Cincinnati NRHS chapter members Joe (I'm thinking of changing my mind about Amtrak) Biancke, Howard Grabill, and myself took a fabulous two week trip to Alaska. Our purpose was to ride and photograph its trains, see the country, and enjoy what our far northern neighbors have to offer with respect to food and drink. Joe did all the planning for this trip and has earned the coveted "Railfan Trip Planner Award" for his efforts. We departed Cincinnati on Tuesday Aug. 17, 1999 and flew to Seattle where we took a day's break and rode the Amtrak Cascade to Vancouver and back. If you think Amtrak is on the brink of disaster then you should take a ride on this puppy. The train is new, comfortable, and well laid out. The crew was one of the best I have seen on Amtrak - no gravy stained shirts here! The food service was available when we departed, not half way through the trip. The train skirts Puget Sound providing beautiful scenery. The on-time performance was a refreshing change from the usual Amtrak tardiness. Include the Cascade on your next visit to Seattle!
We flew from Seattle to Juneau on August 19 where we had the surprise of our lives. Joe had arranged for us to fly from Juneau (the only state capital that is not accessible by road) to Skagway. What we did not know was that our plane was a 10 seater Cessna and we had a spectacular low altitude flight over the ice fields. What we saw can hardly be described in words (at least by me). Fantastic does not do it justice! Many pale blue glaciers, snow capped peaks, and crystal clear air. After an all-too-short flight we landed in Skagway. Skagway is the home of the White Pass & Yukon narrow gauge railroad that was built a century ago to tap the gold fields between Skagway and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. This was the scene of the short lived gold rush of 1898 wherein thousands of gold prospectors literally walked over two mountain passes to reach the Yukon River to get to the gold fields at Dawson. That in itself is an amazing story. Our "gold", however, was viewing the operation of the now tourist-only WP&Y.
Massive cruise ships stop daily and dump thousands of eager sightseers onto the streets of Skagway. Many take a 4-hour roundtrip ride on the WP&Y up to the Canadian border at Fraser, BC. This is clearly the most spectacular part of the railroad. The ride features sharp curves, steep grades, tunnels, and bridges. The motive power consists of ancient GE and Alco locomotives that are quite distinctive. There seems to be one newer locomotive - a mini-widecab (oxymoron intended) built by MLW. The rolling stock is a real duke's mixture featuring cars that are really old to newer cars that are made to look old. The WP&Y is expanding its tourist operation so fast that they are buying all the narrow gauge equipment that they can find, including some of their old locomotives that they sold to South America years ago.
We chased and photographed trains on August 20 taking many slides which, we hope, may turn into a program later on. On Saturday August 21, we rode the last steam excursion of the year. The consist was the only steamer left (a Baldwin mikado #73) and 4 coaches. Oddly enough the train was not sold out and there was not the usual crowd of obvious railfans. This trip was an all-day affair going to Lake Bennett, which is about as far as the railroad can operate now. There are plans to extend the operation to Carcross, YT, perhaps as early as next year. There is clear evidence of track work in that area. The ride up the mountains was wonderful. The train was short enough that we all could get a lot of stack talk and muse to ourselves how skillful the engineer was when we detected an occasional driver slip.
Lake Bennett was the end of the line for the prospectors. There they got off and built rafts to sail on to the gold fields. Prior to the coming of the railroad, armed Canadian Mounties were stationed at the border to turn away any miner who did not have one ton of supplies to maintain himself for a year. Remember that the miners walked up the mountain. Some made as many as 35 trips up the pass to pack-in their required ton of supplies before they were permitted to pass into Canada. We had an hour or so at Lake Bennett while the train was turned and serviced. We toured several of the old miners' sites after being cautioned by Canadian Park Rangers to leave the rusting garbage alone. I had hoped to bring home a bent and rusty bean can.
On Sunday August 22, Joe arranged for us to take the Alaska Marine Highway (an Alaskan euphemism for ferry) from Skagway back to Juneau. We had a few hours to do some very important souvenir shopping before we flew on the Anchorage.
The Alaska Railroad has a very interesting passenger operation. There are three tourist-season-only trips that operate between May and September. There is the daily trip between Anchorage and Fairbanks, the daily trip to Whittier, and the daily trip to Seward. Regular service includes the Whittier shuttle that ferries highway vehicles between the highway at Portage and the town of Whittier. Whittier is accessible by rail or sea only. This train may well stop running next spring after the railroad tunnel is expanded to include trains AND highway vehicles. I don't know how that will work either. There is a really nifty train that operates during the warmer months between Talkeetna and Hurricane where there are residents, hikers and campers who have no access to the area except by rail. This beauty is a two car RDC set that operates on something of a schedule, but it stops on demand to pick up or set off passengers. I believe that this is the last flag stop operation of its type in the US. Great fun and the crew makes it even better. Conductor Duane Frank and engineer Mike Davis are real assets to the ARR and they made that trip a genuine pleasure.
On Monday August 23 we rode the daily Glacier Discovery from Anchorage to Whittier. Whittier is a small town built by the US Army in WWII because they wanted a second ice-free port. The entire population of the town still lives in one large 14-story apartment building. Our train departed Anchorage at 9am and arrived in Whittier at 11:30am. The train consisted of a snack/diner, baggage, and coaches. There is a 5-hour period before departure to take a boat ride out to the glaciers. Our fearless captain guided our boat so close to glaciers that we could hear them creak, groan, and rumble. It's an awesome sight when a glacier "calves" and a huge chunk of ice crashes into the water with a loud crack and a noisy splash. We saw many seals and water birds. On the return trip our train, which travels the length of the Turnagain Arm leading to Cook Inlet, slowed so that the passengers could look at some whales.
On Tuesday August 24, we rode the Denali Star from Anchorage to Fairbanks. The Denali Star is, in fact, three trains. The first is the Alaska Railroad section, which features a power car, baggage, diner, coach-dome and several coaches. Some of the coaches are Korean-built that have large windows and hard seats. We preferred the older ex-UP stuff with better seats but with smaller windows. There is, of course, nothing like a dome! Following the ARR section are 5 to 7 Holland American McKinley Explorer full-length domes. These cars are ex-ATSF, NP and MILW domes that have been rebuilt into plush land cruise vehicles. They all looked terrific. Following that are four Princess cars that are old doubledeck commuter cars that were gutted and rebuilt. The three sections operate separately and passage between the sections is not permitted. The power is two GP-40 locomotives. This trip takes 12 hours to go from Anchorage to Fairbanks, a distance of 356 miles. The Denali Star makes only a few stops, the most significant of which is at Denali National Park. The train stops here to detrain and entrain passengers from all three sections. There are 2 other stops for the ARR section only. There are several scenic highlights:
The Hurricane Gulch bridge (MP 284.2, 918 feet long and 296 feet high)At all times passengers are encouraged to look for animals. Alaska is mostly wild and you can expect to see indigenous animals at any time. Best news of all is that Dutch doors are permitted territories. So take your camera and enjoy a delightful trip.
Riley Creek Bridge (MP 346 immediately south of Denali Park)
Healy Canyon (MP 349 to 356 immediately north of Denali Park)
Upon our return to Anchorage on Wednesday August 25, we rented a car so that we could retrace our steps and photograph ARR trains. We covered the distance between Anchorage and Healy a bunch of times. By the time we were finished, we had a good feel for Alaska operations, we ran the wheels of the car, and we caught a rare, clear view of Mt. Whittier. Upon our return we caught a few photos of the very rare State Fair Special operated by ARR (one unit, a 'B' unit power car and two coaches) between Anchorage and Palmer.
On Monday August 30, we rode the daily trip Coastal
Classic to Seward. From Anchorage to Portage, we traveled the same
route as the Glacier Discovery along the Turnagain Arm. However,
at Portage the train continues south for 60 or so miles through an area
that is served by rail only. This part of the trip was worth the
price of the entire trip. The line twists and turns through a narrow
mountain pass in order to gain the altitude necessary to cross Moose Pass.
There are 6 tunnels and more hairpin turns (switchbacks in Alaska) than
I could count. We arrived in Seward and took a 5-hour boat trip out
into the Bay of Alaska to view seals, otters, and many species of aquatic
birds. The return trip back over the mountains was breathtaking (again).
Dinner in the diner could not have been finer. On our return trip
to Anchorage, we saw one of many whales that had beached themselves that
day. The incoming tide saved many but a few became fish food.
The trainset consisted of one locomotive, power car, baggage, snack/diner,
several coaches, and a dome that is leased to a tour company (yes, extra
fare). The passenger equipment is very nice but, personally, I could
do without the 6-foot puffin plastered to the side of the dome.
The next day we reluctantly dragged ourselves to the airport for the 9-hour trip home. I think among the 3 of us we have over 30 rolls of slide film to process, cull, and label.
Some important Alaska facts:
There are twice as many people in metropolitan Cincinnati than there is in the entire state of Alaska.
You can fit the entire state of Ohio into Alaska over 14 times.
Alaska has 29 volcanoes; 33,000 miles of coastline and the largest park system in the country.
Alaskans reported a sudden and dramatic lowering of the beer supply during a period that just happened to coincide with our visit.
© 1999 Fred Stout