Tag Archives: alaska railroad

55 Years Ago: Great Alaska Earthquake

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


Tanana Valley Railroad Museum


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.


Chena, Alaska and Engine No.1 in miniature


Mears Memorial Bridge

The Mears Memorial Bridge was completed on 27 February 1923. The 700 foot long truss bridge spans the Tanana River at Nenana, Alaska. The bridge was the final link in the Alaska Railroad.

The bridge is named after Colonel Frederick Mears, the chief engineer and chairman of the Alaska Engineering Commission, the builder of the railroad and its original operator. In 1923, the Mears Bridge was the longest truss span in the United States and its territories. It spans the longest distance of any bridge in Alaska, and is still the third longest simple truss bridge in the U.S..


The Harding Railcar


President Harding in Alaska on the presidential train

In 1923, Warren G. Harding became the first president to visit the Alaska Territory. Harding traveled by rail across the continental United States, then by ship to Seward, Alaska. The entourage traveled by rail once again to, what was then known as McKinley Park (Denali), followed by the short run north to Fairbanks. At the time, it was one of the longest trips ever taken by a sitting U.S. president.


President Harding driving the golden spike in Nenana. Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover is one of the onlookers.

While in Alaska, Harding helped celebrate the completion of the Alaska Railroad, which runs between Seward and Fairbanks. Harding even drove in the “golden spike” at the stop in Nenana. Upon arrival in Fairbanks, city dignitaries were told that no Ford vehicles could be used in the motorcade. Speculation ran wild, but most likely it was due to rumors that Henry Ford may mount a presidential run himself.
President Harding gave a speech to 1500 Fairbanks residents in 94 degree heat. A reporter, Charlie Ross, who later served as press secretary to Harry Truman, cursed the White House staffers who advised the press to bring only warm clothing and long underwear.* It was Alaska, after all.

Harding and Company were originally scheduled to take the Richardson Trail back to Chitina, and then the Copper River & Northwestern (CR&NW) Railroad over to Cordova on Alaska’s southern coast.
Now that would have been a trip to write home about!
The Richardson at the time, was an unruly, rugged, mosquito infested track by all accounts, and the railway was affectionately known as “The Can’t Run & Never Will”. Sadly for history and adventure lovers everywhere, Harding’s “fatigue” forced the group to travel back to Seward they way they had come.


The Harding Railcar

One railcar from President Harding’s 1923 visit is located within Fairbanks’ Pioneer Park. It is a Pullman passenger car, and one of three that was in the presidential train. Built in 1905 in Chicago, the Pullman is also known as the Denali car, and carries the Alaska Railroad equipment number X-336. Purchased by the Alaska Railroad in 1923, it saw passenger service until 1945. It was restored in 1960 and given to the city of Fairbanks. It has been in Alaskaland/Pioneer Park since 1967.


The Denali Car

*The Anchorage Daily News