A Brief History
Although most of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail does follow a former railroad grade, for about a mile it follows the active Alaska Railroad (ARR) line south out of Anchorage. The ARR is Alaska’s primary freight carrier but provides service to only a small segment of the state. It is also unique in offering scheduled passenger trains, a service nearly non-existent with today’s freight carriers in the Lower 48. The ARR was established by the U.S. government in the early 20th century as a means of improving Alaska’s rail transportation, which then included only a handful of narrow and standard-gauge systems. There have been attempts to extend rail service farther across the state, as well as connect its lines with the North American rail network. Costs and other factors, however, have precluded such endeavors.
The history of Alaska’s railroads began with the discovery of gold at the end of the 19th century and the ensuing influx of settlers that followed. The state’s first was the White Pass & Yukon Railway, organized on July 30, 1898, to construct a narrow-gauge line from Skagway into the Yukon Territory. While the gold rush lasted only a few years, this railroad prospered into a successful freight system. It shut down in the early 1980s but was revived as a popular tourist line and remains in operation today. There were also a handful of other narrow-gauge systems established soon after the WP&YR for largely the same purpose. The earliest component of the present-day Alaska Railroad was the standard-gauged Alaska Central Railway, incorporated on April 16, 1902, to construct a new route from what is today Seward on the Kenai Peninsula northward into the Yukon.
The company was established by John Ballaine and a number of Seattle business associates, all who believed such a railroad would prosper hauling the state’s rich natural resources back to the coastal railhead at Seward. Construction began in 1903 and had reached a total of 50 miles within a few years. Unfortunately, building a railroad through the rugged Alaska wilderness proved more expensive than anticipated, causing the Alaska Central to go bankrupt. In 1909, it was reorganized as the Alaska Northern Railway and completed an additional 21 miles to Kern Creek before it, too, fell into receivership.
In 1912, the United States Congress passed the Second Organic Act, which renamed the District of Alaska as the Territory of Alaska and created its first legislature. After newly elected President Woodrow Wilson took office in 1913, he appointed the Alaska Engineering Commission to study ways to improve Alaska’s railroad infrastructure. They proposed purchasing the moribund Alaska Northern and extending rails northward to Fairbanks, opening a system of 470 miles. The federal government adopted this plan on March 12, 1914, and acquired the bankrupt assets of the Alaska Northern in the process. The new construction camp was located along Ship Creek, which became the town of Anchorage and the headquarters of the new Alaska Railroad Corporation. The new railroad was estimated to cost $35 million, but once again the region’s rough topography resulted in the final tally being nearly twice that amount. The line headed north from Cook Inlet, followed the Susitna River Valley, and crossed Broad Pass. From there, rails wound along the Nenana and Tanana rivers toward Fairbanks. As rails neared Fairbanks in 1917, the government leased and then later acquired the Tanana Valley Railroad.
The narrow-gauge Tanana Valley Railroad had been incorporated in 1906 to serve copper and gold mining operations, with grander ambitions; however, it ultimately completed only a 45-mile system between Chatanika and Chena with a branch to Fairbanks. The government extended the narrow-gauge line from Happy to Nenana in 1918 and later converted it to standard gauge. On June 15, 1923, a golden spike ceremony was held at Nenana, attended by President Warren G. Harding, to celebrate the completion of through-rail service to Fairbanks. Much of the rest of the old TVRR was later abandoned.
For more than a decade, the Alaska Railroad struggled to make a profit until Colonel Otto F. Ohlson took the helm; the company witnessed its first successful year in 1938. On January 5, 1985, the ARR was sold by the government to Alaska for $22.3 million, and since then the state has spent millions in upgrading the property and purchasing new equipment. Today, it provides a vital transportation link for industries in the region it serves. Car ferry service (a nearly defunct mode of rail transportation across the Lower 48) is still offered via Whittier where Alaska Rail Marine reaches Seattle. Additionally, Canadian National’s “Aqua Train” calls at Whittier, providing ocean-going service between there and Prince Rupert, British Columbia.
The Alaska Railroad today is also widely recognized by the public for the passenger and vacation trains it operates, including the “Denali Star,” “Coastal Classic,” “Glacier Discovery,” “Hurricane Turn,” and the “Aurora Winter Train.” One reason for these trains’ popularity is the dome cars the railroad uses, allowing visitors to see 360-degree views of the breathtaking Alaskan countryside. You can learn more about these trips, and all of their rail travel packages, by visiting the company’s website. Aside from the Alaska Railroad, other related attractions in the state include the Museum of Alaska Transportation & Industry in Wasilla, the Tanana Valley Railroad in Fairbanks, and the White Pass & Yukon Route in Skagway.Do you have Historical Photos of the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail?
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