History

Alaska's Infrastructure

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Kierre Childers
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Written by
Kierre Childers

For most of us, the Last Frontier of the 21st century is laden with convenience. A few Alaskans may scoff at amenities like running water, electricity, and maintained roads, reminiscing of a simpler time. While more primitive areas of remote Alaska still exist, expanding infrastructure and growing populations run parallel paths, and many Alaskans benefit from the history that has led to these luxuries.

What is often overlooked is the magnitude of effort that went into building Alaska. Not a “log cabin in the woods, Dick Proenneke kind of ‘building Alaska’”—praisable in its own right—but a more connected side of ‘building Alaska’—think paved roads or transmission lines. Beyond the hours of manual labor constructing these projects, there are frequently stories of communities overcoming adversity in attempts to build a better, more convenient, life. 

Gold and the rush to construct rail lines

The first major infrastructure development in Alaska can be attributed to the discovery of gold in the Klondike River near Dawson in 1896. Although the Klondike Gold Rush took place in Canada, the most accessible routes to the booming hub were through Alaska. The influx of travelers heading north sparked curiosity about gold deposits in Alaska, a territory at the time, and within a few years gold would be found in Nome and what is now Fairbanks.

During the Klondike stampede, Congress was pressed to open up right-of-ways to develop rail lines. It responded by passing the Act of May 14, 1898, which applied homestead laws to railroad companies seeking right-of-ways. By 1899, 11 companies made filings for routes totaling almost 700 miles. Ambition and optimism were soon confronted with the reality of high costs and difficulties associated with constructing a railroad in Alaska. Ultimately, most endeavors were handicapped by the homestead requirements which demanded construction to be complete within four years of acquisition. Failure to meet the requirement resulted in forfeiture of their rights to the uncompleted tracks. Couple that with the $100 per mile annual tax on completed railroad sections and private ventures had an uphill battle.

Between 1898 and 1907, railroad dreams spanned the Territory with proposals including developments from Cook Inlet to Nome, Valdez to Eagle, and the Yukon to the Kuskokwim. One of the more successful private rail developments included the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad, a line from Cordova to Kennecott. Spearheaded by the Guggenheim family and the banking house of J.P. Morgan & Co. (known together as the Alaska Syndicate), the railroad transported copper from Kennecott Mine to Cordova’s port. The line shut down in 1938, but would haul over $200 million in ore and concentrates during its years of operation.

Dynamiting for railroad grade on rocky point along Turnagain Arm, Cook Inlet, February 16, 1917. Phinney S. Hunt, University of Washington Collection 

The Alaska Railroad as we know it today had beginnings as the privately owned Alaska Central Railroad. Arriving in Seward in 1903, a team of 37 surveyors and laborers would lay down the first piece of rail in 1904 with hopes of building a line from Seward to the Matanuska Valley coal fields and then on to Fairbanks. By 1908, 50 miles of track had been laid from Seward but the operation went bankrupt. The Alaska Northern Railway Company acquired the line in 1910. The company would add another 21 miles of railroad, but faced similar financial struggles.

With the pioneer railroads struggling and pressure mounting for federal support, President Taft formed the Morrow Commission (1912) to study railroad routes in Alaska. Several bills were introduced following the recommendations of the commission. What would ultimately pass, the Act of March 12, 1914, would be an experiment in federal railroad ownership, giving the President authority to “locate, construct and operate a railroad in the Territory of Alaska”. 

From 1923 to 1966 the Alaska Railroad would be managed by the Secretary of the Interior, a 500-mile railroad with stops including Seward, Whittier, Anchorage, and Fairbanks. In 1966, the creation of the Department of Transportation (DOT) would shift oversight of the Alaska Railroad to the Federal Railroad Administration, a branch under the DOT, for nearly two decades. 1983 brought forth legislation that would transfer ownership of the railroad to the State of Alaska, with the transfer completed in 1985. 

Today, the Alaska Railroad Corporation (ARRC) remains state-owned, but under the Alaska Railroad Corporation Act (1984) is operated as a private corporation. The ARRC manages rail lines with passenger and freight services throughout Southcentral and Interior Alaska and is responsible for generating enough revenue to cover operating expenses.

Steam-powered pile-driver at work in the ice on Turnagain Arm, between Miles 85 and 86 of the Alaska Railroad, Alaska, November 1917. H.G. Kaiser, University of Washington Collection 

Out of the dark 

By 1910, the boom and bust of gold rush communities had mostly come and gone. Census records between 1890 and 1910 paint a vivid picture of gold’s impact on development with spikes and lulls tied closely to the discovery, extraction, and depletion of gold in areas around the Territory. Population remained mostly stagnant between the first and second World Wars, but the Great Depression would bring forward two initiatives that helped develop further infrastructure in the Last Frontier.

On May 11, 1935, President Roosevelt signed an order creating the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). A major impediment to development in both Alaska and rural areas of the Lower 48 was the lack of electricity. While most American cities had become energized, private companies weren’t interested in offering electricity to rural areas, where profits would be minimal. By offering low-interest loans, the REA made it possible for residents in rural communities to fund the construction of electric systems. 

That same month, 201 midwest families moved to Palmer, Alaska, in hopes of agricultural success. Besides clearing land and building homes for their 40-acre plots, the farming community had electricity on their minds. In 1937, they applied to the REA for help establishing a cooperative to energize the area. Three years later, they would receive a telegram from the REA authorizing the formation of Matanuska Electric Association (MEA), and in 1941 a $140,000 loan from the REA would help build a transmission line connecting a hydro plant in the Eklutna area to Palmer. 

Lights were coming on in other areas around the state. Kodiak was working to form an electric cooperative, buying out the local power company and working to extend service throughout the community. Farther north, Golden Valley Electric Association in Fairbanks would be incorporated in 1947. Glacier Highway Electric Association in Southeast Alaska, near Auke Bay, would be formed that same year.

Caterpillar tractor with grader widening the roadway of the Alcan Highway. Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information photograph collection (Library of Congress)

War brings swift development

While electricity was changing the way of life around the Territory, other major infrastructure developments were happening in conjunction with World War II. War brought a fresh perspective on Alaska’s military value. Fort Richardson (Anchorage) and Ladd Field (Fairbanks) were both constructed shortly after the start of the war. The strategic location of the military bases along the Alaska Railroad would lead to railroad improvements and upgrades to Seward’s port facilities, among other projects. 

One of the most impactful developments for the Territory would happen after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Although a highway connecting Canada to Alaska had been discussed in years prior, there was now a need for land access to the Territory in the event that its ports were attacked. The U.S. and Canada quickly began discussing the most feasible options for the road.

Previous debates had been dominated by two route options. Route A would offer transport to the east of coastal mountains with options for a spur road to Alaska’s southeast communities while Route B would be located even farther inland, following the Rocky Mountain Trench. The two countries would select neither, opting for a third route that would strategically connect a series of airfields by land, known collectively as the Northwest Staging Route.

Nearly 1400 miles of “road” (it was primitive in its early days, designed solely for military travel) were constructed in exactly nine months and six days. Seven engineer regiments and forty-seven contractors, hired through the Public Roads Administration would weather harsh conditions and difficult terrain linking Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Delta Junction, Alaska. The Alaska-Canada Military Highway (now the Alaska Highway, commonly referred to as the Alcan) was born.

Although only a couple hundred miles of the highway are located in Alaska, the road’s construction would open up the Territory for continued growth, and eventually statehood. The military’s impact on infrastructure and population laid the groundwork for the Alaska we know today. While Southeast Alaska had previously been the Territory’s main population hub, by the time the war was over, Anchorage was the most populated city, a title not forfeited since.

In addition to railroads, electricity, and roads, Alaska’s development through the years has included the creation of things uniquely Alaskan. The Alaska Marine Highway System (1963) would become a pulse for many of the state’s coastal regions. Alaska Communications Systems (1905) connected Alaska to Seattle by cable as the Territory’s main communication operator until 1970, while the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (1977) would link Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope to the port of Valdez. With each development, its own series of debates, discussions, and dilemmas followed, a theme Alaska still carries today.

The ALCAN Highway in 1946 in British Columbia. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration 


No items found.

Alaska's Infrastructure

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.

For most of us, the Last Frontier of the 21st century is laden with convenience. A few Alaskans may scoff at amenities like running water, electricity, and maintained roads, reminiscing of a simpler time. While more primitive areas of remote Alaska still exist, expanding infrastructure and growing populations run parallel paths, and many Alaskans benefit from the history that has led to these luxuries.

What is often overlooked is the magnitude of effort that went into building Alaska. Not a “log cabin in the woods, Dick Proenneke kind of ‘building Alaska’”—praisable in its own right—but a more connected side of ‘building Alaska’—think paved roads or transmission lines. Beyond the hours of manual labor constructing these projects, there are frequently stories of communities overcoming adversity in attempts to build a better, more convenient, life. 

Gold and the rush to construct rail lines

The first major infrastructure development in Alaska can be attributed to the discovery of gold in the Klondike River near Dawson in 1896. Although the Klondike Gold Rush took place in Canada, the most accessible routes to the booming hub were through Alaska. The influx of travelers heading north sparked curiosity about gold deposits in Alaska, a territory at the time, and within a few years gold would be found in Nome and what is now Fairbanks.

During the Klondike stampede, Congress was pressed to open up right-of-ways to develop rail lines. It responded by passing the Act of May 14, 1898, which applied homestead laws to railroad companies seeking right-of-ways. By 1899, 11 companies made filings for routes totaling almost 700 miles. Ambition and optimism were soon confronted with the reality of high costs and difficulties associated with constructing a railroad in Alaska. Ultimately, most endeavors were handicapped by the homestead requirements which demanded construction to be complete within four years of acquisition. Failure to meet the requirement resulted in forfeiture of their rights to the uncompleted tracks. Couple that with the $100 per mile annual tax on completed railroad sections and private ventures had an uphill battle.

Between 1898 and 1907, railroad dreams spanned the Territory with proposals including developments from Cook Inlet to Nome, Valdez to Eagle, and the Yukon to the Kuskokwim. One of the more successful private rail developments included the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad, a line from Cordova to Kennecott. Spearheaded by the Guggenheim family and the banking house of J.P. Morgan & Co. (known together as the Alaska Syndicate), the railroad transported copper from Kennecott Mine to Cordova’s port. The line shut down in 1938, but would haul over $200 million in ore and concentrates during its years of operation.

Dynamiting for railroad grade on rocky point along Turnagain Arm, Cook Inlet, February 16, 1917. Phinney S. Hunt, University of Washington Collection 

The Alaska Railroad as we know it today had beginnings as the privately owned Alaska Central Railroad. Arriving in Seward in 1903, a team of 37 surveyors and laborers would lay down the first piece of rail in 1904 with hopes of building a line from Seward to the Matanuska Valley coal fields and then on to Fairbanks. By 1908, 50 miles of track had been laid from Seward but the operation went bankrupt. The Alaska Northern Railway Company acquired the line in 1910. The company would add another 21 miles of railroad, but faced similar financial struggles.

With the pioneer railroads struggling and pressure mounting for federal support, President Taft formed the Morrow Commission (1912) to study railroad routes in Alaska. Several bills were introduced following the recommendations of the commission. What would ultimately pass, the Act of March 12, 1914, would be an experiment in federal railroad ownership, giving the President authority to “locate, construct and operate a railroad in the Territory of Alaska”. 

From 1923 to 1966 the Alaska Railroad would be managed by the Secretary of the Interior, a 500-mile railroad with stops including Seward, Whittier, Anchorage, and Fairbanks. In 1966, the creation of the Department of Transportation (DOT) would shift oversight of the Alaska Railroad to the Federal Railroad Administration, a branch under the DOT, for nearly two decades. 1983 brought forth legislation that would transfer ownership of the railroad to the State of Alaska, with the transfer completed in 1985. 

Today, the Alaska Railroad Corporation (ARRC) remains state-owned, but under the Alaska Railroad Corporation Act (1984) is operated as a private corporation. The ARRC manages rail lines with passenger and freight services throughout Southcentral and Interior Alaska and is responsible for generating enough revenue to cover operating expenses.

Steam-powered pile-driver at work in the ice on Turnagain Arm, between Miles 85 and 86 of the Alaska Railroad, Alaska, November 1917. H.G. Kaiser, University of Washington Collection 

Out of the dark 

By 1910, the boom and bust of gold rush communities had mostly come and gone. Census records between 1890 and 1910 paint a vivid picture of gold’s impact on development with spikes and lulls tied closely to the discovery, extraction, and depletion of gold in areas around the Territory. Population remained mostly stagnant between the first and second World Wars, but the Great Depression would bring forward two initiatives that helped develop further infrastructure in the Last Frontier.

On May 11, 1935, President Roosevelt signed an order creating the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). A major impediment to development in both Alaska and rural areas of the Lower 48 was the lack of electricity. While most American cities had become energized, private companies weren’t interested in offering electricity to rural areas, where profits would be minimal. By offering low-interest loans, the REA made it possible for residents in rural communities to fund the construction of electric systems. 

That same month, 201 midwest families moved to Palmer, Alaska, in hopes of agricultural success. Besides clearing land and building homes for their 40-acre plots, the farming community had electricity on their minds. In 1937, they applied to the REA for help establishing a cooperative to energize the area. Three years later, they would receive a telegram from the REA authorizing the formation of Matanuska Electric Association (MEA), and in 1941 a $140,000 loan from the REA would help build a transmission line connecting a hydro plant in the Eklutna area to Palmer. 

Lights were coming on in other areas around the state. Kodiak was working to form an electric cooperative, buying out the local power company and working to extend service throughout the community. Farther north, Golden Valley Electric Association in Fairbanks would be incorporated in 1947. Glacier Highway Electric Association in Southeast Alaska, near Auke Bay, would be formed that same year.

Caterpillar tractor with grader widening the roadway of the Alcan Highway. Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information photograph collection (Library of Congress)

War brings swift development

While electricity was changing the way of life around the Territory, other major infrastructure developments were happening in conjunction with World War II. War brought a fresh perspective on Alaska’s military value. Fort Richardson (Anchorage) and Ladd Field (Fairbanks) were both constructed shortly after the start of the war. The strategic location of the military bases along the Alaska Railroad would lead to railroad improvements and upgrades to Seward’s port facilities, among other projects. 

One of the most impactful developments for the Territory would happen after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Although a highway connecting Canada to Alaska had been discussed in years prior, there was now a need for land access to the Territory in the event that its ports were attacked. The U.S. and Canada quickly began discussing the most feasible options for the road.

Previous debates had been dominated by two route options. Route A would offer transport to the east of coastal mountains with options for a spur road to Alaska’s southeast communities while Route B would be located even farther inland, following the Rocky Mountain Trench. The two countries would select neither, opting for a third route that would strategically connect a series of airfields by land, known collectively as the Northwest Staging Route.

Nearly 1400 miles of “road” (it was primitive in its early days, designed solely for military travel) were constructed in exactly nine months and six days. Seven engineer regiments and forty-seven contractors, hired through the Public Roads Administration would weather harsh conditions and difficult terrain linking Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Delta Junction, Alaska. The Alaska-Canada Military Highway (now the Alaska Highway, commonly referred to as the Alcan) was born.

Although only a couple hundred miles of the highway are located in Alaska, the road’s construction would open up the Territory for continued growth, and eventually statehood. The military’s impact on infrastructure and population laid the groundwork for the Alaska we know today. While Southeast Alaska had previously been the Territory’s main population hub, by the time the war was over, Anchorage was the most populated city, a title not forfeited since.

In addition to railroads, electricity, and roads, Alaska’s development through the years has included the creation of things uniquely Alaskan. The Alaska Marine Highway System (1963) would become a pulse for many of the state’s coastal regions. Alaska Communications Systems (1905) connected Alaska to Seattle by cable as the Territory’s main communication operator until 1970, while the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (1977) would link Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope to the port of Valdez. With each development, its own series of debates, discussions, and dilemmas followed, a theme Alaska still carries today.

The ALCAN Highway in 1946 in British Columbia. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration 


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Author

Kierre Childers

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Kierre Childers

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