Many Fairbanskans have probably seen the “Denali” Pullman car on display at Pioneer Park, but how many know its history?
It was part of the Alaska Railroad’s “Congressional Special” train that carried President Warren G. Harding and his party from Seward to Fairbanks and back in 1923. Harding was the first president to visit Alaska, and one of his primary purposes for the visit was to celebrate the completion of the Alaska Railroad by driving a golden spike at Nenana.
Most of the railroad had actually been completed by 1919. The missing link, however, was a bridge across the Tanana River. That took several years to complete, and until it was, passengers and freight were ferried across the Tanana between trains when the river was ice-free, and tracks were laid across the ice during the winter.
When the bridge was finally completed, President Harding drove a 14-carat golden spike into a railroad tie at the new bridge on July 15, 1923. (After the ceremonial spike was driven, it was removed and replaced by an iron spike.) Harding then continued on to Fairbanks to inspect the new Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines. While in Fairbanks, President Harding stayed at the Pioneer Hotel, and also found time to address a gathering from the front steps of the Masonic Temple.
President Harding’s train consisted of a locomotive and nine cars: a baggage car; business car; smoking car; sleeper cars "Fairbanks," "Talkeetna," "and “Anchorage”; dining car “McKinley Park”; and compartment-observation cars "Kenai" and “Denali.” His entourage included 23 government officials and their wives, 32 members of the press, and 30 railroad employees.
The Pullman car which President Harding traveled in is commonly called the “Harding Car.” Built in 1905, it is 10 feet wide and 81 feet long. As originally configured it had four staterooms, a drawing room, buffet room, card room, and observation room. It began service with the Great Northern Railway but was sold to the Alaska Railroad in 1923, which renamed it the “Denali.”
In 1928 the car was modified. In an article on the AlaskaRails.org website, Fairbanks railroad historian Pat Durand surmises that was when the observation room was expanded by removing the buffet and card rooms. The car remained in passenger service until 1945 when it was converted into an “outfit car” (railroad employee housing). Later that same year it was retired to a siding in Nenana, where it sat for 14 years.
According to the National Register of Historic Places, in 1959 the Pioneers of Alaska, Igloo No. 4 in Fairbanks, asked the Alaska Railroad if the car could be moved to Fairbanks and operated as a museum. The railroad refurbished the car in 1959-60 and then donated it to the City of Fairbanks. It was moved to Fairbanks in 1965 and then relocated to its present site at Pioneer Park for the 1967 Alaska Purchase Centennial Celebration. (Pioneer Park was the A-67 site then.) Additional restoration work was completed after the car was installed at Pioneer Park. There has been some deterioration to the car’s exterior since then, and in 2009 a protective canopy was built over it.
The car is quite handsome, with arched exterior windows and doors, leaded glass panels across the top of most of the windows, and elaborate exterior brass railings. The interior is just as ornate, with dark wood paneling on the walls, lighter wood paneling covering the arched ceiling, milk-glass and brass wall sconces and ceiling fixtures, and brass ornamentation—accoutrements usually not seen in modern times on government property used by the public.
- · “Alaska Railroad Passenger Cars, Car No. 3.” AlaskaRails.org website. 2013
- · “Harding Railroad Car National Register of Historic Place Inventory-Nomination Form.” Joan M. Antonson, National Park Service, 1977
- · Renovations continue on Pioneer Park’s Harding car.” Jeff Richardson. “Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.” September 10, 2009
- · “President Harding visits the New Alaska College in 1923.” LaVern Keys. UA Journey. University of Alaska website, 2011