Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Alaska Railroad

When I used to live in England, I noticed that British men were enamored with trains. Some would simply comment on the beauty and power of their engines. Others would spend hours building extensive systems of model trains, tracks, tunnels and bridges in their dining rooms or basements. The truly smitten would wait outside near local train station tracks on damp, rainy days  to record the exact time a particular train engine would pass by a particular lamppost down to the millisecond. Britian's train-mania seemed odd, obsessive, and somewhat unsettling... until I moved to Alaska.

The engines and rail cars of the Alaska Railroad are some of the most beautiful and breathtaking pieces of machinery in the world. The trains' designs and lines are timeless. Their engines and passenger cars are painted entirely in the colors of the state flag, blue and gold. I am normally not a fan of this color combination (also the school colors for my overcrowded, football-obsessed suburban Maryland high school), but on a train, they are pure delight. Since the inception of the railroad's blue and gold design in 1947, no two colors would stand out against Alaska's seasonal palettes so perfectly.

Not only are their trains beautiful, but the Alaska Railroad is as cool and unique as the state it services. It is the only train line in the United States that transports both passengers and freight. When you see an Alaska Railroad engine approaching, you never know what surprises it may be pulling - flat bed cars strapped with milled timber, hoppers full of sand and gravel, hi-cube boxcars with unknown treasures stowed inside, or dome cars spilling over with summer tourists anxious to get that picture-perfect shot.

The Alaska Railroad also has some of the last remaining train lines to offer whistle stop service. On both the Aurora Winter Train and the year-round Hurricane Turn Train, passengers may disembark anywhere along a particular stretch of wilderness between Talkeetna and Hurricane.  This allows people access to remote cabins and camping spots far away from the road system and any traces of civilization that it brings. It provides a chance to be picked up and plunked down in the middle of NOWHERE. When you want to be picked up by the return train, you must flag it down by waving a large white cloth while standing 25 feet from the tracks. If you hear the engineer's whistle, you know that the train will be stopping and you will soon climb aboard to be whisked back to the land of television and lattes. As romantic and exciting as it sounds, I would be too terrified (I mean - TERRIFIED) to be left in the middle of nowhere along the train tracks, but I love that, should I ever change my mind, I'll always have that option.

To make it even more interesting, the history of the Alaska Railroad is chock full of drama and intrigue. When it was completed in 1923, President Warren G. Harding drove a final golden spike into the rail line in Nenana. On his return trip from Alaska, Harding died a mysterious death, resulting either from food poisoning or a heart attack. Rumors spread that Harding was poisoned at the hand of himself or others for his role in the Teapot Dome scandal. Even more rumors spread that his wife was sick of his philandering and had poisoned him in retaliation. Harding's golden spike can no longer be found at milepost 413.7 in Nenana. Its current location is shrouded in mystery because various sources place it in a variety of locations, from the Smithsonian to the Alaska Land Pioneer Air Museum to the Mears family estate in Nebraska.

After the final spike was driven in 1923, the Alaska Railroad faced economic difficulties. With only 5400 people living in the three largest cities along its route, the railroad had not become profitable by 1930. The Great Depression further complicated matters, making the Alaska Railroad unable to turn a profit until 1938. Today, too, the Alaska Railroad has been hit hard by the national economy. This week, the corporation will be downsizing its workforce by 20% just to remain operational. No amount of customer service, tourist promotions, or local discounts has been able to stave off the effects of the national recession.

The railroad faced bad news and hard times before and survived. I am hopeful that it will remain a part of our scenic landscape. Maybe I'll do my part as an Alaskan and finally try out that whistle stop service! (Or maybe I'll just take the Beer Train in October, instead...) 

(All of these cool photos courtesy of Alaska Railroad. Thank you!)


  1. True Story: I was driving to the grocery store this morning and passed the Fairbanks train yard. Noticing the beautiful engines, I made a mental note to do some research and blog about them. And here you've done it! Being new to Alaska, all of this history is fascinating. And if I'm not mistaken, I believe that the passenger car that carried Harding in Alaska is on display at Pioneer Park? I'm with you on the October train - sounds fun! Did you get snow today? We had a brief shower this morning. Cheers - Christie

  2. Glad to hear I'm not alone with my ARR fascination, Christie! The passenger car that carried Harding while in Alaska is indeed in Fairbanks' Pioneer Park (or "Alaskaland" to the old timers), but it's been closed for a few months now for renovation.
    It's pretty clear in Anchorage and Eagle River right now, but up here where I am in the Chugach Mountains, it's still snowing - and sticking! I bought my first peppermint mocha of the season to celebrate.

  3. I'd take the beer train.

    Are you ready for winter? Guess you'd better be with snow already falling. Not me. We had temps in the mid 70's today.

  4. The mid 70s?!?! Must feel like an Alaskan summer! I'm starting to go into hibernation mode and am ready for winter to finally set in. (I made a big pot of stew and dug out the SAD light box today.)

  5. Nice pics of the AK RR. I just moved here to WI a year ago after living in AK all my life. ( 45 years of it ) I found your blog from Kellie's blog. I do miss the cooler temps up in AK.

  6. Hey, thanks for your comment on my blog. I couldn't find another way to contact you - I was wondering if I could quote your comment on my website, it was such a nicely written concise review. Let me know by contacting me through my website - flyingsquirrelcafe.com. Thanks again and do introduce yourself the next time you make it up to Talkeetna.

  7. Welcome, Krissy! I have been enjoying reading your and Kellie's blogs about Wisconsin life.