I am taking the train back to Anchorage on Sunday. Alaska Railroad (the Aurora Winter Train) has year around service throughout the state. It was originally named Alaska Central Railway in 1903, starting in Seward and extending north about 50 miles. Then in 1910, they reorganized into Alaska Northern Railway and added another 21 miles to Kern Creek.
Our government lent a hand in 1914 (wasn’t that in the middle of WW1?), with $35 million to extend the railway to Anchorage. Merely a tent town as of 1915, Anchorage gets going and the railway moves its headquarters here. In 1923, President Warren Harding drives in a gold spike at Nenana, completing the railroad between Seward and Anchorage. But Harding suffers food poisoning on his way home in San Francisco, and dies.
With only 5400 people living among Fairbanks, Anchorage and Seward, the railroad continues to lose money. But finally, in 1938, Col. Otto Ohlson makes its first operational profit. Along came WW2, and the railroad made large profits from moving military and civilian materials and supplies. Then in 1943, they built two tunnels through the Chugash Mountains for rail access to Whittier, a military port and fuel depot for the war effort. Then in 1944, Whittier becomes a second military port, and diesel locomotives begin to replace steam engines (completed in 1966).
The first run of the Aurora began in 1947 with a blue gold steamliner, between Anchorage and Fairbanks. This was followed by the first car-barge service in 1962, followed soon by train-ship service in June, 1964. This enabled rail cars from the lower 48 to be shipped to any point along the Alaska Railroad.
The most powerful earthquake in North American history 9.2 caused $30 million in damage to the railroad, on Good Friday, 1964. Yet, freight service was restored by April 6, and passenger service by April 11. And full service to Whittier resumed on April 20. The railroad played a big part in construction of the Trans Alaskan Pipeline, by receiving and storing pipe from Valdez and Seward to Fairbanks, where it was trucked to the North Slope. During 1970 to 1975, the workforce increased to more than 1000 rail workers.
The mid to late Seventies were a down period, with the Federal Railroad Administration wanting to dispose of its interest in the Alaska Rail. Infrastructure took a beating, and equipment levels declined due to lack of investment. Then in 1981, they entered into an agreement with the Anchorage and Fairbanks school district career centers. They began a tour guide program that trains students to be hosts onboard summer passenger trains.
Finally, in 1983, President Reagan authorized legislation the transfer of the Alaska Railway to the State of Alaska. The ARRC also invests in telecommunications equipment (1983)along the rail route, enhancing communication among all stations. In 1984, Alaska Railroad develops new passenger service with the cruise industry, utilizing superdome double decker luxury coaches. The Governor then established the quasi-public Alaska Railroad Corporation, and a seven member Board of Directors in 1985.
Also, in 1985, the Corporation purchase five new locomotives and 45 new railcars for $45 million. And miles of rail are replaced. But in 1986, a flood destroys two major bridges, and a few smaller bridges, with damages totaling $3 million. Yet, service is restored in just 13 days! In 1988, a station is constructed at Denali, the ultimate destination for thousands of tourists.
By 1990, freight traffic increases by 10 percent, and ridership increases by 17%, with 436,000 passengers. Then, Robert Hatfield becomes President, after Frank Turpin, the first President retires. In 1992, they move into new headquarters, with ridership reaching new highs, nearly half a million.
By 1996, the railroad makes a profit of $8 million, with a ridership of 512,000 passengers. In 1997, the former Governor, Bill Sheffield becomes CEO and President. In 1999, Whittier Tunnel becomes the first tunnel to share vehicular and train traffic, and the Whittier rail shuttle ends.
The railroad purchases 16 new fuel efficient locomotives, and the Grandview train serves passengers between Seward and Anchorage. And computers are used to track trains in 2000. By 2002, real estate revenues exceed $11 million. By 2003, railroad revenues exceed $14.5 million.
A new operations center is built in Anchorage in 2005. The railroad introduces Gold Star first class service using two new double decker luxury cars to the Denali Star. In 2007, the railroad and the park service introduce a new Whistle Stop Service to Chugash National Park.
That brings us to today. The Aurora Winter Train, from Fairbanks, back to Anchorage, is where I started this journey. This is a 12 hour journey, with actual flagstop* service along the 50 mile stretch of backcountry called Hurricane Gulch. The schedule varies depending on the number of stops. We will travel the same stretch as the summer Denali train. On a clear day, you can see Denali.
*flagstop=means anyone can stop the train along its route, either to be picked up or to send packages or goods to any stop along the route. Very interesting!
As a senior, I get 50% off the regular fare. The scheduled stops are Denali, Talkeetna, Wasilla, and Anchorage, my stop. I fly back home tomorrow. It has been a great trip!!
But I could never live up here! But it is sad to leave the area, so much personality compared to Anchorage. More Native Americans here, more of a melting pot, people looking for adventure, possibly fortune. The culture is subtle, but quite clearly woven into the fabric of this area. If you have never been here, I strongly suggest it. I am so pleased I chose Alaska over both Finland and Iceland.
Sidebar: The front engine derailed outside Wasilla. No damage to us or t rain, but we had to detach and back up to Wasilla. We boarded a bus to finish our trip to Anchorage, over 3 hours late!!!