covered in a blanket of snow
"I went to Alaska in March of 1943 and was there until January of 1945. I was promoted to conductor soon after we started to work on the railroad. We had 25 complete engine and train crews along with a complete shop repair and maintenance of way company, which replaced ties, ballast and rails over the system. We worked from Seward to Fairbanks and all of the branch lines."
Mario Rinaldo (at left) This train is known as the Freshour air mailer Melquist hard at work Carl Freshour in -40 degrees on main line north of Hurricane Gulch. Snow was so hard and packed we had a hard time of clearing the railroad. Carl's Letter of Reference 714th's Christmas card 714th's Railway Ball
"The Alaska Railroad steam engines were well taken care of and I do not remember ever having any engine failures. We did not baby any of them and they responded beautifully. However the Army steam engines were (as explained to me) not drafted right. When we started to use them, they would not keep up the steam boiler pressure and we had to stop to get up steam again. I was going out on a run with a GI engine and train crew, so I thought I would ride the engine to help hand fire it. We no more than started on our trip and as usual we lost the steam pressure and it just wouldn't keep the boiler pressure up. The engineer's name was Jack Larue, a big man and just as rough. He said to me, 'Let's make some changes' and I said, 'OK, what? ' He took the clinker hook, a long steel rod used to clean the fire box of clinkers, and went outside the engine. We climbed on top and forced that clinker hook down the smoke stack and gave it a twist and left it in there. That engine never steamed better on that trip. Seemed like all you had to do was shake the shovel at the fire door and the pop off valve would let go releasing boiler pressure so the boiler would not blow up. The railroad made the changes and had no trouble after that."
No. 2 at Seward No. 553 at Curry Lead engine No. 802 had a vestibule cab No. 703 covered in ice and snow Bringing the train into Anchorage No. 701
On the Rails
"The scenery along the Alaska Railroad was something to behold. Winter or summer, it was beautiful. The red wild flowers growing all over about 36 inches high waving in the breeze was a sight within itself. Seeing the blue hues of the blueberries in the fall was some sight. The snow in the winter was beautiful even though it caused us many head aches. I still remember going through the deep cuts of snow and the moose running along ahead of us. Many times a moose would run ahead of us into Curry where they could wonder out into the fields."
"The Curry Hotel was used mainly for an overnight stay for passengers. They arrived on Number 2 each Tuesday evening at 7:00 PM, providing they were on time. When I was in Alaska, they only ran one round trip train a week . We had several of our GI's stationed there. These were cooks, maintenance men and an operator ticket agent. The passengers could eat in the dining room at the hotel. The GI's and civilian railroaders ate in a large room in the basement next to the kitchen. If you look at the picture of the Curry Hotel, there was a pretty good sized building to the left (south). This was a railroad dormitory and it is where I was assigned a room. There were houses o the south of the dormitory. These were mostly the residences of the section men and roundhouse employees. When the train came in, all of us would gather on the platform to watch the passengers unload."
Coming down Tunnel hill Train at Seward Breathtaking Healy Canyon Section foreman and wife at first station north of Seward Riding the rails Meeting a north bound train headed for Anchorage. We were in the siding at Hunter. PX car at Hunter Those snow plows really work! Mountains and snow shoes Mr. and Mrs. Section Foreman at the section house at Grandview Barely could see the indicator board to raise the flangers Hotel Curry where I was stationed for five months
Healy Coal Mine
"I worked on the run to the Eska coal mines a few times. It was quite a trip. We took off on the branch line from Matanuska up through Palmer. The grade up to the mines was very steep. I remember when we had our switching completed at the mine and our train built up for the way down the mountain. Air test were made and I think we set retainers on about every load of coal that we had. The eats at Palmer was wonderful. First time I had fresh milk and strawberries for a long time. The vegetables were so large and fresh. And the mosquitoes! They were also large and millions of them. The section men worked with nets about their upper body in order to get the work done. I only remember going on the branch at Healy to the coal mine once. I think I may have obtained the pictures of the Healy mines from some of the GI's that worked on that run."
Winter at Healy coal mine Hoppers loaded with coal A view from the other side of the tracks Spring floods at Healy coal mines
From the 714th's Yearbook
Rail car involved in an accident
1944 Christmas card
Here are six cards that Carl accumulated during his time of service on the Alaska Railroad:
Here are a few other links I have found:
© Carl Freshour 2002-2010