Monday, April 1, 2013

Railroad changed Nenana forever

Nenana depot as it looked in 2012

 In March 1914, Congress authorized the construction of a government railroad in the Territory of Alaska. The northern terminus of the railroad would be in Fairbanks, but there were two competing routes from ice-free ports at tidewater to the Interior. There was an “eastern” route starting at Valdez or Cordova on Prince William Sound, and a “western” route, starting at Seward or Portage Bay on the Kenai Peninsula.

The future of the Athabascan village of Toghotthele, located near the confluence of the Nenana and Tanana rivers, was unequivocally affected when President Wilson chose the western route. His decision was influenced in part by national sentiment against J. P. Morgan and the Guggenheim family, whose Alaska Syndicate owned the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad that ran between Cordova and Kennicott.

The western route followed the right of way of the bankrupt Alaska Northern Railroad north from Seward to Turnagain Arm, and then struck out across the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, crossing the Alaska Range at Broad Pass, and heading north to Fairbanks. The proposed railroad crossed the Tanana River at Toghottele (now named Nenana).

The Alaska Engineering Commission (the government entity formed to oversee the railroad’s construction) began work in 1915 at Ship Creek in the newly formed town of Anchorage. By 1916, 60 miles of new track had been laid, 100 miles of roadbed graded and 230 miles of right of way cleared.

Some histories claim that the Alaska Railroad’s tracks reached Nenana by 1922, but this is not completely accurate. While the rail link between Anchorage and Nenana was completed in 1922, the AEC had decided to have crews work simultaneously from the south and north. Anchorage was the southern construction headquarters, and Nenana was chosen as the northern headquarters.

Beginning in 1915, the AEC built a sizable construction compound in Nenana, including offices, dormitories, power plant, machine shop, warehouses and hospital. (All of these structures are now gone.) A white man’s community sprang up around the railroad yard, and Nenana’s population quickly doubled. By this time, Fairbanks’s sister city of Chena (at the mouth of the Chena River) was dying, and many of that community’s buildings were relocated to the new railroad town at Nenana.

So construction crews worked south from Nenana and north from Anchorage, and in February 1922 the gap between the southern and northern segments was closed with the completion of the Riley Creek Bridge (still in use) just outside the entrance to Denali National Park.

A bridge across the Tanana River still needed to be constructed, but that did not stop rail traffic from reaching Fairbanks. The AEC had acquired the bankrupt Tanana Valley Railroad in 1917, and in 1919 it extended tracks south to the north shore of the Tanana River. Until the Mears railroad bridge across the Tanana was completed in 1923, passengers and freight were ferried across the river when it was free of ice, and during the winter, temporary tracks were laid across the frozen Tanana River.

With the completion of the railroad as far as Nenana, a depot was needed. A single story station with passenger waiting room and freight storage room (similar to the historic depot still standing in Seward) was built in 1922 near the waterfront. In 1937, a second story containing the personal quarters for the railroad agent was added.

By the 1980s, the depot was no longer being used, and it was transferred to the city of Nenana in 1987. Now the Alaska State Railroad Museum, it is open during the summer free of charge, and is a lovely place to spend a morning or afternoon.

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