Railroad Created Alaska’s Largest City
Connecting Alaska’s “golden heart” to the year-round port at Seward was secondary to accessing Matanuska Valley coal in the early part of the Twentieth Century.
Getting to a source of fuel caused the United States government to cough up $35 million to build a railroad in 1914. That Ship Creek Landing on the shores of Cook Inlet was to become the City of Anchorage was another footnote in the history of the North. A spot near the mouth of Peters Creek called Birchwood would be chosen for a section house to serve as headquarters for maintenance personnel.
To understand why that much tax money was invested in far-off Alaska, let’s take a look at conditions in that year. The Yukon Gold Rush had dwindled. War clouds were looming over Europe. Babe Ruth made his first Major League appearance as a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox. Henry Ford, who invented the assembly line, established an eight-hour workday and guaranteed his workers a $5 per hour minimum wage, produced 248,000 automobiles. The Wright Brothers’ aeroplane flights were only a matter of curiosity. Alaska roads were little more than trails for horses in summer and dogs in winter since automobiles were rare. Sailing vessels had been converted to steamers whose engineers favored coal over wood to heat the boilers. The U.S.S. Ancon was the first ship to pass through the Panama Canal.
The Panama connection with the Alaska Railroad was important. U.S. Army Col. Frederick Mears, who was in charge of relocating railroads connected with the canal, was chosen to head the Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC). It was that organization that was established to oversee construction of the Alaska rail project. It was to be a 470-mile route stretching from Seward to Fairbanks.
Mears, 36 years of age, was an able choice for the position. He arranged to acquire surplus rolling stock from Panama. He established a main construction camp on the Cook Inlet mudflats at the mouth of Ship Creek. He directed the construction crews that would extend lines. He set up a tent city to house employees and arranged for medical facilities to care for them.
When the City of Anchorage was incorporated in 1915, the railroad was its primary employer.
Mears’ wife Jane became a leading citizen, establishing the Anchorage Women’s Club and raising funds for the town’s only school. Mears Middle School in Anchorage is named for her. When the railroad was completed in 1923, Mears retired from the Army and became an engineer and project manager for the Great Northern Railroad in Seattle, Wash. His major project with them was the Cascade Tunnel dug under Stevens Pass. He died January 11, 1939, of pneumonia. Fort Mears at Unalaska is named for him.
Railroads in Alaska were not new. The Wild Goose Railway was launched in Nome in 1900 to haul passengers and freight between the Anvil Creek mines and connect other mining camps on the Seward Peninsula with what then was Alaska’s largest city. Another small railroad operated in Juneau.
Two failed pioneer railroad projects became part of what was to become The Alaska Railroad (“The” is capitalized because it now is Alaska’s only railroad).
In 1903 the Alaska Central Railroad built 51 miles of rail between Seward and Turnagain Arm to connect the port with the Sunrise and Hope mining districts. That project was taken over six years later by Alaska Northern Railroad Co. Under them, 21 additional miles of track were laid around the end of the Arm to serve mines at Girdwood, Bird and Indian.
At the northern terminus in Fairbanks, the Tanana Valley Railroad operated a narrow-gauge railway with 45 miles of track. In Fairbanks, TVRR had a terminal, shop and warehouse facilities. AEC purchased both the Alaska Northern and TVRR, planning to extend the existing track along Turnagain Arm and replace the narrow gauge track at Fairbanks with standard gauge.
What was to be the second-largest single span bridge in the entire United States was constructed across the Tanana River. When that 700-foot span was completed, President Warren G. Harding and his wife Florence came to drive the golden spike on July 15, 1923. That was done on the north side of the bridge during a widely-publicized coast-to-coast radio broadcast, one of the first ever.
A major addition to the railroad was the Whittier Tunnel which allowed a single lane of tracks branching off the Seward-Anchorage line to the Army’s port. That tunnel, named in honor of engineer and former Anchorage Mayor Anton Anderson, was completed during wartime in 1943. In addition to being a capable engineer, Anderson was a popular figure who delighted audiences by reciting Robert Service poems.
The Whittier tunnel had been in use for six years when this writer arrived there on January 4, 1949, aboard the Army transport ship U.S.S. Sgt. Charles E. Mower. Troops disembarked at 9 a.m. and stood alongside the track for two hours awaiting arrival of the train. It was well below zero and a steady breeze was blowing. The train departed at 2 p.m., arriving 40 miles away in Anchorage after eight hours of stop-and-go travel. The passenger cars were upholstered in what once was green velvet material but had become black with soot from the oil-burning space heater at one end of the car. Unpadded wooden passenger seats were reversible—the backs to be slid from one side to the other depending upon whether the rider wanted to watch where he had been or where he was going. (The masculine pronoun used is grammatically if not politically correct because that trip had a male-only passenger list.)
At Birchwood, the frame section house had several steps leading to the front door. At its rear was a rail hand-car and an array of tools to be used by the gandy-dancers who patrolled the tracks to make sure they were clear and perform any necessary repairs.
Across the tracks alongside what now is the Birchwood Airport, several dead-end rail lines were laid. A wide assortment of surplus rail cars stood there for many years awaiting disposition.
Over time, various visions for the Birchwood terminal have been described. Some would have a major industrial area near the Birchwood Loop Spur crossing that would feature warehouses and truck-rail transportation connecting with a dock near the mouth of Peters Creek. Should an idea of that type come to fruition, it could be a major job-producer and contribute significantly to the local tax base.
Regardless, Chugiak-Eagle River has enjoyed a close association with The Alaska Railroad ever since the first crews pushed through to pound spikes into the cross ties.