The Potter Section House now serves as an office for Chugach State Park rangers. (July 2002)
Photo courtesy of John Combs
Story Boards Found at the Potter Section House

Potter Section House
Potter Section House has now entered another phase in its history - a historic site that tells visitors about the history of the Alaska Railroad.  Why was Potter preserved?  How was it preserved?  What can it tell us about Alaska's past?

Adapting an old building for a new use is not easy.  In order to be historically accurate and retain the character of the structure, alterations must be limited.  First, basic repairs are often needed to make the building usable once again.  At Potter, a new foundation, better access, fresh paint, and new wiring are just a few of the improvements that will enhance the building's use.  Government agencies, private organizations and concerned citizens cooperated to preserve the section house and determine its present use as an interpretive center on Alaska Railroad history.  The section house also serves as an office for Chugach State Park rangers.

The Section House represents an era in the life of the Alaska Railroad - an era that is fast disappearing.  It reminds us of the labor and skill it took to build the railroad and to keep it operating during the pioneering years.  The house holds many clues about how people lived and worked during that time - information that may not be available anywhere else.  Its clues are combined with other sources of information to try to determine what the house looked like, who lived and worked there and how the railroad functioned.

Secrets of the Disappearing Door
The building provides us with clues to a former entrance on the south wall.  If you look closely at the south side of the house, you can see where siding has been placed over the south opening.

Before the restoration project there was an unpainted line on the siding and window trim where the porch roof had been attached.

Examination of railroad records and interviews with former section workers have failed to disclose when the door was put in.  A 1940s photograph shows us that it was a relatively late addition.  A number of reasons have been given for its installation.  One theory is that the door was put in to allow section crews access to their quarters upstairs without disturbing the section foreman.

Some railroad workers recall the door being removed in the late 1940s.  But a 1968 photograph shows the door in place.  We still don't know when and why the door was removed.  What is your theory?

A Wilderness Railroad
The Klondike gold rush of 1898 brought prospectors and investors who wanted their share of the resources of Alaska, but they needed reliable year-round transportation to the Interior from coastal ports.  Entrepreneurs and politicians alike thought that a railroad was the logical answer.  With a railroad, gold-seekers would no longer have to rely on waterways that were frozen much of the year or trails and roads that turned to muck in the spring.  To Americans who were accustomed to taming vast new territories, who built railroads across a continent and who had just recently completed the Panama Canal, building a railroad into Alaska's Interior was the next challenge.

Several private rail lines had started and failed in their attempt to build a railroad through the wilderness.  Many felt the only way the railroad could be built was with federal assistance.  In 1914 Congress passed legislation directing the President to "designate, locate and construct" a railroad in Alaska.  The government created the Alaska Engineering Commission and began selecting the most feasible route for the government railroad.  After much examination and debate, President Wilson selected the Western or "Susitna" route which could take advantage of the 71 miles of railroad already constructed across the Kenai Peninsula by the Alaska Northern Railway Company.  The Commission chose Ship Creek (now Anchorage) as its base of operations, and begin the task of constructing the only governemnt-owned railroad in the United States.

The completion of the Alaska Railroad did not lead to the immediate development of resources that its supporters had hoped it would.  The new railroad provided access to Interior gold fields and extensive coal deposits, but failed to make an immediate or profitable return on its investment.  Management sought additional ways of generating revenue.  It began regular year-round mail and freight service to communities in Alaska's Interior and along the Yukon river.  In 1924 the first of many campaigns to boost tourism began.  Special tours, fares, and schedules, as well as promotional films and brochures, enticed the public to travel on the Alaska Railroad.  Several railroad officials sought to encourage settlement along the railbelt to increase both passenger and freight traffic, and the railroad played an active part in the campaign to bring more than 200 families to the Matanuska Valley colony in 1935.

The railroad has fulfilled a number of the promises made by its proponents, and it continues to play a part in developing Alaska's resources and the economy.  Who can predict where the future will take the Alaska Railroad?

Working on the Railroad
After the last track had been laid along Turnagain Arm in 1918, crews of six to eight men were hired and stationed along the route to maintain the track and roadbed.  The distance between each of the sections was determined by the difficulty of the terrain, the likelihood of avalanches, and the amount of maintenance anticipated.  Potter, like other construction camps, became a section house location.  Here the District Office Building and the warehouse were used as living quarters and maintenance facilities for the section foreman and his crew until a new section house was built in 1929.

Floods, washouts created by high tides, avalanches, and rock slides all caused problems.  The annual cycle of freezing and thawing caused the track to warp and twist, and in the summer extra gangs were assigned to the section to assist in straightening track, replacing ties, and shoring up the roadbed.  Lack of funds and supplies during the construction of the railroad resulted in many temporary measures that quickly created headaches for maintenance crews.  ties cut from green timber had to be replaced, the roadbed eroded, and a number of the bridges and buildings had fallen into disrepair.  A "track-walker" had to walk the track each night after dark because rocks broken loose by frost action would roll onto the track, and could cause derailment.  Avalanches were a common problem along Turnagain Arm.  They could derail or bury equipment and often blocked the path of oncoming trains.  Prompt response by the section crews saved lives and kept the railroad operating.

Hand tools and manual labor were used in the early years for almost all maintenance work on the Alaska Railroad.  As technology improved, it was possible for a six-person crew to repair and maintain a longer section of track, so some crews could be eliminated.  In 1955, Alaska Railroad managers decided to extend the other sections along Turnagain Arm.  For the first time in 40 years there would be no railroad crew at Potter.

Stationmen and Stone
Level ground, fresh water and a beach suitable for barge landings - three of the many characteristics sought by survey crews as they looked for construction camp sites along the proposed Alaska Railroad.  Potter was an excellent location for a construction camp, having all of these attributes, plus a strategic location where the rail line turned north to the Interior.  Completed in November of 1916, Potter was one of the first camps built along Turnagain Arm.

The section along Turnagain Arm provided some of the greatest challenges to the railroad builders.  Working year round to complete the Seward to Anchorage portion as quickly as possible, workers faced avalanches, rock slides and extreme cold temperatures.   Where motorists now easily drive along the coastline of Turnagain Arm, the landscape only hints at the rugged cliffs that once jutted out into the sea.  Long stretches of the railroad bed had to be chiseled and notched out of these cliffs.  Blasts using 60,000 pounds of dynamite were not uncommon.  After each blast the rock had to be broken up, shoveled into wheelbarrows, and hauled away by hand.  Over four million cubic yards of rock were moved during construction.  (That's 27 million wheelbarrows full.)

Between the fall of 1916 and the summer of 1917 over 1,000 men, many of them immigrants from eastern Europe and Scandinavia, were working along Turnagain Arm.  They labored as stationmen - gangs who bid as a group on the clearing or blasting of a section of railroad route.  Each man in the gang was an equal partner, and the contract system provided them the freedom to contract for work when they chose.  each stationman was responsible for his own housing.  Their tentframes and log cabins were spread along the shores and hillsides of Turnagain Arm in the winter of 1916.

The Seward to Anchorage portion of the Alaska Railroad was completed in September of 1918.  After working on this phase of construction, many of the laborers moved north to construct the Anchorage-Fairbanks portion of the line.  Many of the construction camps, including Potter, began to function as maintenance stations.  Potter Section House became the headquarters for maintenance of this portion of the railroad along Turnagain Arm.

Morse Code to Microwave
Tackling the same problem that plagued the pioneer railroaders, this most northerly of the world's railroads chugs toward the twenty-first century.  The extremes of climate test the equipment, snowslides, floods, and earthquakes twist and destroy the rails, and permafrost and tundra provide an unstable base on which to operate the equipment and maintain the line.  New solutions are being applied to old problems as the young Alaska Railroad Corporation undertakes these challenges.

Microwave Repeaters are now used to communicate between trains and stations along the route.  The telegraph and Morse code were finally abandoned in 1959, and soon after, the old crank-type magneto telephone also went out of use.  You can find these repeaters positioned along the railroad on Turnagain Arm.

The Electromatic Tamper, an improvement in maintenance equipment, allows ten people to do the work of 100 men and women using picks and shovels.  This machine uses both infrared and laser beams to align track.

Electronic Monitoring Systems in the modern freight engines bounces signals off the roadbed, measuring the true ground speed of the locomotive.  This helps control wheel slippage, reducing fuel consumption.