The Special Survey Project

by Daniel Bowers

I was a junior at Doane College, Crete, Nebraska in 1949.  The chairman of the college board was United  States Senator Hugh Butler.  He was, among other things, on the Senate Finance Committee.  The Alaska Railroad was owned by the Department of Interior who was lobbying strongly for funds to rebuild the infrastructure after neglect during World War II.  The railroad put together a political work project that was supposed to influence the House and Senate.  Selected congressmen and senators were offered the opportunity to send two male students to Anchorage to work on the railroad for the summer.  Supposedly we were to work on a "special survey project."  Approximately 50 of us met at Midway in Chicago and boarded an Alaska Air Lines DC-4.  We paid for the charter.  On arrival we were informed that the project had fallen through and we all would be assigned to various section gangs.  We were housed over night in troop sleepers and the next day sent to work.  My Doane roommate and I went to Honolulu.  I grew up on a large farm/orchard so pick and shovel work was not a surprise.  The mosquitoes and no-see-ems were something else.  The section foreman, Walt Goreski, was single and occupied a small room at the front of the section house.  A couple plus their two small boys occupied two rooms.  The crew was housed on the second floor.  We did our own laundry.  The wife was a very good cook and the husband worked on the gang.  The rest of the crew consisted of a retired United States Navy CPO, Martin and a former cowboy.  Martin owned a sled team that was used to patrol track in the winter.  Each dog had a house at the rear between between the privy and the section house.  These animals were not friendly.  During the winter they took turns going "Outside" to Seattle, California, etc.

We worked 6 1/2 days a week.  The coffee pot was put on track side by Martin promptly at 1130.  He made the strongest coffee known to man.  Threw in the egg shells and salt.  The food was good though basic.  Each morning Walt got the daily line up from the dispatcher and we were off to replace ties.  As you may know, there was no ballast in this high country so we had to dig along the track for gravel and dirt to tamp with.  Many of the ties were original issue in 1921 (?).  They were hand hewn and much larger than the modern version; hence large holes to be filled.  There usually were two freights in addition to the two passenger trains during the day.  A local freight, headed by steam, came through after midnight and stopped for water and to off load supplies, including 100 pound blocks of ice for the ice box.  One engineer seemed to have a dislike for Walt and used the whistle freely while in the station yard.  Another engineer delighted in running through our newly aligned track at excess speed.

On June 30 those of us who were interested were taken to Fairbanks on the daily passenger for a get together.  Magically the troop car or cars appeared.  We met with Col. Johnson, General Manager.  On July 1 we all traveled to the University to witness the laying of a corner stone for a new science building.  We returned to our jobs on the 2nd.  During this meeting I learned that it was possible to get other assignments.  I observed later that it depended on who your sponsor was.  I wrote Col Johnson (I may have this name wrong) stating that I was interested in learning more about the Alaska Railroad and asked what other opportunities were available.  Shortly thereafter a new DeSoto sedan on flanged wheels appeared carrying the project manager.  He suggested I report in Anchorage the next day, July 15.   Two other students met me and we were assigned to the stores department.  We spent five days in Eklutna, bunking in the closed station house with two other students.  When the War Assets Administration agreed to ship surplus equipment to the Alaska Railroad, it was an "all or nothing package."  Hence the troop sleepers, box cars, GI trucks, cats, and literally tons of various materials and equipment stored in box cars on the passing track.  These cars apparently had not been opened and certainly had not been inventoried.  We had a field day!  Our mission was to locate and count any equipment that could be used to improve the living conditions in the section houses.  The most prized item were a number of Servel-Electrolux kerosene refrigerators, still in their cartons.  After the inventory was completed we met with stores personnel in Anchorage. Our Anchorage bases with the yard fire department where the food was excellent.

On July 18 we began visiting all the stations from Anchorage to Seward and a few north of Anchorage.  We rode on an open Fairmont motor car, pushing it to start.  The operator was a semi retired gentleman whose job over the years had been dynamiting beaver dams that threatened the wooden bridges on the system.  He was quick to point out that he was not allowed to injure the beaver.  We spent one night at the Tunnel bunk house.  There was a spring fed wash house in back.   We were told that they had a pet bear, "Granny."   She was ageless and had no teeth so was fed.  Apparently the third member of our team was a rather proper young man from Harvard.  He was in the wash house when Granny decided to check him out. When he saw the bear, he departed head first out an open window.........into the drain pit.  When this survey was completed, the two chaps in Eklutna helped us load the equipment to be shipped onto a way car.  Wherever we bunked over night we helped with the kitchen chores, listened to tall tales and played with the children.  Many of them were Native Americans and very cute.

I left the Alaska Railroad in mid August, flying to Seattle on a non-scheduled, Mt. McKinley Airways.  Before leaving, I asked if I could return in the summer of 1950.  Paul Shelmerdine, Personnel Manager said there probably would be no jobs, but come on back on a risk basis.  My room mate, who loved the section gang and I were assigned to Whittier.  He worked on the track and I was assigned to the docks.  The Alaska Railroad had contracted to have surplus rail and new ties shipped, usually using World War II Liberty Ships.  The ship would arrive on the high tide Sunday night.  Long shoremen came down from Anchorage and did the grunt work.  We tallied the loads coming off, spotted the gondolas, etc.  The ship left Friday night and we rode a special passenger train to Anchorage.  And it rained.

I had every intention of returning when I graduated from Doane in 1951.  I had been assured that I could make big money plus a sizable bonus by working the winter of 1951-52 on the snow fleet.  This snow train stayed out for weeks at a time.  Unfortunately by then the Korean war sent me scurrying for an Air National Guard berth and I did not return to ride the Alaska Railroad until 1994.  I took my 1949 rail travel pass card with me.............and rode free.  Pays to be a string saver.

There are many memories and old haunts in Anchorage that were destroyed in 1964.  We visited Whittier in 1997 and found that they only remaining structure was part of the warehouse.  In Anchorage everything was $1.  An ice cream cone, small pitcher of coffee and a taxi ride.  Maintenance of Way paid $1.90 an hour.  Room and board was five cents a working hour.  I was making an average of sixty cents an hour doing farm work and working at college.

Additional Notes:

1. I failed to mention that while working in Anchorage Yard in 1949, we were told that the blue and yellow paint scheme came about as the result of a "ship load" of and yellow.  Apparently management had no choice but to use it.

2. Here is number 6 stopping at Curry on 6/30/49 when our group was enroute to Fairbanks.  I remember meeting the Traveling Conductor out of Anchorage who I saw a number of times later in my travels to and from Whittier the next summer.  The track was so rough someone had thoughtfully put side boards around the edges of the tables in the dining cars so the dishes would not slide off.  The lip was probably two inched high.The food was always good compared to the section houses.  The best cooking in Anchorage was in the Alaska Railroad firehouse where hung our hats while between station visits.  We were invited to help test fire hoses.  There was always an unsuspecting switching crew who were caught by surprise and totally soaked.

3. Photo of the Mt. McKinley Hotel


© 2001 Daniel Bowers