Alaska Railroad History


Contributed by Helen Hegener

The Alaska Railroad 1902-1923

Local author Helen Hegener focuses on the history of Alaska in her non-fiction books, including Alaskan Roadhouses, The Matanuska Colony Barns, The First Iditarod, The Beautiful Matanuska Valley, and many others. Her interest in the Alaska Railroad began many years ago, when her father worked for the railroad, programming the computers which made everything run like clockwork. Now she has written a history of the construction of the railroad, beginning long before the first ties were laid, titled The Alaska Railroad 1902-1923.

History of local interest includes the beginnings of coal mining near Sutton and Chickaloon. An excerpt: "There were two huge coal deposits which played major parts in the Alaska Railroad’s history and development. The first was located along the Matanuska River, 25 to 30 miles north of Palmer, where coal tested by the U.S. Navy in 1914 would be found suitable for naval use. The Eska Mine at Sutton opened in 1917 and soon reported a daily output of 35 tons; that same year the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce reported two Matanuska area coal companies were producing 200 tons daily. The Evan Jones Coal Mine would open in 1920 and supply coal to the military bases near Anchorage until 1960."

Also interesting locally, is the history of the towns of Matanuska and Knik, both long gone, and the effect the railroad construction had on Palmer, Wasilla, Talkeetna and other Valley communities. Fascinating, but often little-known facts add to the construction details, such as President Harding driving the train from Wasilla to Willow, and the role the railroad played in the 1935 Matanuska Colony Project.

The Alaska Railroad: 1902-1923, subtitled Blazing an Iron Trail Across the Last Frontier, is the story of the Alaska Railroad and its predecessors, from 1902, when pioneer real estate promoter John Ballaine built the Alaska Central Railroad north from Seward; the Northern Alaska Railroad which took over that route; and the Fairbanks-area Tanana Valley Railroad which formed the northernmost base of operations for the federal project. The history details the construction through 1923, when President Warren G. Harding drove the Alaska Railroad’s ceremonial Golden Spike at Nenana.


The 400-page book is a wide-ranging look at the many ways in which the railroad played a major role in Alaska’s growth and development. From dynamiting the railbed out of the rocky cliffs along Turnagain Arm, to spanning the deep chasm of Hurricane Gulch, and from crossing the endless miles of muskeg swamp to bridging the mighty waters of the Tanana River, the story is told through historic documents, photographs, and publications.

This is more than the just the story of constructing the railroad, this is also the story of how the U. S. Government built towns and cities across the territory, including Seward, Anchorage, Talkeetna, Nenana, and Fairbanks. It’s the story of coal mining in Alaska, from the Guggenheim Syndicate’s notorious attempted monopoly of Alaska’s resources, to the government’s own private coal mine to service the U.S. Naval fleet in the Pacific. It’s the story of steamboat travel on Alaskan rivers, and how the railroad’s own fleet of steamers and gas-powered “tunnel boats” came to dominate the watery transportation corridors. It’s the story of the role a fledgling conservation movement played in dividing a major political party. And it’s the story of how steam shovels which dug the Panama Canal were brought north to claw at Alaskan hillsides.

The 500-mile long Alaska Railroad runs from the seaport town of Seward, on the Kenai Peninsula, to Fairbanks, the Golden Heart of Alaska. Along the way it crosses two formidable mountain ranges, several broad and daunting rivers, and numerous deep gorges and canyons. It winds along the tidewater edge of Turnagain Arm, past Bartlett and Spencer Glaciers, and skirts the highest point on the North American continent, the Great One, Denali. From running its own opulent luxury hotel-literally in the middle of nowhere-to developing the telephone, water, and sewer systems of Anchorage and other towns, the history of the railroad is largely the history of Alaska, and a richly fascinating period in America’s past.

The Alaska Railroad: 1902-1923, Blazing an Iron Trail Across the Last Frontier, by Helen Hegener, published in May 2017 by Northern Light Media. 400 pages, over 100 b/w historic photos, maps, bibliography, indexed.

The book is available at Fireside Books, or it can be ordered for $24.95 plus $5.00 postage from the author's website:

Also available from Amazon, and as a Kindle edition.