The Alaska Railroad 1902-1923

Matanuska River Bridge train

The book I’m currently working on covers the early history and construction of the Alaska Railroad and its predecessors, from 1902, when John Ballaine put in motion the actions which led to his Alaska Central Railroad; through 1923, when President Warren G. Harding drove the ceremonial golden spike in Nenana. I have a personal interest in this history, as my father worked for the Alaska Railroad in the 1970’s, programming the computers which kept operations flowing smoothly from Anchorage. A highlight of my childhood was one bright autumn day when Dad handed my brother and I tickets and sent us off alone, aboard the train, our first taste of adventuring through the wilderness of Alaska alone. To set the stage for the book, I’ve written this piece about railroads in the western states, and in Alaska:

Photo for page 20In the American west, during the latter half of the nineteenth century, the proliferation of railroads provided a rapid, versatile, and relatively low-cost means of transportation across the vast distances of the midwest and the Great Plains. But the railroads did not come easily, and they did not come without a large measure of doubt and ridicule. One prominent government official reportedly scoffed about the proposal of railroad travel, certain that it was not forthcoming anytime soon and pronouncing, “I would not buy a ticket on it for my grandchildren!”

websterDevelopment of the west was considered a fool’s errand in the early years, the land deemed fit only for cattle and the wild and reckless cowboys who tended them on long drives to market. The great statesman Daniel Webster had growled about the West in 1845, “What do we want with this region of savages and wild beasts, of deserts, of shifting sands and whirlwinds of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs?”

wild-west-bbcBy 1852 there was only a single five-mile track of rails west of the Mississippi River, belonging to the oddly-named Pacific Railroad of Missouri. On December 9, 1852 the P.R.R.M.’s single steam engine chugged into the St. Louis suburb of Cheltenham, marking the first passenger trip on the Pacific side of the mighty river. But within a single generation more than 116 million acres of land would be granted to the railroads, and only eighteen years later, in 1870, more than 72,000 miles of track would criss-cross the western territories.

1467083-bigthumbnailWhen the last spike was driven to complete the Great Northern Railway’s track in 1893, five railroads spanned the West: The Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, Northern Pacific, Great Northern, and the Atcheson, Topeka & Santa Fe. These five railroads would change the course of western history by advertising the potential of the Great American West to farmers in the eastern U.S. and in Europe. Their colorful and greatly exaggerated flyers, posters, and brochures brought an overwhelming influx of settlers and farmers, inspiring Congressman Charles E. Hooker to note, “We gave [the railroads] an empire composed of an arid desert unfit for the habitation of man,” and the railroads, through their intense promotional efforts, had returned “an empire of hardy and industrious citizens.”


Kennicott mine near McCarthy. P.S. Hunt

Those early western railroads had an impact on the development of Alaska, for wise men noted that what had worked to open the American West to pioneering settlement and sowing the seeds of progress might work as well in the frozen north. And so, in the history of Alaska, as in other parts of the world, railroads played a large role, and were a major influence. In the early part of the twentieth century there were almost two dozen railroads at various stages of operation in the territory, including the Alaska Anthracite Railroad, Alaska Central Railway, Alaska Home Railroad, Catalla and Carbon Mountain Railway, Copper River and Northwestern Railway, Council City and Solomon River Railroad, Golovin Bay Railroad, Nome Arctic Railway, Northern Alaska Railway, Tanana Valley Railroad, Valdez-Copper River and Tanana Railroad, Wild Goose Railroad, and the Yakutat and Southern Railway.


First White Pass train, 1899

Many of these railroads were built and operated by various mining interests, others were funded by farsighted groups or individuals who understood the potential profitability of steel rails providing reliable access to a new and growing land. Of the many attempts and endeavors, only two remain in operation today, the White Pass and Yukon Railway from Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory; and the Alaska Railroad from Seward to Fairbanks, the building of which is the subject of this book. Over the years all of the other railroads have either been absorbed by larger, more successful lines, gone bankrupt when funding ran out or resources were depleted, or simply outlived their usefulness as times changed and populations moved on.

Last Train

Last Train to Nowhere, near Nome

There are still many signs of the old railways across Alaska, and some have become almost iconic, such as the long-abandoned steam engines of the Council City & Solomon River Railroad, known as the “Last Train to Nowhere;” or the photogenic bridges and trestles of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway along the McCarthy Road. But colorful legacy or none, hundreds of miles of steel rails which opened the territory of Alaska to development now sit silent, unused, untraveled; mute reminders of a time when the forbidding terrain and harsh climate of Alaska yielded to the building of an Iron Trail.   ~•~

My forthcoming book, The Alaska Railroad: 1902-1923, will be published in June, 2017, and can be preordered for $24.00 plus $5.00 postage, by clicking here.




About Helen Hegener

I write books about Alaskan history, and titles currently available include Alaskan Roadhouses, The First Iditarod, The All Alaska Sweepstakes, The Yukon Quest Trail, The Matanuska Colony Barns, and others. I am currently researching and writing a book on the early history and construction of the Alaska Railroad. You can contact me via email at
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