Railroad Construction Progress in Alaska
Line Between Seward and Anchorage Completed
and Work on Other Sections Well Advanced

Railway Review
October 5, 1918


Secretary of the Interior Lane, on September 13, announced that Chairman Edes of the Alaskan Engineering Commission has reported the completion of the government railroad between Anchorage and Seward, Alaska. The brief notice of this accomplishment in these columns at that time is supplemented now with the following account of construction progress. The illustrations are reproduced through the courtesy of the Department of Interior.

That part of the government railroad in Alaska between Anchorage and Seward was completed in September, bringing near fulfillment one of the purposes prompting the undertaking the development of the mineral and other resources of the territory. The shipment of coal from the Matanuska mines directly to Seward, a distance of 190 miles, is now possible. Sixty per cent of the projected line, nearly 500 miles in length, is being operated or is nearly ready for operation, and it is expected that before the end of the present season rail will also be laid from Nanana, 400 miles inland, southward to Lignite Creek, about 50 miles south of Nanana, which will make the lignite coal in the Nanana fields available for river shipment.

When the active working season last year closed a 16 mile gap remained on the section of line between Anchorage and Seward along Turnagain Arm, a branch of Cook Inlet, on which the grading had not been completed. This involved some of the most difficult construction work on the whole line of the railroad. Occasionally, for a short distance, a bench occurs, on which the line was placed; but for the greater part of the distance the line had to be cut in on heavy transverse slopes. The contour of the country is very irregular, making it impossible to secure light work, even by the introduction of very sharp curvature. Deep embankments and gulches occur in many cases, and in order to save expensive cuts in the precipitous rock bluffs it was necessary to make heavy fills, the slopes extending into the waters of Turnagain Arm, where they are affected by the heavy tides. The rock encountered here is mostly of a hard slate, with some quartzite dikes.

About 2,420,000 cubic yards of excavation has been necessary along Turnagain Arm, about half of which was solid rock. Many timber culverts and small trestle openings were required, and at several points on this line truss bridges were necessary over the larger streams. The engineering commission has estimated that about 8000 lineal feet of snow sheds will eventually be required in this district; and these sheds will have to be of a very substantial character to withstand the shock from the slides, which frequently start from long distances up the cleared mountain side.

The completion of the Turnagain Arm line was delayed somewhat by the severe winter of 1917 18 and the lack of a sufficient labor supply. The same conditions affected work at other points along the line. Thirty inches of snow lay on the ground at many points in the Talkeetna district, north of Anchorage, late in April, and snow prevented station men working north of Talkeetna until some time in June. There was five feet of snow at Indian river in April. A few weeks later snow slides did some damage to sections of track between Anchorage and Seward, mud slides occurred between Houston and Kashwitna, slight injury was done by slide of rock at Mile 14 1/2, Matanuska branch, and ice heaves at some places revealed the need for better drainage. For the most part these marks of Nature's work were removed early in the season, but around Nenana, Fairbanks division, progress was retarded by floods. The Nenana river left its channel, broke through Lost Slough, crossed completed grade and caused numerous disastrous washouts, involving a number of miles of track. On account of this it was necessary to make a change in the line, which was removed 2 to 2 1/2 miles east of the original location. On the Fairbanks division 9904 lineal feet of piling was driven to prevent flood damage on the break up of the Tanana river. A glacial stream washed out a bridge and track at Mile 52, The damaging overflow began July 22 and did not subside until August 5. Repairs were immediately made after the subsidence.

Track laying has been resumed north of Montana Creek (Mile 211). Before August 1, bridge work on that section had been completed to Mile 216, and piles were driven for all bridges to and including bridge station 9542 (Mile 219). Station men have been grading as far north as Susitna crossing (Mile 264), and on September 15 grading had been completed north of Talkeetna to a point about midway between Talkeetna and the Susitna. North of the Susitna the entire right of way to the end of rail near Fairbanks has been cleared except for a short stretch on either side of Tolvena river. Grading is complete or under way south of the Tanana river, and progress being made tends to confirm the expectation that the line to the Nenana coal field will be finished before the end of the season.

A recent issue of the Alaska Railroad Record reports some details of progress in the Fairbanks division.

On the "D" line, which replaces the former route of the government railroad between Mile 389 and Mile 410, in the Nenana district, clearing is about 50 per cent completed from Mile 389 to Mile 393, and entirely completed from Mile 393 to about Mile 410. "D" line from Mile 389 to Mile 401.5, with the exception of a stretch of about 3000 feet, was entire covered by grading contractors toward the end of July. Most of these contractors, however, did not get started until so late that they were not able to build much grade in July, but the August report should show good progress. On the "D" line no grading was done in July from Mile 401.5 to Mile 403, because of wet conditions and the difficulty of transporting supplies between these points. The line between Mile 403 and Mile 405.2 was partially covered by graders.

Nearly three miles of temporary track were laid in July on "D" line. Track was laid with two shifts daily until July 6 to the Fish Creek bridge, about Mile 407.2. The bridge was completed July 13. Its trestle is 120 feet long and the bridge required 1272 lineal feet of piles. Track laying was resumed July 13 and continued to Mile 406.8, at which point the crews were moved back to raise and surface the grade while camp outfits were moved ahead.

Track laying was started again with only a day shift July 18, and it was carried on for the remainder of July. Very good progress was made considering that for almost the entire distance cribbing or brush had to be put into place before ties could be laid. The track laying crew July 31 reached Mile 405.23.

On the "L" line, which is the originally established route of the government railroad in the Nenana district, good progress was made by all grading contractors. Grading was completed between Mile 364.6 and Mile 365.6 and between Mile 380.7 and Mile 382. There were a few places in July between Mile 365.6 and Mile 377 which were not covered by contractors, but it was expected contracts for the grading of these stretches would soon be let.

In the Fairbanks district, forty contracts were let late in July for grading between Mile 457.3 and Mile 458.5. In this district, track was laid from Mile 458.5, which is the end of the grade that was completed last fall, and Mile 458.6. Fifty five pound steel was used.

The old Tanana Valley line, which extends from Chatanika to Fairbanks and from Fairbanks to Chena, in the Fairbanks district, is in fair condition so far as its track is concerned. No attempt was made to put the track in better surface, except in bad spots and in places where ties had to be renewed. Inasmuch as this work had not been done since the construction of the road, it required considerable time, which will not have to be expended again in the immediate future.

Despite frequent rains, satisfactory progress was made in the Talkeetna district. Contracts were awarded for all the grading work that with the force available could be covered this year north of Talkeetna. On account of the advanced stage of the season, when this work was opened, and also on account of the limited transportation facilities, operations have been conducted only to Station 11740, which is Mile 260. These operations, however, include all heavy work south of Susitna Crossing, with the exception of the sliding side hill sections to which attention has been called at different times in the past.

Two pile drivers worked continuously in August. North of Montana piles for bridges were driven to Station 8668, Birch Creek, Mile 221, and north of Talkeetna the smaller bridges were driven to Station 10209, Mile 231. Nothing was done to the Talkeetna Crossing or the other openings between Station 9990 and Station 10040, Mile 227 and Mile 228. A small force was employed during the latter part of August on a culvert near Station 9855, Mile 224.

Since opening the work this season, 20 station gangs, employing 231 men, have been engaged in this district. Some of the station gangs at different times in August were utilized on force account work for building and repairing trails and wagon roads and erecting new camps, as well as other necessary work for which day labor was not available.

Trains have been operated this summer, according to the last Official Guide, from Seward to Grand View, 45 miles; Rabbit to Anchorage, 10 miles; Anchorage to Matanuska, 36 miles; Matanuska to King, 24 miles. According to the Alaska Railroad Record, weekly train service was inaugurated June 12 on the main line north of Anchorage as far as Montana. Daily service is maintained on the Tanana Valley Ry. which connects with the main line at Mile 463.


Railroad Construction Progress in Alaska
Line Between Seward and Anchorage Completed
and Work on Other Sections Well Advanced

Secretary of the Interior Lane, on September 13, announced the completion of the government railroad between Anchorage and Seward, Alaska. The following account of construction progress this year is continued from the Railway Review of October 5.

The illustrations which are shown on this and following pages give some idea of the immense changes that have been wrought by the Alaskan Engineering Commission along the line of the government railway. The structures are notable and their rapid appearance on sites which were bare of all buildings a short time ago are prominent marks of progress. The Railway Review of September 25, 1915, described the undeveloped country and showed photographic views of the same sites as they appeared in the summer of 1914. Anchorage (Mile 115), which is the headquarters of the commission, now contains substantial railway office, terminal and shop buildings, a number of comfortable residences, business blocks, and other conveniences and utilities. In 1914 it was a city of tents.

Early this year the railroad was operated with the following equipment: 21 locomotives, 32 box cars, 197 flats, 3 stock cars, 26 gondolas, 6 refrigerator, 62 ballast, 69 dump cars, 13 caboose, 4 tank cars, 5 coaches, 1 mail and baggage car, 2 officers' cars and 1 gas motor car, 8 steam shovels, 1 pile driver, 5 locomotive cranes, 1 rotary plow, 16 outfit cars, 2 spreaders, 1 Lidgerwood. During the year work of assembling and setting up some additional equipment received from Balboa, Panama, progressed and there are now in service a total of 24 more flats and 8 Hart convertible cars, as well as two heavy locomotives for the Fairbanks division, a narrow gauge engine for the Tanana Valley R. R. and a ditching machine. A Roberts track laying machine is being used.

The dredge "Sperm" built at Anchorage for the commission was launched in May, also a gas towboat and a number of barges. The construction of coal dock No. 1 was begun, some piles being driven previous to June 1, and soon afterward the "Sperm" was put to work on this improvement upon which good progress has been made.

The engineering commission established a new wage schedule effecting all classes of employees August 5. Labor requested additional increases, but these were refused and to retain men in the service their grounds for new increases was the short working season in Alaska transportation back to Seattle or where they could secure other work was promised all who remained to the end of the season.

On or about November 1, the Alaskan Engineering Commission will place its barges, tugs and other floating equipment at Anchorage in winter quarters and freight and passengers will be discharged at Seward and delivered to Anchorage by rail over the newly completed line. Some freight for the commission was moved over the new line September 13 and it was planned to establish regular service on or about October 1, and continue operations, if possible, throughout the winter.

Rail connection on the Seward Anchorage line was made on September 10 when the ends of steel met at Mile 78.75. The last spike was driven by Chairman Edes of the commission. The President was authorized by act of Congress, approved March 12, 1914, to construct and operate railways in Alaska not in excess of 1000 miles nor exceeding $35,000,000 in cost. The President delegated the surveys and construction work to the Alaska Engineering Commission under the supervision of the Secretary of the Interior. Surveys were completed in 1915, and the Alaska Northern Ry. having been purchased, construction work was begun on the projected line beyond and on wharves, warehouses and terminal yards at Anchorage. The Alaska Northern has been entirely rebuilt.

The railroad taps two large coal fields, the Matanuska and the Nenana. The coal in the Matanuska field has been tested by the navy and found to be excellent for steaming purposes. The Nenana coal, tested by the bureau of mines, was found to be a good grade of lignite. At Eska Creek in the Matanuska field, the Alaskan Engineering Commission is mining coal for the needs of the railroad. This mine was producing about 100 tons per day in 1917, and this year weekly production has frequently exceeded 1200 tons. Another mine in this field is also being developed by the commission at Chickaloon. Anchorage, on Cook Inlet, near Ship Creek, had a population of over 5000 in 1917. Improvements have been made here, such as street and sidewalk construction, water and sewer installation, fire protection, hospital buildings, school and municipal buildings. At this point, the division terminal yards for the railroad are located, with shops, engine house, storehouses, etc. Matanuska is a small town laid out at the junction of the main line of the railroad, with a branch to the Matanuska coal fields. Its population numbers several hundred people. The town is managed by the townsite organization at Anchorage. Streets and sidewalks have been constructed and a sewer system installed. The town is furnished with water from the system used by the railroad. The town of Nenana is situated adjacent to the crossing of the Tanana river by the railroad. In 1917 this town had a population of about 1000 inhabitants, including the employees of the railroad. Considerable construction work has been done in the way of street improvements. An electric lighting system is being operated, as well as water and sewerage systems. Improvements at the railroad's terminal yards here include station and office buildings, shop and engine house, power plant, hospital buildings, and a serviceable dock along the river front.

Quite a number of homesteaders are now located in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys, and in the vicinity of Anchorage, most of them being newcomers to the country since the railroad construction work was started. There is also considerable agricultural development in the Tanana valley, in the vicinity of Fairbanks. There are a number of farms under cultivation, and the vegetables raised are of excellent quality. There seems to be no question but that the Tanana, as well as the Matanuska and Susitna valleys can successfully raise sufficient grain and vegetables to sustain a large population. The production of potatoes in country tributary to the railroad was between 1500 and 2000 tons last year and 200 tons of turnips.

There was more or less concern in Alaska when the United States entered the war because the Government might postpone completion of the railway. Since the construction work was started a large number of people, the majority of those immediately on the route of the road, have depended directly or indirectly on the engineering commission for their income. An official announcement that construction would he continued in spite of the war because the production of coal was necessary for the successful movement of our army and navy was welcome news to Alaska. The people have enthusiastically backed up the Government in every war activity. A year ago Secretary Lane referring to the fiftieth anniversary of the purchase of Alaska, said, "We are only beginning to realize how tremendous the service was that William H. Seward performed when he secured for us that great source of wealth. When Seward was secretary of state few men realized the great potential value of Alaska. Popular impression held it a snow bound wilderness, a land of ice and polar bears. Seward felt that the time would come when the wealth of Alaska would astound the world. His judgment today is vindicated. That little flier in real estate, at two cents an acre has brought something more than three quarters of a billion dollars into the channels of American trade during the past half century. And the profits are just beginning to come in."

William C. Edes is chairman of the Alaskan Engineering Commission. Thomas Riggs, Jr., a former member of the commission, is now governor of the territory of Alaska. Col. Frederick Mears, U. S. A., another former member of the commission, now commands the 31st Engineers, which is in France. R. J. Weir is an engineer in charge at Seward, and H. F. Dodge is acting division engineer at Anchorage.


Photos accompanying the article:

Eagle River Bridge

Map of Alaska

Progress map

Repairing damages

Rock Point

Coal bunker

Laying track

Terminal buildings

Dredge Sperm

Power House

Telegraph and telephone building

Coal exhibits


Car trucks