History

A History of the Alaska Railroad

Written by
Kierre Childers

The history of the Alaska Railroad is, in many ways, one of an ugly duckling. From its young days as a series of unsuccessful pioneer railroads, to a federal takeover under almost constant scrutiny - the early decades of the railroad were anything but graceful. As part of our focus on Alaska infrastructure we offer a two-part series dedicated to the history of the Alaska Railroad. Part one explores the events leading up to federal railroad ownership and the selection of the Seward to Fairbanks route. Part two explores the completion of the Seward to Fairbanks line, the impacts of both the first and second World Wars on the railroad, and the events that would follow.

Private ownership and turmoil

The early days of rail travel in Alaska were speared by the discovery of gold and the Klondike stampede. By the end of the 19th century, 11 companies filed for railroad routes totalling almost 700 miles of line. Three railroads were constructed near Nome: the Seward Peninsula Railway, the Wild Goose Railway, and the Council City and Solomon River Railway. Two companies aimed to build a line from Valdez to the Yukon, but with room for only one railroad through the narrow Keystone Canyon, heated rivalry resulted in casualties on both sides. A more successful endeavor, the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad, financially backed by the Guggenheim family and J.P. Morgan, would haul over $200 million in copper ore and concentrates during its years of operation.

Keystone Canyon near Valdez, Alaska, circa 1909. University of Washington Special Collections

The Alaska Railroad’s predecessor, the Alaska Central Railway, began following the arrival of 30 men to Seward in 1903. Managed by John E. Ballaine and financed by nearly $30 million from Seattle investors. The company planned to build a line from Seward to the coal fields of the Matanuska Valley, eventually connecting an interior line to Fairbanks. The entire first season was spent surveying the route, with construction beginning the following year. By 1907, 50 miles of ‘shaky’ track had been constructed, but the company filed for bankruptcy shortly thereafter.

Group of people on railway push cars on the Alaska-Canada Railway tracks, Seward, Alaska, circa 1905.

The Alaska Northern Railway Company acquired the line in 1910, adding another 21 miles of track to reach Kern Creek. The company also hoped to reach the Matanuska Valley, but faced similar financial struggles. Unable to recover its operating expenses, Alaska Northern followed the footsteps of its predecessor.

This drawing depicts the then-present and planned portions of the Alaska Central Railway based in Seward and surrounding area, basically most of Interior and Southcentral Alaska between the Gulf of Alaska and the Yukon River. It also depicts communities and the economic potential contained in parts of the region. Edward Sanford Harrison, Alaska-Yukon Magazine, July 1911

Picking the route

Following the failure of private railroad ventures in the Territory, Governor Wilford Bacon Hoggatt, among others, urged Congress to intervene. The Act of August 24, 1912, authorized President Taft to appoint a commission to study transportation in the Territory. Taft, who strongly wanted to see Alaska’s resources developed, created the Alaska Railroad Commission (sometimes referred to as the Morrow Commission) to manage the study. Spearheaded by Major Jay Johnson Morrow of the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, the Commission was charged with recommending a route. Taft gave the Commission 90 days to complete their report. The debate was just beginning.

After a hurried field visit, the group recommended two railroad routes to develop mineral and agricultural resources in the Territory. The first, a route from Cordova to Chitina and Fairbanks, would utilize the Copper River and Northwestern tracks. The second would be a route from Seward around Cook Inlet to the Iditarod River. The Commission also recommended that government involvement was necessary, either through federal subsidies for private interests or outright government ownership.

Although the Commission’s report offered insight, two revelations would deter progress and ultimately impact the railroad’s future. First, the release of the report (it was submitted two months late) coincided with a change of office. President Taft, the incumbent republican, would be leaving office while the administration transitioned to President Woodrow Wilson, a democrat. The men had very different views on the government’s role with the Alaska Railroad, although both believed a railroad would help provide access to Alaska’s resources.

In addition, concerns were brought forth regarding the integrity of the Morrow Commission’s report. Multiple testimonies from hearings with the House Committee on the Territories reveal the Morrow Commission may have had ulterior motives. John E. Baillaine, said: “All of the men active in that effort were friends and employees of the Guggenheims or men closely identified with them in a business way.” With prior involvement in the Alaska Central Railway, it can’t be certain that Ballaine’s interests were fully transparent either, but during the analysis the Morgan-Guggenheim Syndicate did propose selling their existing Copper River and Northwestern line to the government at a $17.7 million price tag.

Ultimately, President Wilson would disregard the Morrow Commission’s report, opting for fresh surveys and a route analysis to be completed by the newly formed Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC).

Several of the instrumental people involved in the creation of the Alaska Railroad, Manager John E, Baillaine, United State's presidents Taft and Wilson. Credits: Taft - Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress / Wilson - Frank A. O'Connell; Wilbur F. Coyle (1914) / Ballaine - Alaska-Yukon Magazine, July 1911 issue

A nameless railroad finds new ownership

The Act of March 12, 1914, would grant the President very broad authority over the unnamed railroad, including the ability to “locate, construct and operate a railroad in the Territory of Alaska.” Roughly one year later, following numerous surveys by the AEC, President Woodrow Wilson would select the Seward to Fairbanks route. The government would purchase the decrepit 71 miles of Alaska Northern Railway track for a total cost of $1.15 million or about $16,000 per mile. Estimated construction costs to connect the route to Fairbanks were between $22 million and $35 million. The Alaska Engineering Commission estimated $1 million would be needed just to put the existing 71 miles of track into running order. Congress appropriated $2 million in 1915 for railroad surveying and construction. The Alaska Railroad as we know it today was beginning to take shape. A National Geographic article from December 1915 claimed: “It may safely be said the government’s first venture in railroad building will be completed well within estimated cost over a route which promises to show surprisingly quick returns in the development of mineral, agricultural and other natural resources.” Although it was a glamorous report of developments materializing in the last frontier, the railroad’s hurdles were far from over.

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A History of the Alaska Railroad

History

Author

Kierre Childers

Kierre Childers is an outdoor enthusiast based outside Denali National Park. She has been calling Alaska home since 2015 and has a soft spot for Willow, where she spent her first summer volunteering as a trail crew member for Nancy Lake State Recreation Area. She loves learning about the Last Frontier from its history, to its people, to its flora and fauna.

The history of the Alaska Railroad is, in many ways, one of an ugly duckling. From its young days as a series of unsuccessful pioneer railroads, to a federal takeover under almost constant scrutiny - the early decades of the railroad were anything but graceful. As part of our focus on Alaska infrastructure we offer a two-part series dedicated to the history of the Alaska Railroad. Part one explores the events leading up to federal railroad ownership and the selection of the Seward to Fairbanks route. Part two explores the completion of the Seward to Fairbanks line, the impacts of both the first and second World Wars on the railroad, and the events that would follow.

Private ownership and turmoil

The early days of rail travel in Alaska were speared by the discovery of gold and the Klondike stampede. By the end of the 19th century, 11 companies filed for railroad routes totalling almost 700 miles of line. Three railroads were constructed near Nome: the Seward Peninsula Railway, the Wild Goose Railway, and the Council City and Solomon River Railway. Two companies aimed to build a line from Valdez to the Yukon, but with room for only one railroad through the narrow Keystone Canyon, heated rivalry resulted in casualties on both sides. A more successful endeavor, the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad, financially backed by the Guggenheim family and J.P. Morgan, would haul over $200 million in copper ore and concentrates during its years of operation.

Keystone Canyon near Valdez, Alaska, circa 1909. University of Washington Special Collections

The Alaska Railroad’s predecessor, the Alaska Central Railway, began following the arrival of 30 men to Seward in 1903. Managed by John E. Ballaine and financed by nearly $30 million from Seattle investors. The company planned to build a line from Seward to the coal fields of the Matanuska Valley, eventually connecting an interior line to Fairbanks. The entire first season was spent surveying the route, with construction beginning the following year. By 1907, 50 miles of ‘shaky’ track had been constructed, but the company filed for bankruptcy shortly thereafter.

Group of people on railway push cars on the Alaska-Canada Railway tracks, Seward, Alaska, circa 1905.

The Alaska Northern Railway Company acquired the line in 1910, adding another 21 miles of track to reach Kern Creek. The company also hoped to reach the Matanuska Valley, but faced similar financial struggles. Unable to recover its operating expenses, Alaska Northern followed the footsteps of its predecessor.

This drawing depicts the then-present and planned portions of the Alaska Central Railway based in Seward and surrounding area, basically most of Interior and Southcentral Alaska between the Gulf of Alaska and the Yukon River. It also depicts communities and the economic potential contained in parts of the region. Edward Sanford Harrison, Alaska-Yukon Magazine, July 1911

Picking the route

Following the failure of private railroad ventures in the Territory, Governor Wilford Bacon Hoggatt, among others, urged Congress to intervene. The Act of August 24, 1912, authorized President Taft to appoint a commission to study transportation in the Territory. Taft, who strongly wanted to see Alaska’s resources developed, created the Alaska Railroad Commission (sometimes referred to as the Morrow Commission) to manage the study. Spearheaded by Major Jay Johnson Morrow of the U.S Army Corps of Engineers, the Commission was charged with recommending a route. Taft gave the Commission 90 days to complete their report. The debate was just beginning.

After a hurried field visit, the group recommended two railroad routes to develop mineral and agricultural resources in the Territory. The first, a route from Cordova to Chitina and Fairbanks, would utilize the Copper River and Northwestern tracks. The second would be a route from Seward around Cook Inlet to the Iditarod River. The Commission also recommended that government involvement was necessary, either through federal subsidies for private interests or outright government ownership.

Although the Commission’s report offered insight, two revelations would deter progress and ultimately impact the railroad’s future. First, the release of the report (it was submitted two months late) coincided with a change of office. President Taft, the incumbent republican, would be leaving office while the administration transitioned to President Woodrow Wilson, a democrat. The men had very different views on the government’s role with the Alaska Railroad, although both believed a railroad would help provide access to Alaska’s resources.

In addition, concerns were brought forth regarding the integrity of the Morrow Commission’s report. Multiple testimonies from hearings with the House Committee on the Territories reveal the Morrow Commission may have had ulterior motives. John E. Baillaine, said: “All of the men active in that effort were friends and employees of the Guggenheims or men closely identified with them in a business way.” With prior involvement in the Alaska Central Railway, it can’t be certain that Ballaine’s interests were fully transparent either, but during the analysis the Morgan-Guggenheim Syndicate did propose selling their existing Copper River and Northwestern line to the government at a $17.7 million price tag.

Ultimately, President Wilson would disregard the Morrow Commission’s report, opting for fresh surveys and a route analysis to be completed by the newly formed Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC).

Several of the instrumental people involved in the creation of the Alaska Railroad, Manager John E, Baillaine, United State's presidents Taft and Wilson. Credits: Taft - Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress / Wilson - Frank A. O'Connell; Wilbur F. Coyle (1914) / Ballaine - Alaska-Yukon Magazine, July 1911 issue

A nameless railroad finds new ownership

The Act of March 12, 1914, would grant the President very broad authority over the unnamed railroad, including the ability to “locate, construct and operate a railroad in the Territory of Alaska.” Roughly one year later, following numerous surveys by the AEC, President Woodrow Wilson would select the Seward to Fairbanks route. The government would purchase the decrepit 71 miles of Alaska Northern Railway track for a total cost of $1.15 million or about $16,000 per mile. Estimated construction costs to connect the route to Fairbanks were between $22 million and $35 million. The Alaska Engineering Commission estimated $1 million would be needed just to put the existing 71 miles of track into running order. Congress appropriated $2 million in 1915 for railroad surveying and construction. The Alaska Railroad as we know it today was beginning to take shape. A National Geographic article from December 1915 claimed: “It may safely be said the government’s first venture in railroad building will be completed well within estimated cost over a route which promises to show surprisingly quick returns in the development of mineral, agricultural and other natural resources.” Although it was a glamorous report of developments materializing in the last frontier, the railroad’s hurdles were far from over.

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Author

Kierre Childers

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