Alaska Railroad notes a century of operation
August 1, 2023 | View PDF
By DIMITRA LAVRAKAS
Senior Voice Travel Correspondent
"That the Alaska Railroad was ever built is astonishing," writes Alaskan author Steven Levi in his rollicking history of the Alaska Railroad in "A Rat's Nest of Rails: Tundra, Ice, Mosquitoes and Permafrost Saga of the Alaska Railroad" (signed copies available at https://authormasterminds.com/steve-levi).
It was a feat of engineering and pluck, resulting in 100 years of carrying freight and tourists, much to the benefit of Alaska.
"It was constructed over the most treacherous terrain in the world during the most violent political era in U.S. history," Levi continues. "The workforce included anarchists, Bolsheviks, socialists, syndicalists, and labor union organizers against the backdrops of the First World War, Spanish Influenza, the Russian Revolution, American troops in Siberia to keep Russian socialism from our shore, Japan's relentless gobbling of colonies from Southeast Asia to Siberia, and the Great Red Scare.
"It was built by the United States military to supply the United States Navy with coal and, in the process, closed coal mining in the Territory of Alaska -to the great anger of the private sector.
"Then there were the scammers, land speculators, Natives and their land claims, blacks and discrimination, sedition, wages in scrip, permafrost, freeze up/breakup, ration stamps, and environmental damage."
Miles and miles of milestones
With the swing of a hammer President Warren G. Harding drove the last spike in Nenana on July 15,1923, decades before Alaska even became a state. The line ran 470 miles from Seward to Fairbanks.
But so much planning and sweat went into that day, driven-as so many projects in the state-by the desire to access potential mineral extraction. With that in mind, in 1914, the federal government gave $35 million to begin its build and operation.
In the 1940s, World War II gave the Alaska Railroad a huge financial boost as it moved military supplies to strengthen Alaska's defenses against threats from the Pacific sector of the war.
1943: Two tunnels are built through the Chugach Mountains to allow rail access to Whittier, a military port and fuel depot necessary to support the war effort. A new Anchorage passenger depot is completed in December.
1947: The inaugural run of the Aurora, a blue and
gold steamliner, marks a new level of passenger service between Anchorage and Fairbanks.
In 1962, the first car-barge service is established in Whittier, followed by train-ship service in June 1964. This revolutionizes Alaska, enabling rail cars from the Lower 48 to be shipped to any point along the Alaska Railroad.
This integrated system of hauling goods off ships for distribution across the state currently earns approximately 44 percent of its revenue, according to ARRC.
In 1964, the Good Friday Earthquake hits Alaska on March 27. At a 9.2 magnitude, it is the most powerful quake recorded in North America's history. Railroad damage from the quake estimated at $30 million. In an amazing turnaround, freight service from Anchorage to Fairbanks is restored on April 6, passenger service on April 11, and freight service to Whittier resumes April 20.
In the early to mid-1970s, the Alaska Railroad supports construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline by receiving shipped pipe and storing it on railroad land in Valdez, Seward and Fairbanks. The railroad also hauled pipe from Valdez and Seward to Fairbanks, where it was then trucked to the North Slope. The railroad workforce increased to more than 1,000 between 1970 and 1975.
In the mid- to late 1970s, the Federal Railroad Administration sought to transfer its ownership of the Alaska Railroad. With this in mind, railroad personnel prepared for some kind of transition to be sold, transferred or dissolved. The railroad endured an infrastructure-poor and equipment-strapped era as investments declined while options were mulled.
In 1984, the Alaska Railroad develops new passenger services with the cruise industry, accepting contracts to pull superdome double-decker luxury coaches.
In 1985, the railroad becomes the property of the State of Alaska.
In 1995, ridership hits a new high with 492,528 passengers riding the train during that year.
In 2002, real estate revenues exceed $11 million for the first time; a new web-based passenger reservation system is implemented; and the railroad initiates a program to install auxiliary power units and software technology on locomotives to reduce diesel emissions and noise.
In 2007, the Alaska Railroad Corporation and U.S. Forest Service introduce a new Whistle Stop Service to the Chugach National Forest.
To book a trip, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call Reservations and Information at 800-544-0552, or go to the train station at 411 W 1st Ave, in Anchorage.
How you can contribute to the Centennial
Help the railroad capture your unique stories about the Alaska Railroad with its new storytelling project, "Tales from the Rails", that will gather anecdotes, memories and milestones. Email stories to AKtalesfromtherails@gmail.com and further instructions will be sent.