The Alaska Central Railway went bankrupt in 1908. Likewise the Alaska Northern Railway in 1915. Now it was the United States government's turn to try to build a railroad in the resource rich Territory.
On August 24, 1912 Congress gave the nod to President Taft to investigate rail transportation in Alaska. A four man team was appointed to undertake this task. This team explored the region and submitted their report on January 20, 1913:
"That railroad connections with open ports on the Pacific were necessary for utilization of the furtile regions of the Alaska interior and the mining resources, and to open up a large region to the homesteader, the prospector, and the miner, and that construction of two independent railroad systems to be ultimately connected and supplemented was advisable, one to run Cordova by way of Chitina to Fairbanks, and the other from Seward around Cook Inlet to the Iditarod River, with a total cost of $35 million for the 733 miles of new construction involved."
In March 12, 1914 Congress authorized the President to "locate, construct and operate" a railroad in the Territory of Alaska. They also appropriated $35 million and mandated the use of discarded rail equipment from the Panama Canal project. On May 2, President Wilson gave the order to the secretary of the Interior to begin surveying railroad routes and also created the Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC) to conduct these surveys. William C. Edes, a veteran of more than 35 years of experience in building western railroads, was selected as chairman. Frederick Mears was selected due to his experience as an engineer on the Panama and Great Northern railroads. The final member was Thomas Riggs, Jr. who had spent many years in Alaska, had surveyed the Alaskan/Canadian Boundary and was very familar with its weather conditions.
The AEC established offices in Seattle in 1914 and began gathering men and supplies for their surveying work. The first team arrived on June 6, 1914 at Ship Creek. They constructed several buildings for AEC use as well as corrals for the horses. They investigated two routes, one beginning at Valdez or Cordova and the other at Seward or Portage Bay, both ending in Fairbanks. They completed their survey work in a little over three months and then headed to Washington to assemble the data. They submitted their final report to the President on February 11, 1915, but gave no recommendations as to which route they preferred. In April, the President chose the western route which began at Seward. He also authorized the purchase of the Alaska Northern.
Before the month of April ended, an eager Lt. Frederick Mears returned to Alaska with a crew and began marking the route. In anticipation of future employment, thousands of people arrived in the area and a large tent city was created. Even though construction labor only paid 37.5 cents per hour, there was more men than jobs.
The first new rails were laid at Ship Creek on April 29, 1915. Per the 1914 mandate, large quantites of Panama Canal equipment reached Anchorage in the summer of 1915. This included steam shovels, derricks, bridge timbers, structural steel, the A.E.C.'s first locomotives, flat cars, wheels, boilers, drills and shop machinery. Large quantities of lumber and rail were shipped from Seattle. Steel mills in the lower 48 manufactured 70 pound rail for the main line and 60 pound rail for the sidings. As new construction blossomed, some of the original Alaska Central/Northern was put to use. A motor car traveled the first 35 miles charging passengers 12.5 cents per mile and freight $25 per ton.
In summer, equipment was transported by boats and wagons. Surprisingly, winter was a preferred time for transporting equipment. Hundreds of horses and many sleds were used to transport equipment to construction camps. Although winter could bring an end to laying rail, it was an acceptable time for bridge building. Pile drivers could sink pilings and steel could be put in place.
In 1916 60 mles of new track were laid, 100 miles were graded, the right-of-way was cleared for 230 miles, work progessed on the rehabilitation of the Alaska Northern Railroad, tons of rock were removed and a good start was made on the northern end of the line from south of Fairbanks.
On October 24, 1917 the first train reached the Chickaloon coal miles which were located 74 miles north of Anchorage. Six days later the first shipment of coal arrived in Anchorage.
On December 31, 1917, the A.E.C. purchased the bankrupt 31.9 mile Tanana Valley Railroad for $300,000. All of the equipment was renamed to reflect the new ownership. In actuality, they had their eyes mostly on its terminal facilities in Fairbanks and the right of way from Happy to Fairbanks.
By March 4, 1919 the end of steel recached mile post 227. When 1920 came to a close, 382 miles of new track had been laid. Only two unfinished bridges, Riley Creek and Tanana River, were all that prevented a connection between Fairbanks and Seward. The Riley Creek bridge was completed in February of 1922. However, the Tanana River bridge would be another beast entirely. It would entail a 701 foot single span bridge, a record breaker for its day. By June 1923, the Tanana River bridge was complete and the last 57 miles of track to Fairbanks was converted to standard gauge.
In July of 1923, the railroad was complete and President Harding drove the golden spike during a special ceremony. He and his wife also made multiple public appearances as well. Due to World War I, inflations and appropriations delays the railroad was completed behind schedule and at almost twice the cost.
For those interested in the historical highlights after 1923, click here.