Alaska Railroads And Railfanning In "The Last Frontier"
Alaska railroads are as remote as they are stunning with the panoramic
scenery they provide. Here, you may not find any of the classic fallen
flags, current Class Is, or short lines. However, railroads do exist
here (even though it got a much later start than in the lower
forty-eight states) and with the state's longest system, the Alaska
Railroad (ARR) (currently, a Class II, regional), offering passenger
train service across much of its system, you have the chance to see some
of the most spectacular scenery in the world. One day, the hope is to
eventually connect the ARR with the rest of the North American railroad
grid but for now it goes about its business, as it has since 1985 (when
it came under state ownership), moving
both people and goods. The only other railroad currently operating in
Alaska is the famed White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. Even though
the WP&YR has cut back its main line and currently does not offer
freight service the railroad is the busiest tourist line in the country
with incredible scenery.
Alaska's history with trains dates to 1898 when the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad was
chartered during the height of the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 19th
century. The point of the railroad was to provide prospectors a means
of more easily reaching the gold fields to the north near White Horse,
where the WP&YR route would terminate. The railroad began at
Skagway where a port was located and prospectors could easily disembark
from ships. Interestingly, by the time the railroad was completed on
July 29, 1900 (along a narrow-gauge main line that covered some 111
miles) much of the gold fever had already passed and interest in the mining had declined.
Despite the WP&YR losing out on the region's gold mining it still became an important asset in the movement of other metals such as copper and silver. Additionally, the railroad moved a small amount of merchandise freight and found additional traffic along a few branch lines it constructed during the early 20th century. The railroad became an important transportation artery during both World War I and World War II moving freight to and from the port at Skagway. The company also saw heavy traffic during the building of the Alaska Highway (Alaska State Route 2), sometimes dispatching as many as seventeen trains per day.
Throughout the rest of the WP&YR's days as a for profit freight
railroad the company hauled mostly copper and lead-zinc ore. In 1951
the railroad upgraded to diesel locomotives from General Electric
and the American Locomotive Company (as well as its subsidiary, the
Montreal Locomotive Works). Unfortunately, by 1982 the final mine
closed ending the WP&YR's days as a commercial railroad. It
reopened in 1989 as a tourist railroad and today operates about 40 miles
of its original main line.
For history's sake, Alaska would be home (at one time or another)
to roughly twenty railroads although today it is home to only two, the
ARR and the aforementioned White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad. The
history of the Alaska Railroad began in 1903 when the Alaska Central
Railway completed its main line between Seward and 50 miles northward.
It went bankrupt just four years later and was reorganized as the Alaska
Northern Railway. The Alaska Northern extended the system to Kern
Creek, 71 miles from Seward by 1910. The Alaska Railroad came into being
in 1914 when Congress purchased the Alaska Northern and authorized
funding to complete a line from Seward to Fairbanks.
By 1944 with the establishment of a second port at Whittier (the other
being at Anchorage, the railroad's headquarters by 1915 having been
moved from Steward), the Alaska
Railroad was all but complete and has changed little over the last 70+
years. In all, the Alaska Railroad system runs roughly due north,
winding its way from Seward in the south to Eielson in the north, where
the Alaska serves the Eielson Air Force Base. The Alaska
Railroad became state owned in the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan,
in 1983, signed legislation transferring ownership of the railroad to
the State of Alaska. The transfer was official on January 5th, 1985 when
on that day the Alaska Railroad came under ownership by the state.
White Pass & Yukon Route
Surviving Alaska Railroad Stations
The state's railroads haul nearly as many
passengers as they do freight. Currently the state holds 506 route
miles of railroad with the ARR pulling double duty using most of that
(nearly 400 miles) to haul passengers and freight (the ARR is also the
only privately owned railroad which still has daily operating passenger
trains). As for the future of Alaska's trains, it will be very
interesting to see what happens in the coming months and years as the
ARR is attempting to build an 80-mile northward extension to serve a
military base but needs funding for the Tanana bridge project to see the
idea become reality. Additionally, the White Pass & Yukon Route may again become
commercial freight railroad as mining operations may again resume along
its route (which may be fully rebuilt to White Horse).
Aside from the tremendous scenery afforded during trips, another
draw of the WP&Y is that it uses eleven unique shovelnose diesel
locomotives, built by General Electric between 1954 and 1966 and the
railroad also operates two Baldwin steam locomotives, a Mikado 2-8-2,
and a 2-8-0 type. The railroad has grown so much over the last twenty
years that in 2007 it reopened 27 more miles of the original railroad,
north to Carcross in the Yukon. Along with the historic White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad,
Alaska is also home to one railroad museum, the Museum of Alaska
Transportation and Industry. Located in Wasilla it is home to several
pieces of historical railroad equipment. All in all, Alaska is well
worth the long trip north (if you live in the lower forty-eight) to see
not only the trains of Alaska but also the state's stunning beauty.
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