by Tom Smith
[Webmaster's note: The text below is an Alaska Railroad specific subset of Tom Smith's entire trip which began in New York. You'll find his entire trip report here.]
The Alaska Railroad mainline from Seward enters Anchorage from the south, passes by the airport skirts Knik Arm until it comes to Ship Creek where it turns inland, passes the passenger station, crosses the creek and heads northward towards Fairbanks. The station is a rather large building without any sheltered platforms which also serves as the railroad's general offices. An 0-4-0T is mounted on a pedestal in front of the building, and a large parking lot is adjacent. My friend from Washington D.C. that I had met on the North Coast Ltd. had told me that the general manager of the ARR was a member of the Alaska-Yukon Chapter NRHS, and suggested I make my presence known. The GM was in Washington D.C. that day, so I talked to his assistant. They really rolled out the red carpet, and I was treated to a complete tour of the railroad facilities of Anchorage.
A state with only two railroads is not likely to attract too much attention from railfans particularly when there is no steam involved and you have to go many miles to get there. Among non-railfans people do not normally associate the 49th state with railroading. Prior to June, I had always thought of the Alaska R.R. as a hopelessly uneconomic government bureaucracy operated by Uncle Sam because he had to provide some service through a sparsely populated area that no private operator would touch. That may have been true at one time, but no more. Contrary to the way most Government agencies are administered, the Alaska Railroad is run like a profit-making business (I can't say it's run like a railroad; most U.S. roads could learn a thing or two from the ARR) and is a vigorous competitor for freight traffic. ARR employees are proud of the fact that their railroad is owned by Uncle Sam and have confidence it the competence of management, a fact which keeps morale high. The recent news of the Penn Central bankruptcy only reinforced their conviction that public ownership was best for the ARR. Of course the ARR has been quite fortunate in having such a dedicated staff, and I believe most of them realize it. A government–owned Penn Central would be an even bigger disaster than a bankrupt PC. The pioneer spirit of self-reliance prevails on the ARR and for the railfan despondent over the state of the industry a visit to the United State's biggest state will be very enlightening.
The building of the Alaska Railroad was first proposed by William Howard Taft, and construction was authorized by Congress in 1914. The Alaska Gold Rush was past its peak, but commercial gold mining was being conducted, and the Rush had focused attention on the importance of Seward's icebox, so it was felt that some kind of means of transportation was needed to tap the territory's great wealth. Seward, on the Kenai peninsula, was an ice-free port year round and had a magnificent natural harbor, so it was decided to build the rail line from there to Fairbanks where it would meet river boats on the Yukon River to provide access to most of interior Alaska and the Yukon territory. This was not the first rail venture for Alaska, for the White Pass & Yukon was completed in 1902, and a lengthy 195-mile copper hauling railroad, the standard gauge Copper River & Northwestern, ran out of Cordova. Another railroad, the Alaska Central, started building north from Seward, in 1903, and laid 50 miles of track before going bankrupt. The Act of March 12, 1914, which authorized construction of the Alaska Railroad, authorized the President to select the route, and Woodrow Wilson chose the Alaska Central route over the CR&NW as the nucleus of the Alaska Railroad. Had he chosen the latter route, Anchorage would not have become the state's largest city. The CR&NW continued to run until 1938 when the copper played out, and equipment was sold to the Alaska Railroad and the roadbed was used to construct a highway. The Alaska Central right of way was purchased, and rebuilding it along with laying new track began immediately. Another construction camp was started at what is now Anchorage for it also provided access to ocean routes. On July 15, 1923, President Warren G. Harding drove t he golden spike at Nenana, south of Fairbanks, on a trip to Alaska from which he was never to return, and the Alaska Railroad was in business.
Business, however, never lived up to the expectations of the promoters, and the line lost money every year. Losses had to be covered by appropriations from Congress, and many congressmen were so unhappy that proposals were rampant to abandon the whole operation after running only, a few years. The reason for the heavy losses is just as valid today as it was then; the area is rich in natural resources, but the high transportation costs of shipping to the mainland United States priced, Alaska products out of the only market they had. It was much cheaper to cut timber in Washington or British Columbia than it was to bring it from Alaska. There is probably more coal in Alaska than there is oil. In fact, you can see coal veins several feet think in the mountains from the train windows. However, it is not a high-grade coal and the transportation costs of getting it to market are too high to compete with coal from the mainland U.S. Today, except for the coal used in Alaska generating plants, most coal remains in the ground and the timber remains uncut for want of a ready market. This situation will probably change in the very near future, for the Japanese are already buying Alaska timber and are showing interest in Alaska coal, since the distance from Alaska to Japan is relatively short, or at least shorter than from any other point in North America.
World War II was the turning point for the Alaska Railroad. The Japanese had landed forces in the Aleutian islands, and it was suddenly realized that the only link between Alaska and the continental United States was the sea route, which was vulnerable to submarine attack. Had the Japs secured a really strong foothold in Alaska it would have not only cut off the flow of aircraft and other war supplies to Russia but would also provide a base for attack on the United States. It was decided to build an all weather overland highway from Dawson Creek, B.C. to Fairbanks to provide Alaska with a land link to the rest of the United States, and build it in a hurry. Construction bases were established at Dawson Creek at the end of the Northern Alberta Railroad and at Whitehorse, Y.T. at the head of the White Pass route, and also at Fairbanks where the Alaska Railroad could bring in supplies from Seward. The Alaska Railroad was better able to handle the flow of construction supplies than was the White Pass, but at the same time numerous military bases were also established throughout the Railbelt which the Alaska Railroad had to serve. During the War, the Army, fearing the vulnerability of the single port at Seward, constructed a second port at Whittier and built a large base there for the handling of military cargo including a car ferry slip. The closest point on the Alaska Railroad was Portage, 12 1/2 miles away, but to reach it required going through two huge mountains of the Chugach Range. Accordingly, two tunnels of 4,000 and 14,000 feet length respectively were dug, and the Whittier Branch was constructed. To this day, this is the only access to Whittier by land, and the Alaska Railroad accommodates travelers by running the portage train between the Seward Highway at Portage and Whittier. It was not possible to operate steam engines in the tunnels, and so the ARR acquired its first diesels, a pair of Alco RS-1s, which are still in service.
Even though Uncle Sam transferred the money from one pocket to another, the Alaska Railroad made a tidy profit during the war years by hauling war supplies. More importantly the necessity of having the road was indisputably established, and cries for its abandonment were no longer heard. The hot war became a cold war and Alaska was the first line of defense, with the Alaska Railroad right in front on the battle lines. However the unceasing crush of traffic during the war years had practically worn out the road's physical plant, and again Congress came to the aid of the road with appropriations to rebuild the roadway. The acquisition of equipment was an easy matter, for as a government agency the road could acquire government surplus equipment for only the cost of moving it to the site. The road acquired a great deal of surplus equipment, much of' which I was unable to use. Some War Dept. 2-8-0s came to the property, but the greatest godsends were a batch of Alco RS-1s that had been built for the Army, for use in Iran and the thousands of troop sleepers and kitchen cars which were built during the war but made surplus by VJ day. As one drives in from the airport the first Alaska Railroad equipment one sees are four former troop Pullmans on display bearing an exhibit near the airport. Although despised by all of its occupants, the troop sleeper is probably the most fitting memorial to the Alaska Railroad one could find. They were adaptable to a multitude of uses, most of them being converted to boxcars, but many others found their way to service as camp cars, flangers, steam generating cars, electric generating cars, and refrigerating cars. Still others were cut down to flat cars, and car bodies were used as storage sheds. Some were converted to passenger coaches, and a sizable number remained as troop sleepers and were held for military movements and emergency standby service in the event a mass evacuation was required. The troop sleeper spirit of ingenuity, i.e. making the best of whatever is at hand, prevails on the ARR to this day and is a fitting testimonial to the ability of Alaska Railroad management to give the United States taxpayer the most for his money. A number of Army hospital cars were also acquired and converted to coaches and baggage cars.
After the rebuilding program the Alaska Railroad began to conduct itself like a business instead of a government agency. The first order of business was to bring efficiency to the operation. A great deal of surplus acquired in the rebuilding program was gathering rust and no possible use could be thought of for it, and no one could recall why it was accumulated in the first place. All useless surpluses were disposed of and the shop area cleaned up. The last steamers were retired and F7s were bought to replace them. Most freight the road hauled was unloaded from freighters at Seward and loaded into boxcars by longshore gangs. Containers were introduced in this service which could be loaded on the ship in Seattle and unloaded directly onto a flat car for delivery with no intermediate handling, cutting costs greatly. A new yard was constructed at Fairbanks and an ultramodern diesel shop was built at Anchorage. Gradually the improvements began to pay dividends, and the Alaska Railroad ceased to be a drain on the treasury and was able to cover its expenses by revenues with a surplus. The only appropriations Congress has made to the road in recent years were to repair the damage wrought by the 1964 earthquake. All capital improvements the road makes now are financed from the surplus.
The Alaska Railroad is an aggressive competitor for freight business. Competition comes from the big semi trailers operated by Weaver Bros. and other trucking companies over the Seward Highway from Seward to Anchorage, and also from Sea-Land Service, whose vessels call directly at Anchorage. Although the ARR gained a lot of business hauling Sea-Land containers inland, it also lost a lot of business which would have formerly moved over its lines from Seward, to Anchorage. The truckers call foul for they feel that they are private tax-paying enterprises competing with the US. Government which does not have to pay taxes or provide for a return on investment thus enabling the road to have low rates. By comparison with United States roads, however the rates are quite high. Another source of competition is the pipeline the Army has built to supply its bases inland with fuel delivered by sea. Unlike many "outside" roads, the Alaska Railroad does not stand by and bemoan the fact that the truckers are gobbling up the most lucrative business. Since most Alaska cargo has to cross a pier twice to go from the continental United States to the 49th State, it was felt that this was the most significant area for service improvement. As mentioned earlier, containerization was utilized to cut down port handling, the containers being 24', all that could be accommodated in the hold of Alaska Steamship's old Liberty ships. The ARR owned the containers itself, and was a virtual pioneer in this advanced method of shipping which ought to be utilized extensively by all United States railroads. Not long ago the Army abandoned its base at Whittier, and the Alaska railroad took over, and is now in the process of improving the yard there. The Army had built a car ferry slip at Whittier, and in a very short time the Alaska Railroad was interchanging loaded freight cars with mainline railroads through either Prince Rupert arid Canadian National's Aquatrain or Seattle via Hydrotrain car floats. Now many foreign line cars can be seen on Alaska rails. The advent of freight car interchange wiped out the ARR's own container service, which put the road in the unusual position of moving contrary to the industry in general on the issue of containerization. However, the roads container flats didn't gather much rust, for they were pressed into service to move Sea-Land containers from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Today most ARR freight either moves in freight cars owned by the originating foreign road or in Sea-Land containers. So little break-bulk cargo moves over the port at Seward that there was some question of whether the Seward line should be rebuilt after the 1964 quake. It was however, and as a port Seward is on the come-back trail. The only business left to the truckers is the break bulk cargo at Seward and performing drayage services for Sea-Land containers at both Anchorage and Fairbanks. The trucks can't get the lucrative business of hauling Sea-Land containers between Anchorage and Fairbanks due to the lack of a road, but the road is now being built. Of course the biggest problem facing the Alaska Railroad is the fact that 90% of the hauls are one way. Most Sea-Land containers have to be returned empty, and so do most foreign freighters. This means that rates have to be high enough to cover the expenses of a round trip for the car although the cargo goes only one way. President Nixon has proposed selling the ARR, but unless something can be done to balance the traffic flow it is unlikely that any private buyer could be found.
A tour through the shops at Anchorage tells much about the Alaska Railroad. The first thing you notice is the cleanliness of the facility when you stop in the master mechanics office to pick up your safety glasses. My guide had been with the ARR for over 25 years and was quite proud of the railroad and optimistic about its future. The first place visited was the modern diesel shop which has several service bays. Inside the shops were several ARR F7s undergoing routine maintenance, and about half a dozen Denver & Rio Grande steam-generator equipped F7s which had just arrived and were being overhauled and pressed into service as fast as they could get ARR numbers. I was told that ARR desperately needs new motive power, and although it has some GP-30s and GP-35's, there is too much red tape to go through to finance the acquisition of brand new motive power. The D&RGW F7s had been made surplus by the demise of the California Zephyr, they were in good condition and presented a bargain too good to pass up. I was told that the Alaska Railroad had also completed all the arrangements to buy two complete California Zephyr consists (except for the standard sleepers, although the observations would be included) but since the CZ case is still ensnarled in the courts, the railroads are prohibited from disposing of any cars. The coming of the D&RGW units enabled the ARR to retire all of its Iranian RS-1s. There were still 8 of them on the property in operation, but the last had been withdrawn a week before my arrival, and all are now sitting behind the shops awaiting disposition. Some of them had been given all-welded cowls to convert them to cab units, in both A & B units, and the appearance of these units was very distinctive although the general outline resembled an F unit. This was done not in the interests of streamlining (although that was an added benefit) but to enable the diesels to work the snow trains. It seems snow would pile up on the running board of an RS-1 and trap the engineer in the cab. Most of the cowled units had been retired some time before, but an ABA team was kept in reserve to work the rotary fleets until it was retired by the D&RGW units. The Alaska Railroad is retiring the RS-1s because it feels with Alco cut of business maintenance will be increasingly difficult. Motive power in service consists of the F7s, some GP-9s which were formerly Army engines with switcher trucks, but which were rebuilt with Alco RS-1 trucks and given homemade chopped noses, the GP-30s and GP-35's, the two- original RS-1s (also rebuilt with chopped noses), and a handful of relatively new Alco yard switchers. In addition some Alco yard units are leased from the Army.
All of the buildings in the Anchorage shop complex were built new in the postwar reconstruction period, with the exception of a six-stall roundhouse which stands vacant near the diesel shop. Although it looks sturdy and a lot better than what you might find still in use on a lot of outside railroad, it is felt it represents a fire hazard and will soon be razed.
Next stop was a visit to the wheel shop which is the pride of the Alaska Railroad and which has been cited by Modern Railroads for its modernity. It was clean enough you could eat off the floor. ARR shop forces are quite skilled and must be capable of any repair job since there is no such thing as farming out work to another railroad shops. A car shop is also included in the shop area whose principle duty is to maintain freight equipment and repair cars involved in minor mishaps. At times however, the shops are called upon to do some extensive rebuilding work such as that done on the hospital cars to convert them to coaches. The shops are big enough so that at night the entire passenger train is stored, inside behind its locked doors and away from the frigid weather, a factor which doubtlessly contributes to the fine appearance of ARR passenger equipment. Just outside the shops are three heavyweight Pullman cars, a 12-1 and two 6compt-3DR cars bought from the Pullman Co. in the 1950's. One of the 6-3s is absolutely immaculate; it looks like it just rolled out of the Calumet erecting shop. The inside is just the same with everything spic and span. The ARR used to run an overnight train between Anchorage and Fairbanks in the wintertime, and the Pullmans were used on that train, but haven't been used since 1965. However, ARR employees fondly remember the Pullmans superior riding qualities. The road's last three heavyweight coaches were in another part of the yard about to be scrapped, and there was a string of troop sleepers and a couple of kitchen cars also in the scrap line. These were the troop sleepers being held for emergency use, but they are now being cut up. I went inside one and they are indeed pretty spartan. I can see now why they weren't too popular with WW II servicemen.
North of the shops is the freight yard which is pretty busy. The ARR has a number of modern freight cars including 86-foot piggyback flats and a dozen 50-foot mechanical reefers. There is also a container yard with a big straddle crane. Most of the containers handled there now are Sea- Land's. The 86-foot flats are used to carry containers, and they are augmented by a number of troop sleepers cut down into container flats. Container flats have electrical cables and plug-ins for refrigerated and/or heated vans used to transport perishables. Refrigeration units on the containers are electrically operated since propane tends to freeze up in the extreme cold, and Sea-Land's containers must be specially equipped for Alaska service. The power comes from one of ARR's fleet of homemade generating cars which house a diesel generator inside a former kitchen car. Containers are usually dispatched in the consist of passenger trains, or in separate trains if there are enough of them. The ARR also has rebuilt a kitchen car into a steam generator car for use on excessively lone passenger trains in the winter, and has rebuilt another car with two air compressors to maintain train line pressure in long freights when winter temperatures cause a lot of air to leak out around brittle air hose grommets.
The Alaska Railroad runs two passenger trains. The "premier" train is numbers 5-6 which runs between Anchorage and Fairbanks and is known officially as the "AuRoRa" (for the road's initials) and unofficially as the "moose gooser." It runs two days a week in the winter, and daily from May through September when the tourists come. The other train doesn't even rate a number much less a name. It runs south out of Anchorage to Portage in the morning and returns in the evening daily except Thursday on a schedule that varies according to the day. At Portage it makes three round trips between Portage and Whittier through the Whittier tunnels transferring autos from the Seward Highway to the Alaska State Ferry at Whittier where connections are made to Valdez and Cordova. The ARR's finest scenery lies along this route. Unfortunately there is no more passenger service between Portage and Seward. My ARR host suggested that instead of riding the train from Anchorage to Portage that I drive to Portage and board the train there for the ride to Whittier. Although I would have rather ridden the train, I didn't miss any scenery for the highway parallels the railroad and I didn't have to spend the entire day in Portage. The train to Portage consisted of a GP-9 pulling a blue and yellow combine with a caboose behind. All the way to Portage the tracks parallel the exceedingly beautiful Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet where mountains rise up directly from the shoreline on either side. The railroad and the highway are blasted into the side of the rocks for the entire 50-miles. Tides in Turnagain Arm vary greatly, and at low tide you could walk across at some places. This area subsided 8 1/2 feet in the 1964 earthquake, and the railroad and highway had to be completely rebuilt. The earthquake did most of its damage along the shoreline where Seward was destroyed by a tidal wave, and Valdez had to be completely relocated.
At one time there were a few buildings at Portage, but they were destroyed in the 1964 earthquake, and the only thing there now is a loading ramp. At Portage the train picked up a string of 86-foot piggyback flats with the combine at one end and the caboose at the other. The train performs a vital service here for it provides the only access to Whittier. There is a siding at Portage with a gauntlet track to bring the flats flush to the loading ramp. Cars, trucks and campers were already lined up and they drove onto the flats after paying the conductor $10 per vehicle for the 12 1/2 mile trip. Driving through Alaska is very expensive particularly in cases like this where you have to portage your auto or take the ferry. There is a parking lot at Portage for those who just want to ride to Whittier and the fare is $1 each direction. The combine is for the accommodation of foot passengers, so I paid my buck and got aboard. This is an incredible 12 1/2 miles of scenery in spite of the fact that a fourth of it is in the Whittier tunnels. Three large glaciers are passed en route, the largest of which is the Portage glacier, a popular tourist attraction. The tracks pass through a swampy valley containing a glacial stream where moose can frequently be seen. High snow covered mountain peaks rise from the valley floor, and sharp eyes can pick out Dall sheep high in the rocky crags. The shorter tunnel is the first one you pass through, and then you come right out and run smack into the side of the mountain as you enter the 14,000-ft bore. Rolling into daylight again at the end of the long tunnel, you find yourself at the port of Whittier, on Prince William Sound. The port is completely surrounded by barren, snowy peaks in a horseshoe fashion, and the only direction in which you can see is straight out to sea. Whittier was originally built as an Army base but has been abandoned and turned over to civilian use. Unfortunately no use can be found for the huge government buildings, the most impressive of which is a 10-story structure, and another rambling 4-story building. They now stand vacant and unused, but are of sturdy construction necessary to withstand the brutal winters. Were they closed to population centers they would make good apartment houses in housing-short Alaska, but nobody lives in Whittier except a handful of workmen who maintain the railroad and the ferry slips.
There is a tank farm at Whittier, a railroad station, motel, and engine house. On our arrival we found the Alaska State Ferry E.L. Bartlett in port, and most of the autos on the portage train drove off and boarded the ferry. The state runs an extensive ferry service on a not-too-frequent schedule to give access to the coastal towns which are otherwise inaccessible. The E.L. Bartlett is part of the southwestern system which serves Cordova, Valdez, Whittier, Seward, Kodiak and Homer. The Southeastern system serves Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan. Quite a few people pass through Whittier (that's why the motel is there) but all must ride the portage train. The car ferry slip is next to the Bartlett's slip, but there was no activity here the day I was there. A GP-9 is kept at Whittier to switch the car floats, and the ARR inherited a large yard from the Army which it is expanding. The train stayed there about 45 minutes while the engine ran around to the other end, and then we took off for the return trip to Portage. After returning to Portage, I drove over to the Portage Glacier for a closer look.
The following day I returned to the station and boarded ARR Train 6 for the ride up to Fairbanks. The train consisted of two F7 units, two baggage cars, two coaches for local passengers, a diner lounge, and three coaches for through passengers. All equipment is painted blue with yellow window bands. Coaches appear to be lightweight, but are actually riveted and ride on 6-wheel trucks. They are not air-conditioned (not really needed) and do not have axle generators or batteries deriving their power from diesel generators located in the baggage cars. This seems very intelligent to me, for it always seemed such a waste of money to have each car equipped with its own lighting plant, rather than have a central source of power. The cars are equipped with reclining seats and are comfortable and clean but a bit shopworn. It was interesting to contemplate that were it not for the legal action in the Midwest, I would be riding in the CZ equipment. Domes will be a real asset to this train, however the old hospital cars now in service have about the largest windows you can find.
Departure time was 9:00 AM, and we moved out slowly following the banks of Ship Creek passing a fish ladder where big king salmon were fighting their way upstream to spawn. The tracks enter the grounds of Elmendorf AFB and emerge farther north near the end of Knik Arm. There were no highways anywhere near the railroad except for the new Anchorage-Fairbanks highway which is still under construction. Alaskan railroaders remain optimistic about the future of passenger service in spite of the coming highway. The train carries more passengers each year, a trend they expect to continue, as tourism increases. Passengers are made to feel welcome. They are given souvenir packets containing timetables, route maps, and post cards. Trainmen take great pleasure in pointing out moose (meese?) along the way and don't mind answering questions. The train provides a very vital service for the people who live along the way for it is their only access to the outside world. It will stop at any point along the line where a passenger wants to get on or off regardless of whether there is a station there or not. A number of people have homesteads along the tracks and the train will stop right at their doorstep so they can get off. Probably when the highway is completed this local businesses will disappear.
Soon after we left I went into the diner for some breakfast The diner is operated by a civilian concessionaire, and except for a cook has an all-female staff. Like the rest of the passenger cars the diner is rebuilt from a hospital car and has the kitchen in the center with an 8 table dining area at one end of the car and a bar and lounge with an observation end at the other end. Furnishings in the dining section is pretty spartan with oilcloth tablecloths, stainless steel utensils, etc. but servings are plentiful and prices quite reasonable. The diner also sells magazines and color slides. The lounge end of the car has a low flat ceiling (in contrast to the round ceiling that follows the roof contour in the dining end and features a semi-circular bar adjacent to the kitchen staffed by a lady barkeeper. The chairs have plastic upholstery, and in the middle of the lounge there is a jukebox which blares forth with hillbilly music.
The first 100 miles or so of the trip is kind of monotonous and the train runs mostly through the woods. It passes through the fertile Matanuska Valley where there is a great deal of farming and coal mining and winds along the shores of the broad Susitna River. On a clear day there are a number of places where they say you can see Mt. McKinley, but clear days are not particularly common. This day was a combination of overcast, bright sun, and thunderstorms. We passed a few freights, mostly coal or work trains, some with ex-D&RGW F units. There are a lot of towns or rather names shown on the map and timetable but nearly all of them are railroad points and contain only a section house and a few Eskimo track workers if they are big enough. There are also a lot of places where there is nothing more than a station sign. At Curry there used to be a big railroad hotel in the old days, for trains were unable to make the Anchorage-Fairbanks trip in a day and had to tie up overnight.
Once out of the Susitna River canyon the rails begin to climb and some pretty spectacular views can be had. Large snow-capped mountains loom up outside the window on the east side, and to the west across the valley there is a snow-capped range which contains famous Mt. McKinley, highest point in North America. Fortunately the sun was out as we passed by, and although the top was surrounded by a few clouds you could see the mountain there. It's hard to miss, for the elevation is over 20,000 feet and the surrounding foothills attain an elevation of only 7,000 ft. or so. The range is barren and snow covered, devoid of any vegetation, and it is not hard to imagine expeditions getting stranded in there and search planes looking for them. At Hurricane the train slows to 5 mph, and rolls out onto the 384 feet steel arc bridge that spans Hurricane Gulch and crosses the Chulitna River, 206 feet below, one of the major attractions on the route. At a place called Colorado we passed southbound train which carried the road's office car Caribou Creek behind the coaches, a Trailways bus on a flatcar behind that, (a popular way for or tours to travel is to ride the train and, take the bus with them; it is also done on the White Pass), and some 50 foot mechanical reefers and container cars bringing up the rear with a caboose thrown on the end. Pushing on into the rugged terrain we passed another fairly permanent trackside settlement with what appeared to be a cluster of tents on a hill. The waitress explained those were Eskimo graves, and the ones with crosses on them had been converted by the missionaries. It Once out of the Susitna River canyon the rails begin to climb and some pretty spectacular views can be had). Large snow-capped mountains loom up outside the window on the east side and to the west across the valley. There is a snow-capped range which contains famous Mt. McKinley, highest point in North America. Fortunately the sun was out as we passed by, and although the top was surrounded by a few clouds you could see the mountain there. It’s hard to miss, for the elevation is over 20,000 feet and the surrounding foothills attain an elevation of only 7,000 feet or so. The range is barren and snow covered, devoid of any vegetation, and it is not hard to imagine expeditions getting stranded in there and search planes looking for them. At Hurricane the train slows to 5 mph, and rolls out onto the 384 feet steel arc bridge that spans Hurricane Gulch and crosses the Chulitna River, 296 feet below, one of the major attractions on the route. At a place called Colorado we passed southbound train 5 which carried the road car Caribou Creek behind the coaches, a Trailways bus on a flatcar behind that, (a popular way for tours to travel is to ride the train and take the bus with them; it is also done on the White Pass), and some 50 foot mechanical reefers and container cars bringing up the rear with a caboose thrown on the end. Pushing on into the rugged terrain we passed another fairly perm anent trackside settlement with what appeared to be a cluster of tents on a hill. The waitress explained those were Eskimo graves, and the ones with crosses on them had been converted by the missionaries. It was raining again as we came to a stop at McKinley Park station, where there was almost a complete change of passengers.
McKinley Park is the station where you transfer to the McKinley Park Hotel located in Mount McKinley National Park. The hotel was built by the railroad in its earlier days as a passenger promotion scheme, on the same order as Banff Springs and Lake Louise but on a lesser scale. It was a costly venture, and was given to the National Park Service in the postwar rebuilding program which in turn leases it now to a private operator. For years it was inaccessible except by rail, but now adventurous motorists can drive over a 161-mile highway to reach the park from the nearest main highway. Still however the railroad brings in the bulk of the passengers, and the train makes at least a 10 or 15 minute stop while the passengers transfer to buses and trucks take the luggage. Actually you can't even see Mt. McKinley from the hotel; a smaller but much closer peak blocks the view.
Underway again, the train slows to a crawl as it enters the Nenana River Canyon, probably the most spectacular scenery on the route. The tracks are carved into a niche on the sharp rock walls, while the turbulent river churns underneath. The tracks are not very far from the water for the canyon is not very deep. However the water is continually washing away the base of the cliffs causing the rocks to slide. Track in this area has to be rebuilt almost every year. Next stop is Healy, a big railroad division point and the site of extensive Government-owned strip mines. There is a railroad yard here loaded with hopper cars, many of which are former Erie cars, but augmented by a number of ex-L&N modern roller bearing equipped cars. There is so much coal in this area that you can actually see rich veins in the mountains. The customers are all local, either military installations or generating plants, although the railroad has looked long and hard for an export customer. So far only the Japs have expressed an interest, but if they decide to start buying coal both the railroad and the town will boom. Beyond Healy the mountains turn into pine-covered hills as we roll on towards Fairbanks. At Nenana the railroad skirts the Tanana River through the town which used to be an important port for river boats, and still sees some barge traffic and then doubles back on itself to round a horseshoe curve and cross the Tanana River on a high steel bridge which was the last link in the construction of the Alaska Railroad. It was on the north side of the bridge where Warren Harding drove the gold spike, and a sign has been mounted to mark the location. As it gets closer to Fairbanks, the train picks up speed, and runs about 50 mph for most of the rest of the way where the track is straight and the country comparatively flat. We pass some top-secret radar installations, go past the University of Alaska campus just outside of Fairbanks, pass the large ARR yards at Fairbanks (built big enough to handle the traffic from the proposed Alaska rail connection with the CN) and come to a stop at the modern (1959) Fairbanks terminal, the northernmost point in North America served by rail.
In physical appearance Fairbanks isn't much different than any other Western town. The Chena River runs through town, the railroad yards and industry being on the north side and the rest of the town on the south side. The main thoroughfare is dominated by stores and a string of bars. There is a movie theatre, a big J.C. Penney store, and supermarkets. The streets are fairly wide, but many of the residential streets are not paved. Many of the houses, churches, and the public library are built of round log construction. The town is a lot more concentrated than Anchorage, and it is possible to walk all around the downtown area and to and from the numerous high quality motels. It is awfully hard to get used to going to bed with the sun shining brightly, and I went around town at midnight taking some photos of the city by the light of the midnight sun. The brakeman on the train worried that it would be unbearably hot there. He said temperatures in the 80s were common, and it would get too hot to sleep and during his lay over he would walk the streets since there was no air conditioning to escape the heat. However there was a thunderstorm and that kept the temperature down. The ARR Fairbanks station is a very clean and pleasant place, with lots of glass and comfortable benches. The wall is adorned with a lot of color photos of ARR scenes, including some shots of "Moose Gooser '67" when the ARR borrowed a 2-8-2T from a Vancouver railfan group and ran it between the Anchorage station and airport pulling 4 troop sleepers-turned-coaches as part of the Alaska Centennial.
I was scheduled to fly out of Fairbanks to the next stop, Yukon Territory, on Wien Consolidated Airlines. WC is a former bush pilot operation that has grown into an all-Alaska carrier with routes all through the central and western parts of the state. They were fortunate to have had the Point Barrow route when oil was discovered there which has proved to be a bonanza. In addition to scheduled air service there, the airline has chartered a number of big 4-engine transports to the oil companies to fly in supplies. Driving to the airport from downtown you find that all the major oil operators have temporary offices at the airport with piles of supplies all around waiting to be flown to the north slope. A brand new airport is being built which is not yet finished and is pretty confusing with all the construction going on. Most of the service there is intrastate but Pan Am has a New York-Tokyo flight that also stops at Fairbanks. With all the oil money to spend, Wien Consolidated has really spruced up its operations buying twin-engine Boeing 737 jets for all its main routes and giving its stewardesses snappy new uniforms. The 737s have movable bulkheads and the seats are removable to allow more cargo space on the Barrow flights. The plane to Pt. Barrow took off right ahead of mine and about 30 people got on, many of them tourists, as WC offers a number of tours that take you inside the Arctic Circle. About 50 people got on the Whitehorse/Juneau flight with me, and there was plenty of room aboard as only a third of the seats were occupied. Many Alaskans I talked to seemed to regard Wien Consolidated with the same regard that megalopolitans seem to have for Penn Central, but I found the service quite good and the flight was only about 10 minutes late touching down at the Whitehorse airport. Flight time was 1 hour and 5 minutes.
The road from the Whitehorse airport to town takes you along a stretch of the ALCAN Highway, and must say I would never take my car over that road. It is unpaved and covered with gravel, and every vehicle that passes over it puts forth a huge dust cloud. An air-conditioned car is almost a must for no other reason than to keep the dust out. Windshields are cracked by stones kicked up by passing trucks, and cars should wear screens over their grilles to protect the headlights. Frankly I can't see why anybody in his right mind would want to drive to Alaska, especially when there are so many more pleasant (and less expensive) ways to get there, such as the route I followed.
© 2003 Tom Smith