The Alaska Railroad suffered massive damage to its plant as a result of the Great Earthquake of March 27, 1964. When the ground had stopped shaking and the earthquake generated waves had subsided, much of the Railroad south of Anchorage lay in ruins. The work of years, including both original construction and the newer construction of the rehabilitation period, was gone in those few terrible minutes.
Heavy damage also extended from Anchorage north across the Knik and Matanuska River Flats and up the Palmer Branch. Light damage, which was limited to bridges, diminished in severity to its furthest limit at Hurricane Gulch Bridge, 170 miles north of Anchorage or 284.2 miles north of Seward.
The inventory of damage to the Railroad read something like this:
In roadbed and track, three miles of main line were carried away by land slides and tidal waves. Eight miles of yard and dock tracks were similarly destroyed. Forty seven miles of the main line, plus five miles of side tracks were rendered unsafe for service due to severe subsidence and failure of the sub grade. Thirty seven miles of main line track plus seven miles of side tracks and yard tracks were exposed to tidal erosion due to tectonic subsidence. Approximately four miles of rail were damaged by bending and kinking under compression. In bridges alone, 567 spans of wood trestles were badly damaged or totally destroyed and although no steel bridges were lost, 34 required major repair work in order to make them safe for traffic.
But the Alaska Railroad is much more than just roadbed, track and bridges. It is a complete transportation system with docks, transit sheds, buildings, repair facilities, communication lines, rolling stock, maintenance and support equipment, etc.
At Seward the modern deep water marginal docks and transit sheds were almost totally destroyed by underwater slides and tidal waves. Two large dockside gantry cranes toppled into Resurrection Bay and six large straddle buggies worth $300,000 followed one by one. The same combination of underwater sliding and tidal waves destroyed six miles of yard and dock tracks, badly damaged the new engine house and either damaged or destroyed over 100 pieces of rolling stock.
One of the yard engines, which was making up a train at the time the earthquake hit, was picked up by a tidal wave and carried 150 feet inland. The same waves hit loaded box cars with such an impact that the wheel flanges tore out rail and spikes on the landward side of the tracks leaving the seaward rail intact. The petroleum tank farms belonging to Standard Oil and Texaco were destroyed and the contents of their ruptured storage tanks added another dimension to the damage at Seward-fire.
Our other port facility located at Whittier was considerably closer to the epicenter of the earthquake and suffered the same sequence of forces and subsequent damage, but with some exceptions. There, we lost the new car barge slip which provided direct rail car service with the Lower 48. One wing of the depot building was wiped cleanly away by a 30' tidal wave but the rest of the structure, including living quarters, survived relatively intact. Although covered with debris, the Whittier yard also remained relatively intact, primarily because it lay further back from the shore line. The marginal wharf and transit shed under lease to the Railroad were heavily damaged but were capable of being placed in service after heavy repairs were made.
Our terminal yard and headquarter facilities here in Anchorage received their share of damage: the office annex building, wheel shop and an equipment storage building were heavily damaged and had to be razed. The large car repair shop received heavy structural damage to the roof system and required extensive repairs and the poor old Army Dock, which dated back to original construction and unused for many years, finally succumbed to earthquake damage.
All this and more is a litany of the damage inflicted on the railroad by the earthquake of March 27, 1964. We were badly hurt but we weren't out.... Within a number of days, April 6 to be exact, the first freight train moved north from Anchorage and coal service was restored from the Jonesville mines to the power plants on Elmendorf and Fort Rich. On April 20, four weeks after the earthquake, the first train out of Whittier brought 125 cars loaded with freight into Anchorage, and Seward received its first freight train from Anchorage on September 13.
Freeze-up in November brought an end to earthquake repair work in 1964. Another season of unprecedented work was required in 1965 to complete the restoration of the Railroad to pre-earthquake standards with some of the work, primarily on the new Seward Dock, spilling over into 1966.
It would be wrong, I feel, to classify this comeback from the edge of disaster as an interesting episode in the history of the Railroad. It was much more than that. It was an epic achievement requiring an effort similar to that performed during the original construction of the Railroad as previously described, or that of operating the Railroad during the war years as described by General B. B. Talley. This performance by the people working for the Alaska Railroad had to be of epic proportions in order to overcome the damage inflicted by the greatest recorded earthquake in the history of the North American continent. Remember too that our work season is only six months long and that the earthquake occurred during late freeze-up.
Much of the story of the recovery of the Alaska Railroad was taken for granted. It certainly could not compete with the running headlines concerning the heavy damage and loss of lives in the coastal cities and here in Anchorage. But considering the magnitude of the repair work that was required; considering the effectiveness of that work and the decisions that were made; considering the timeliness--the speed of recovery; and finally, considering the cost or the value of work performed for each earthquake dollar spent; then it is my firm opinion that the people of the Alaska Railroad achieved one of the most outstanding efforts of any single agency or entity, federal, state municipal or private concern, during the post-earthquake rebuilding that followed the Good Friday earthquake.
These are some of the things I remember beginning with that first meeting in the dispatchers' office early Saturday morning March 28. It was a very somber meeting of all Railroad officials and supervisors. There was no heat in the building and no lights. The dispatcher console, through which communications were maintained over the entire railroad was silent. The location of the North Whittier freight, last reported out of Portage Friday evening at 4:50 p.m. was unknown, as was the extent of damage to the Railroad.
That of course became our immediate task -- to find out how badly we were damaged. Soon we were scattering in all directions, on foot, by car and in the air. I went south in a helicopter with the General Manager, Mr. Manley. Before starting our aerial survey of the track, the pilot flew out over Turnagain-by-the-Sea. What we saw there in the slide area removed any doubt about what we were going to find on our inspection of the Railroad. The damage began at the south end of Anchorage Yard and continued as we made our way to Portage, over to Bear Valley on the Whittier Branch and south to Hunter Flats on the main line to Seward.
When you are called out during an emergency involving damage or delay to the Railroad, you are required to make a detailed inspection of the problem so that adequate men, equipment and materials can be sent to repair the damage and an estimate made as to when traffic can be restored. This inspection must include length and depth of slide in case of an avalanche, the number of bridge ties, piling and caps destroyed in case of a bridge fire, or the number of rail and ties damaged in a derailment as well as other pertinent data.
True to this tradition, I started taking notes in detail. However, the speed of the helicopter and the extent of the damage soon overwhelmed me and I resorted to a broad brush treatment, such as "All major slides are down," or "All wood bridges extensively damaged between Portage and milepost 54." Sure enough, when we returned to the dispatcher's office that night, one of the officials who had remained behind, cornered me and said, "Let's get it all down on paper."
He sat down at the typewriter and began typing as I read from my notes. By the time I got to Bird Point, his enthusiasm for a detailed report ended. He ripped the paper out of the carriage and said "I guess we're in trouble." But during that trip, we located our freight train safe and sound at Girdwood. We stopped at the watchman's shed at Bear Valley and had coffee from an electric percolator. Not many people in Anchorage had that luxury on that first morning. While there, we got a first hand report of Whittier and learned also that the two long tunnels were undamaged. This information was crucial to the subsequent decision to allow loaded rail car barges to resume their sailing to Whittier in April.
As a result of the various inspections, we had a fair idea of the extent of damage by early Sunday morning. Pat Cook, Chief Engineer, had made his way to Seward from Kenai Lake and then flown back to Anchorage to report on the destruction at Seward. As head of the department that would bear the brunt of repairing the Railroad, it was his recommendations that we give first priority to the track north of Anchorage in order to restore the coal haul required by the military bases. Our General Roadmaster, Jack Church, had wasted no time at all. While making his Saturday inspection, he was also issuing orders to his section crews to begin repair work that very day.
The earthquake couldn't have happened at a worse time--it was still freeze-up. (Of course November would have been even worse.) But since the gravel ballast and subgrade were frozen, it meant that all minor track repair work had to be done by shimming which meant pulling the spikes, jacking the rail, inserting wood shims under the rail and tie plate, and then respiking to line and grade -- a slow and tedious process.
Major repairs to the subgrade required more drastic measures. The rail would be unbolted in 10 and 15 rail lengths of 400 to 600 feet and dragged clear of the damaged area. Then a D-9 cat with a ripper would set its ripper teeth and make several passes back and forth turning the ballast and ties still frozen in place into a mixture of gravel pebbles and oily, creosoted splinters. The blade would then be set for a smoothing pass and we had a grade on which to place new ties and relay the rail. Although the new grade would be lower by as much as three feet, we could get across it at reduced speeds.
Our bridge crews have always carried their work right on through the winter months, even in the coldest temperatures, so the necessary bridge repair work north of Anchorage required no drastic innovation -- there was just more of it than normal.
At the end of the first week, we had made good progress north of Anchorage and had engaged contractor equipment to repair two subgrade sections in the Spenard area and to begin building subgrade for 2,000 feet of shoofly track around the Potter Hill slide. Here too, ripper cats were required to break the frozen ground in order to uncover the 175,000 cubic yards of materials required for the new subgrade. As other agencies began to get underway with their own repair work and started looking for D8 and D9 cats with rippers, they found the Railroad had most of them already in use. I understand that Mr. Manley came in for some sharp criticism for having jumped the gun on everyone. We even had the Army and its equipment working for us on Potter Hill.
Our own fleet of dozers were 1955 D-7 cats with cable blade and could not handle frozen ground. However, we did use them extensively in snow removal during the winter. With the dozen or more large avalanches covering our main line, we needed all of our dozers, including the three that were stationed in the Grandview area, 15 miles south of Portage. Glen Everett and two operators made their way to Grandview and brought them out in a hair-raising episode lasting 24 hours.
The old D-7 cat with its narrow tread width can safely walk on top of the rails, which worked fine through six tunnels and down the hill until Glen came to the wood bridges which had been so badly damaged. He had to get across these bridges; he could not risk getting stuck in the heavy snow in the stream beds by trying to go around them. Neither would he risk his men. Glen was an old Arizona cowboy and it was a simple matter for him to rig up a long rein to each steering lever, engage the dozers in low range and then walk behind each one, steering them across each broken bridge on the way into Portage where they were quickly put to work on removing snow slides.
And so we ripped and dozed, hammered and shoveled our way towards Portage and a tentative rendezvous with the first car barge arrival at Whittier on April 13. But we didn't make it. We had begun to notice that the tides on Turnagain Arm were not behaving according to the book. They were coming in faster and they were higher than they should be. Although there may have been some earlier discussion of tectonic subsidence, it was our Dock Superintendent at Whittier, Elton Jergens, who gave us the bad news in cold, hard numbers. Coming from Seward, he had to familiarize himself with the conditions at Whittier, in particular the depth of water at the marginal wharf. It took several phone calls before he could convince anyone in Engineering that his measurements were correct and indicated that he had 5.5' less freeboard on the dock, or 5.5 feet more water than shown on the plans. The dock had not suffered local settlement - the whole of that part of the Kenai Peninsula; Railroad, towns, and all had subsided by that amount in a great crustal movement. This subsidence of the land mass extended in lesser degree through Anchorage. To us it meant a setback. Although we could repair the track for temporary service, we could not raise it above the coming high tides of April 12 - 19. It also meant that all of Portage would be covered by the high tides and that we would have to evacuate our personnel except for the men who would man the communications shed.
Portage was a spooky place then. It had been hard hit during the earthquake which had lasted longer there (18 minutes) because of the thick underlying beds of clay. The local residents had been unable to evacuate in the face of tidal wave warnings due to the destruction of highway bridges and grade on both sides of town and had feared for their lives through that first night. Now, three weeks later, the winter's accumulation of ice floes lay scattered about the town and rail yard, ready to be picked up by the incoming high tides. During normal high tides the highway was impassable and everyone at Portage was stranded until the water receded.
Before pulling out of Portage that afternoon of April 11, we reached back into Portage yard with our dozer and dragged nine cars loaded with ties, and pushed them out onto our long steel bridge which crosses Twenty Mile River. With its inverted steel trusses, it had already begun to take punishment from the ice floes coming in on high tide. We hoped that the additional weight on the bridge would help it withstand the battering from the ice.
I went down the next morning by helicopter to watch the high tide as it came flooding in like an evil and malevolent thing. Soon all of Portage was covered except for our bridge across Twenty Mile River and it was taking a terrific pounding from the huge ice cakes carried in with the tide. But it held and when we could land, I had our lineman paddle over to one of our poles and wrap a ribbon around it, one foot above the still visible water mark. That would be our design grade for raising as much track as possible before the high tides of early May.
A week later we moved back into Portage with a large extra gang and work train and opened up a gravel pit on the Whittier Branch. From this one pit we would subsequently take nearly 1,000,000 cubic yards of gravel for raising track. We also opened a mud pit at Girdwood to protect the fresh gravel fill from "piping" during high water. At Bird Point and later at MP 95, we opened up rock pits to provide over 800,000 cubic yards of rip rap for protecting the fill against wave erosion along Turnagain Arm.
April 21 - We were back in service as the first train moved from Whittier to Anchorage with 125 cars of freight. True, it crawled much of the way at 10 miles per hour and took more than twice the normal running time but we were a Railroad once more, albeit a crippled one. The car barge slip at Whittier had been destroyed and until its replacement was built, loaded box cars were lifted one by one from the barges by a huge floating crane and placed on a dock track where it was then switched onto a train makeup, a very slow process.
Dispatching of trains to and from Whittier was done by the tide book with all trains scheduled to be out of the Portage and Bird Flats area during the periods of high tides. We could not hold the track at Portage. Twice each 24-hour period, the tide would roll in over us, washing out ballast and subgrade. And twice each day we would repair it ahead of the next train. Our dozers would be belly deep in water as they pushed the gravel back to the track where our gandy dancers would be wading in water as they jacked and tamped the track. This is how we got through the period of high tides during the months of May, June and July. Freezing temperatures occurred as late as May 10.
Rebuilding the main line south of Portage to Seward was begun during late June. The dominant feature of this particular effort was the repair of the numerous wood bridges on Spencer and Hunter Flats. Photographs of these bridges show some of the most spectacular earthquake damage on the Railroad. This type of bridge damage was due to a phenomenon known as "land spreading" which occurred in the unconsolidated gravels of extensive flat areas and valley floors. Just as in the Turnagain slide area, liquification of the granular material occurred at depth during the quake and the land then moved horizontally, rather than vertically. Large open fissures or cracks on the surface of the frozen ground were one evidence of this movement.
Our bridges gave a more spectacular evidence of this land spreading because each stream had became a compression zone as the stream and river banks moved perceptibly towards each other, sometimes in inches, others as much as four to six feet. Under this compression, our wood bridges failed and took on appearances that were not within our design standards. One bridge jacknifed several feet into the air looking much like an A-frame cabin. Other longer trestles took on a long cambered arch appearance as the spreading soil pushed the ground up in the middle of river channels, thereby raising the middle of our bridges. Others failed horizontally as the bridge ends moved out of line as much as 10 feet with respect to each other.
The two steel rails showed the same evidence of land spreading. Sometimes they ballooned out, some turned in or they would both curve out, taking ties with them; other times leaving the ties frozen in place. It was weird but our bridge crews, under the direction of Bruce Cannon, turned to with a will, salvaging what they could of the existing structure, driving new piling, and putting cap upon cap upon cap, if necessary, to level the bridge deck and place it in temporary service.
A complete work train was loaded in Anchorage and barged to Seward where it was unloaded and dragged to Jesse Lee siding and placed on the track. By the end of August, we had the main line to Seward open to traffic but had to wait until the following year (1966) before freight could be received across the new dock.
All told $27,000,000 was spent on the restoration of Railroad facilities including an overrun of over $3,000,000 on the Seward Dock. About $4,000,000 went for new equipment including badly needed air dump cars. Bridge work alone required 1.5 million. And finally, 3,100,000 cubic yards of gravel, rock and mud were loaded, hauled and placed in repairing ballast and subgrade, enough material to load enough cars to make up a single train with the caboose in San Francisco and the lead unit in Vancouver, B.C.
That's a mighty big train -----
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