An Alaska Railroad freight train found itself stuck in a snowbank, when the train plowed into avalanche debris that had just previously swept across the tracks along Turnagain Arm. The 3144 foot long train was making the run from Whittier to Anchorage, when it hit the debris around 2am on Tuesday morning, just south of Girdwood.
The impact derailed two locomotives, and partially derailed a third. No crew members were injured during the impasse.
The area is known for its avalanche threat, and conditions on Monday were prime. The Seward Highway, which parallels the railway along Turnagain Arm, was not impacted, since the snow did not make it as far as the roadway.
That engineer was living every kid’s dream, who had a train set up in their basement.
Snow was still being cleared from the Anchorage side of the snow drift as of this writing.
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.
3 April 1898:
The Chilkoot Trail, Alaska Territory
Front page of the Dyea Press, 4 April 1898
The conditions were perfect: Late season snow, followed by days of unusually warm temperatures, which were followed by another snowstorm. Experienced packers refused to head up the trail, due to the conditions, but many stampeders didn’t listen and carried their own supplies up the trail towards Canada.
The avalanches started on 2 April. A small camp of 20 men was buried, but all were dug out alive. The snow really started to fall on Sunday, the third, which happened to be Palm Sunday. Mini avalanches rumbled from the mountain pass, so The Scales on the Chilkoot Trail were abandoned for the day. Roughly 150 men headed down the mountain pass towards Sheep Camp.
Then the main avalanche hit.
Stampeders looking for fellow buried miners after avalanche. Courtesy of Yukon Archives
The avalanche swept down from above The Scales and headed towards Sheep Camp. When it came to a halt, it covered an area of 10 acres under 30-50 feet of snow. Stampeders raced up from Sheep Camp digging frantically for survivors. At least 65 men were killed by the avalanche, but that number is an estimate, considering the mad rush that was taking place on the Chilkoot to get to the Klondike gold fields.
The Slide Cemetery
The Slide Cemetery in Dyea, Alaska – Camera: Kodak Folding Cartridge; Film: Kodak Verichrome 120
I hiked the Chilkoot Trail several years ago, and have written about that trek on here before. When I did that hike, one of the cameras I carried was an old Kodak No.2 Folding Cartridge. I thought it would be cool to carry a camera that was at least close to the era of the Klondike Stampede, even though this particular Kodak was manufactured around 20 years, or so, after the famed gold rush.
There is very little left of the town of Dyea from its heyday. A few store fronts are propped up in the woods, and the old dock piers are still visible going out into the bay. Dyea is also the location of the Slide Cemetery. All of the bodies that were found under the Palm Sunday Avalanche are buried here. I ventured out there with my cameras before I started on the hike. It’s an eerie place, which is only compounded by seeing the same date etched onto every grave marker: April 3, 1898. The air hung heavy, and the only sound that broke the silence was the click of my camera’s shutter.
E.T. Hutton Camera: Kodak Folding Cartridge; Film Kodak Verichrome 120
I was out there for quite some time, but I had the cemetery to myself; not one other person came by. The cemetery is not layed out in neat rows; the grave markers are haphazardly scattered about, which makes complete sense considering its origins. Today, the forest is reclaiming much of the cemetery.
I had taken several pictures from different angles, when a strong breeze blew in; I could follow the gust as it moved its way through the trees towards the cemetery. It blew overhead, and I looked up in time to see large broken limb fall from the trees above. I easily jumped out of the way, and the shaggy treetop landed right where I was standing. I thought for a moment, then said out loud: “I can take a hint. Just one more picture, and I will leave you in peace.”
I took the silence for an answer, clicked my final photograph, then left Dyea. Looking back at the print, I think the old Kodak did a great job of capturing the eerie feel of the cemetery that day.
It was 52 degrees in Denali National Park today. Moose were seen rolling in overflow to cool off.
The amazing thing is that 52 degrees wasn’t even close to being the Alaska high temperature for the day. These temps are not great for mushing dogs, and I’m sure with the start of the Yukon Quest looming, mushers would prefer a bit of a cool down in Interior Alaska and the Yukon.
The road to Valdez — Photo courtesy of Alyeska Pipeline
An avalanche swept down upon the Richardson Highway outside of Valdez, Alaska on both Friday and Saturday, leaving as much as 40 feet of snow on top of the highway. A 50 mile section of the road is closed for at least a week, cutting Valdez off from any road traffic. The ‘Rich’ is the only highway serving Valdez.
The city’s airport and Alaska Marine Highway terminal remain open. Highway closures to Valdez are not unusual during the winter, as the town receives, on average, 297 inches of snowfall each year. Valdez is the snowiest community in the United States.