Working for the Alaska Railroad

by Mike Kopcha

I was in New York City in February of 1945 and looking for a job.  I met with the Arabian American Oil Co. (a division of Standard Oil).  The man who interviewed me said I was qualified as a warehouse man and he could sign me to an 18 month contract.  I didn't sign right away.  I wanted to think it over first.

Later, I saw a sign saying the Alaska Railroad was hiring.  When I saw the words "Alaska" I knew that is where I wanted to go.  So I signed a one year contract as a mechanic helper.  The pay started the day I signed the contract.  (Here is a copy of his 1945 contract: pages 1, 2 and 3).  The railroad would also pay expenses to get me to Anchorage to begin work and then back to New York City when my employment ended.  Little did anyone know that I would stay for 37 years!  When I retired, I still had the letter that said they would pay to send me back to the point of hire.  So they gave me a check to cover my return expenses which I pocketed!  They even let me keep the letter.

It took me about one week to travel from New York City to Anchorage.  I left Grand Central Station in a train passenger coach.  I was in that same passenger coach throughout the entire journey.  When the railroad companies changed, they merely switched my coach to a different train.

I caught an old steamer in Seattle.  It served as both a cargo and passenger ship.  The cargo was kept down in the hold of the boat.  The weather through the Gulf of Alaska was pretty bad and they even had to tie the piano down in the dining room.  Although the meals were sumptuous, the rough seas caused me to feed the fish quite a bit.

I finally arrived in Seward and within the hour caught a steam train to Anchorage.  Seeing the beautiful Alaskan scenery for the first time left a big impression.  They still had The Loop there and I remember crossing it at a maximum speed of ten miles per hour.

I got off the train at the old Anchorage Depot.  Now I was suppose to see the personnel manager as soon as I got there, but instead went to my quarters.  On the way there, I saw some of the mechanic helpers leaving work; they were greasy and dirty with stuff running from their noses.

The railroad had a group of Quonset huts for the "Boomers".  These huts were for the regular employees who worked under contract for a year or two and then left.  The hospital also had the dual purpose of housing these men.  On the other hand, the newcomers were given temporarily quarters.  They slept in bunks on the Yukon Coach, a passenger coach setting up on blocks.

As I settled into the coach, I met a friendly Canadian.  When I told him I was going to be a mechanic helper, he said, "Why aren't you going into engine service?  You'd be at the top of the heap."  When I expressed interest in this, he went to see Col Ohlson, the Alaska Railroad's General Manager and arranged a meeting for me.

Before long, I was in Col. Ohlson's office.  He sat there at his desk with my application in front of him.  He was quite a character and he said in a gruff voice, "I understand that you want to come into engine service.  Do you realize you need muscles of steel to fire these engines?"  I quickly replied, "If I don't have them, I'll go and get some."  Col. Ohlson roared, "That's the spirit, son!" and jumped up, leaned over the desk, shook my hand and welcomed me to engine service.  Later on I met with the personnel manager who said, "How the hell did you get to see the General Manager?  I don't know how you did it."

I had come up to Alaska during the pioneer days; there was no modernization.  Fourth Avenue was the only paved street in Anchorage.  Everything came up by boat.  The meat was frozen and they used a band saw to cut it.  I remember going into Lucky's, a grocery and butcher shop.  I gathered up some things and went to the check out line.  The cashier looked at me and said, "Cash or credit?"   This was a surprise since she had never laid eyes on me in her life.  That was just the way it was back then.  Guys got $1,000 bank loans on a handshake.  Miners, trappers and fisherman borrowed money or bought things on credit and then paid it off at the end of their season using the money they made.

I never saw any paper dollar bills.  I don't think there were any.  They gave change back in silver dollars.  Also, there were no pennies.  Your change was always in nickels, dimes, quarters and silver dollars.  You could get a good meal for sixty-five cents.  Employees bought coupon books from the railroad and used them for meals at "the railroad mess."  Some of the restaurants on Fourth Avenue also took these coupons.

When I would walk down the street, everyone would say "Good morning" or tip their hat.  On my second day in Anchorage while walking up C Street an old gent said, "Good morning, son.  You better grab your nose."  I didn't realize it, but my nose was frozen.  The gent must have seen it had been nipped and was frozen white.  I grabbed my nose to warm it up.

I started work as a fireman and learned you didn't throw the coal into the firebox any old way.  You spread the coal over the full area of the fire bed and left a heal in the back.  The heal was due to the strong pull of the exhaust and kept the rest of the coal bed intact.

It took 900 days or three years before a fireman could become an engineer.  The Alaska Railroad was hard up for engineers at the time.  After only firing for two years and three months, they had me take the engineer's test and I passed it.

One of the things that stands out in my thirty-seven years was the time a freight train ran into the back of my passenger train in 1975.  I was just south of Hurricane which is where the passenger train stopped to let tourists take pictures.   As I sat there, I saw the other train coming up behind me.  I put the train in motion hoping to prevent it from hitting us.  I just barely got going before he hit, buckling the last coach.  After the accident, they went looking for the engineer of the freight train, but couldn't find him.  Apparently, he ran off and hid.

The railroad canned the engineer, brakeman and conductor on the freight train plus the flagman and engineer (me!) on the passenger train.  The conductor on the passenger train was given time off.  Weaver Franklin, Road Foreman, tried to duplicate the accident to determine if the freight train engineer could have stopped in time.  It was determined that he indeed could have stopped.  They also discovered the engineer had been drinking all night in Healy and was hung over at the time of the accident.  I appealed my dismissal and was reinstated thirty days later by the General Manager.  I used my annual leave to cover those thirty lost days.  The engineer of the freight train was rehired a year later as a crane operator.

In 1980, the Alaska Railroad gave me a certificate for completing 35 years of service with the federal government.  I retired in 1982.  Looking back over it all, I realize the good Lord was with me, to be able to accomplish what I did at the time.  It all just fell together.  Seeing the sign in New York City, meeting the Canadian, getting the job from Col. Olson, it was truly by the grace of God.


© 2003 Mike Kopcha