One hundred years ago in Alaskan history

By Jonathan C. Fischer

February 10, 2013


On February 6, 1913, President Howard Taft submitted the report of the Alaska Railroad Commission to Congress.  The commission had been created by Congress in August of 1912 to “conduct an examination into the transportation question in the Territory of Alaska; to examine railroad routes from the seaboard to the coal fields and to the interior and navigable waterways”.

The members of the commission were:

Maj. Jay J. Morrow, Corp of Engineers, US Army, Chairman

Alfred H. Brooks, geologist in charge of the Division of Alaskan Mineral Resources, Geological Survey, vice chairman.

Civil Engineer Leonard M. Cox, US Navy

Colin M. Ingersoll, consulting railroad engineer, New York City.


It was a requirement of the act that Alfred Hulse Brooks be on the commission.  In the early 20th century, an Alaskan remarked: “There are but two who know the truth about Alaska’s resources.  These are Alfred H. Brooks and Providence.” The short time the commission had from its inception to the date of its final report to Congress made the services of Dr. Brooks essential.  Between 1900 and 1924 nobody knew Alaska better than Brooks.  Every year from 1904 to 1923 (with a break during the First World War) Brooks prepared a report on all of Alaska’s mineral resources. He also wrote extensively on railway routes in Alaska.  Brooks is commemorated in Alaska by Mount Brooks in the Alaskan Range and by the Brooks Range, which was named in his honor posthumously in 1925.

The commission report states that “the Territory of Alaska (as it was known at the time) contains large undeveloped mineral resources, extensive tracks of agricultural lands, and a climate that is favorable to permanent settlement and industrial development.” The report found that “Alaska could only be developed by the construction of railways to connect the tidewaters of the Pacific Ocean with the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers.”  Both rivers debouch into the Bering Sea on the west coast of Alaska.  The Yukon River is 1893 miles long and its mouth is 2,500 miles from Puget Sound.  This long and circuitous route from the Pacific Coast States to the interior of Alaska involved the transshipment of cargo from an ocean going vessel to a river boat at the mouth of the river.  This was expensive, it was slow, and was only available during the summer months when the rivers were not frozen.  Conversely land transportation was often easier in winter with frozen ground providing more stable footing than the soggy muck of partially thawed land. Riverboat deliveries would often wait at the dock until the ground froze before being transported overland.

The Pacific mountain system rings the southern coastline of Alaska from British Columbia in a huge arc, tailing out in the Alaska Peninsula. Known as the Alaskan Range this system of mountains provides a formidable natural barrier to accessing the broad plateau of the great river valleys of the interior.  Nature had provided two major gateways through the towering mountain ramparts that rose steeply from the Pacific shores of Alaska.  In both cases it had likewise provided natural harbors, ice free the year round.  One route was up the Copper River Valley, and could be reached from harbors located at Cordova or Port Valdez.  The second route to the interior began two hundred miles to the west.  Starting from Seward, on Resurrection Bay, on the southeast of the Kenai Peninsula, this route ran north through the broad valley of the Susitna River.

The commission recommended two independent systems involving 733 miles of new construction at a cost of $35,000,000.   Both of the routes were to be appended on to an existing railroad.  They recommended building an extension from the Copper River & Northwestern at Chitina, over Mentasta Pass, to Fairbanks, located on the Tanana River, the largest tributary of the Yukon.  Their second recommendation was to extend the Alaska Northern Railway (aka Alaska Central) to the Susitna River, with a branch to the Matanuska coal field; and an extension of the main line through the Alaska Range (via Rainy Pass) to the Kuskokwim River.

 In his transmittal Taft states: “The necessary inference from the entire report is that the recommendations of the commission can only be carried out if the Government builds or guarantees the construction cost of the railroads recommended.  If the Government is to guarantee the principal and interest of the construction bonds, it seems clear that it should own the roads, the cost of which it really pays.  I am very much opposed to Government operation, but I believe that Government ownership with private operation under lease is the proper solution to the difficulties here presented.”

Not many paid much attention to Taft’s message. In less than a month he would be out of office, having only carried Vermont and Utah in his reelection bid in 1912. His Alaska policies had contributed mightily to his demise.  The Ballinger Pinchot Affair, which originated over some coal claims near the Bering River in Alaska, played a major role in creating a schism between Taft and the progressive wing of the Republican Party affiliated with Teddy Roosevelt. These progressives formed the Bull Moose Party and ran Teddy Roosevelt as their candidate for president in 1912 in direct opposition to Taft. This split in the Republican Party led to the election of Woodrow Wilson, only the second Democratic president since the Civil War.  The Alaska Railroad Commission was disbanded.  Brooks went back to his work at the US Geological Survey and Major Morrow was transferred to the Panama Canal Zone where he served out his career.  Soon a young lieutenant previously assigned to the Canal Zone would take up residence in Alaska.  His name was Frederick Mears.


Railway Routes in Alaska: Message from the President of the United States Transmitting Report of the Alaska Railroad Commission. United States, Jay Johnson Morrow, United States. President (1909-1913 : Taft)


Geographers Biobibliographical Studies, Volume 1   Alfred Hulse Brooks, by Morgan Sherwood  1977 International Geographic Union

Railway Routes in Alaska by Alfred H. Brooks Geologist in Charge of Alaska Division, US Geological Survey   Published by permission of the Director of the United States Geological Survey.  Read at the third meeting of the Association of American Geographers, New York, January 1, 1907

Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, Donald J. Orth Geological Survey Professional Paper 567.  Reprinted 1971 with minor revisions

The Geography and Geology of Alaska: A Summary of Existing Knowledge by Alfred H. Brooks Washington, Government Printing Office 1906

The State of Alaska, by Earnest Gruening Random House 1954