1920’s travel along the narrow gauge rail of what was originally the Tanana Valley Railroad. By 1920, the TVRR had been bought out and this section renamed the Chatanika Branch. In 1923 it all became part of the Alaska Railroad.
The Potter Section House State Historical Site is now home to the Chugach State Park visitor center. The building was built in 1929, and was used to house section workers for this part of the Alaska Railroad. Originally, there were four section houses along the Anchorage section of the railroad. Their use was discontinued in 1978, and the Potter House is the last remaining of the four. It was listed on National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
A rotary snowplow that once cleared the tracks along Turnagain Arm is also on display at Potter House. The railroad car behind the snowplow, is home to the Kenai Visitor Center. Both visitor centers have been closed due to the pandemic, and remain closed.
The section along Turnagain Arm is notorious for avalanche, although today the avalanches are planned events. Back in the day, the rotary plow revolutionized track clearing. The plow’s steel teeth cut through even the most packed snow, as well as debris from an avalanche, and the occasional frozen moose. The snow was launched from the chute hundreds of feet off the track. Two steam engines pushed the plow, with a crew of seven.
This particular rotary plow was retired in 1985, in favor of track mounted bulldozers. The Alaska Railroad still maintains one rotary snowplow in reserve.
Chugach State Park, just outside of Anchorage, covers 495,204 acres. It is the third largest state park in the United States, and the second largest in Alaska. It is truly, one of Alaska’s many gems.
Potter Marsh Bird Sanctuary is a 564 acre fresh water marsh, located at the southern end of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge.
The marsh was created in 1917 when the embankment for the Alaska Railroad was built up, effectively separating the fresh water from the Chugach Mountains, and the salt water from Turnagain Arm.
Potter Marsh is often called the most accessible wildlife viewing location in Alaska. The marsh is easily reached by the Seward Highway, and it contains a 1550 foot long boardwalk to keep your feet dry.
This wetland maze sees roughly 130 species of migratory and nesting birds calling it home, for at least part of the year. Moose, beavers, muskrats, eagles and hawks all can be viewed at Potter Marsh. Spawning salmon are often seen swimming up Rabbit Creek from Turnagain Arm in season.
Both brown bear and black bear use the marsh, but they are very rarely seen here. Consider yourself very lucky if you spot a bruin moving through the wetland.
Rail service was just another casualty in Alaska from Covid-19. With no tourists last summer, rail service took a huge hit within the state.
The Alaska Railroad has already announced increased service on all of their routes. Service between Anchorage and Fairbanks will double: 2020 had only four trains per week, while 2021 will see a total of eight. Every day of the week will see either a northbound or southbound run, and Sundays will see both.
Flagstop service will return to the Anchorage-Fairbanks route, which allows riders to get on or off anywhere along to route to access remote cabins and homesteads. The Alaska Railroad is the only train service in the United States that still provides flagstop service.
Turnagain Arm, south of Anchorage, received its name from one William Bligh, who was serving under Captain James Cook, during his search for the Northwest Passage. Bligh was sent out with a party to explore the two arms of what is now Cook Inlet. Both arms of the inlet led to rivers, and not the famed Northwest Passage, and Bligh testily named the final arm Turn-Again, because they had to turn around for a second time. It’s no wonder his crew would eventually mutiny.
At low tide, Turnagain Arm becomes a large mud flat. The tides here are the largest in the United States, coming in at 40 feet. The arm is also known for its tidal bores, which can be as high as six feet, which is an impressive sight, as it rushes across the arm. Beluga whales often surf the bore as it comes in.
Yesterday, March 27, was the anniversary of the Great Alaska Earthquake. The 9.2 magnitude quake, also known as the Good Friday Earthquake, is still the largest earthquake to hit North America, and the second largest to ever be recorded.
“We ran out of the building, and hung onto the wire mesh fence across the street. The road looked like waves in the ocean. All of the air police trucks looked like they were dancing as they were bouncing up and down.” — Airman stationed at Elmendorf AFB, Anchorage
The 1964 Earthquake and the resulting tsunamis took at least 139 lives. The earth shook for 4 minutes and 38 seconds from the main quake alone. Girdwood and Portage sank eight feet; portions of Kodiak rose over thirty feet. Seward burned; Valdez, Whittier and Chenega were destroyed, wiped off the face of the earth by the giant waves. A 75 ton locomotive was carried 300 feet by the waves in Seward, as 14 oil tankers and 40 railcars went up in flames. The tsunami that hit the WWII port of Whittier was 40′ high.
Alaska Railroad tracks near Turnagain Arm, south of Anchorage; March 28, 1964; Photo credit: USGS
The Tanana Valley Railroad Museum/Depot at Pioneer Park
I was surprised to hear that the TVRR Museum was open in the winter, so I thought I’d head over there and check it out before the tourist season. I’m glad that I did, because I ended up with what amounted to an incredibly well informed, guided tour. Kudos to the museum volunteers.
Engine No.1 at the Chena Depot, circa 1905
The museum owns and operates the only steam locomotive in Alaska. There is another locomotive in Wasilla, but it is not in operating condition. Engine No.1 was built in 1899 by the H.K. Porter Locomotive Works of Pittsburgh, PA. It was the first locomotive in the Yukon Territory, and when it arrived in Chena, Alaska on July 4, 1905, it became the first locomotive in Interior Alaska, as well.
Chena, Alaska circa 1910
Chena was located ten miles downstream of the rival town of Fairbanks, at the confluence of the Tanana and Chena Rivers. The larger riverboats had difficulty navigating the Chena River, which made the community of Chena a good option for the unloading of goods & supplies. The town had a lumber mill, hospital, school, city hall, dance hall and three newspapers. In fact, one paper, the Tanana Miner was bought by the Fairbanks Daily News to become the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, which is still the Fairbanks newspaper.
The Tanana Valley Railroad started out as the Tanana Mines Railway. Track was laid from Chena to Fairbanks, and through the Goldstream Valley to Fox. It was a narrow gauge railway. The TMR gave way to the TVRR and the track was extended out to the mining claims at Chatanika. At its peak, three trains made a roundtrip run from Chena to Chatanika every day.
By the end of 1917, the TVRR was in financial trouble. The gold in the Chena and Chatanika Rivers had played out quickly. The Alaska Engineering Commission, precursor to the Alaska Railroad, bought out the TVRR in December of 1917. Engine No.1 was retired in 1922, and by 1930, the Alaska Railroad had closed down the final TVRR line. Today, one would be hard pressed to find any evidence of the town of Chena. Anything left is buried under feet of river silt.
Old Engine No.1
Engine No.1 sat outside the International Hotel and Samson Hardware for years. The locomotive was then moved to Alaskaland when the park opened. In 1991, volunteers took on the daunting task of restoring the old steam locomotive. On July 27, 1999 the old engine was up and running, and in 2000 it was once again hauling passengers.
When I stopped by, Engine No.1 had just received its annual inspection, and they were in the process of putting her back together again for another season at Pioneer Park.
Steam power: Engine No.1
Engine No.1 runs the tracks at Pioneer Park a half-dozen times a year. The rest of the time, the duty is performed by it’s replica, No.67. Tickets cost $2 for adults and $1 for children.
Locomotives of the Interior
The museum is not a large building, but it is full of Alaska rail memorabilia and artifacts. Historic pictures line the walls, as do railroad lanterns and even an original TVRR time schedule.
The volunteer when I stopped by, a self described “train geek”, was incredibly generous with his time and info. Honestly, he was a wealth of information on the history of the Tanana Valley Railroad and the status of the railroad in Alaska today. Well worth the time to stop in while walking the paths of Pioneer Park. Admission is free, although I’m sure donations are needed & appreciated.