The Transcription of this interview, which was conducted in 2007 for BUILDING ALASKA, has been edited and may differ slightly from the original taped interview.

Alaska before the Yukon Gold Rush

WALTER BORNEMAN: Getting to Alaska has always been a problem in terms of transportation. And the gold rush really created a demand for more people and more material to come into the state. And in the late 1890s there’s this great gold rush to the Klondike, the Yukon and of course then there’s going to be subsequent gold rushes to Fairbanks and to Nome. But the challenge is really to get better transportation in the form of railroads from the coast into the interior of Alaska.

Before the gold rush, transportation in Alaska really depends on dogsleds, on horses over what are frequently bottomless muddy trails and steamboats. [T]he rivers have really always been the transportation corridors of Alaska. And the challenge of course as more and more people and there’s more and more demand coming into the area, the challenge is to get more folks into the interior and to do that, it’s really related to railroads.

The First Railroads: The White Pass & Yukon

WALTER BORNEMAN: In Alaska there really are dozens of paper railroads that never lay a single mile of track. But there are only a few that really go from the paper incorporation stages to really being physical construction projects. And in the beginning there really has to be some kind of very strong economic magnet to make that happen. And the economic magnet that is in fact the gold rush. It’s the need to get people into the gold fields, to get the gold out and for the early two railroads, the White Pass & Yukon and the Copper River & Northwestern Railroads. It’s that pull of the mining frontier that really makes the railroads overcome insurmountable challenges in terms of physical terrain to get to those areas.

In the late 1890s, as the Klondike gold rush is going on, there are a number of attempts to build railroads and speculations about building railroads into the interior of Alaska. But what happens is that there’s a man named Michael J. Heney who cut his teeth on the Canadian Pacific railroad, did a lot of engineering through some really tough mountain railroading in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia. And he was up in Alaska, south part of the territory at that point, looking for railroad routes. And at the same time there were a group of British inventors and American engineers who were trying to find a similar route. They’d pretty well given up and they were sitting in a place called Skagway in the St. James Hotel, not nearly as grand a structure as that name might imply, and they basically had come to the conclusion that “Look, there’s no way that we can get from the coast here in Skagway into the interior bound for the Klondike.”

About that time, late one night, in from the cold staggers Michael J. Heney, and he has not only been over the railroad route, up toward Bennett and White Horse, out of Skagway, but he’s come to the determination that a railroad can be built and he wants to be the one to do it. Well after a little bit of scotch and a few cigars, they agree. The British capitalists, the American engineers and big tough Mike Heney, that the White Pass & Yukon can in fact become a reality.

Big Mike Heney, Railroad Builder

WALTER BORNEMAN: One of the things that Mike Heney had that other folks didn’t have was really an iron will, a determination to get the job done, number one. And I think the other thing that Mike Heney is almost an uncanny ability to make men want to work hard for him and overcome these huge challenges of rushing rivers and working high off mountain cliffs and slogging your way through bottomless mud. Those were the kind of things that were a tough part of mountain railroading construction, but Mike Heney really brought out the best of men in terms of accomplishing those things.

Mike Heney was known by a couple of nicknames: one was “the Irish Prince,” because of course he was an Irishman, and the other was simply “M.J.,” his initials, Michael J. Heney. And I think that both of those were nicknames that were given to him by his crews with a great deal of respect and admiration for the kind of guy that he was in getting the job done.

E.C. Hawkins, Chief Engineer

WALTER BORNEMAN: E.C. Hawkins was an American engineer who was a big picture thinker on the White Pass. The designer of seemingly impossible solutions. He made a great team with Michael J. Heney because Michael J. Heney was the doer, the man who could actually implement those designs in the field and get the impossible out of his team of construction men.

Workers on the White Pass & Yukon

WALTER BORNEMAN: The construction history of the White Pass & Yukon is really pretty interesting in terms of the numbers of people who worked on it. What would happen is that Heney would get crews in Seattle or Portland and basically bring them up to Alaska and Skagway on boat and put them to work on the railroad. Who wanted to be working on the railroad when there was the lure of gold fields in the Klondike or later at Atlin? And what happened is that even though Heney had by some reports two thousand people at one time working on the White Pass & Yukon, a total of 35,000 worked on the line during its two-year construction history. So there was a huge turnover.

A lot of the people that worked for Heney were folks from the northwest who really wanted to go to Alaska, wanted to go to the gold rush and saw working on the railroad as their ticket north. A lot of these folks were just, hey, tough guys, what can I say?

During the early years of Alaska, there’s a group of people who are coming up here to either be trappers or to work the mines. Most of the folks who come to Alaska in 1890s are really after one thing and that’s to make money, whether that was at the level of Mike Heney as a construction boss, or whether it was at the level of the average rank and file who are coming up here for a paying job, but I think that they all wanted at some point, somehow to derive a fortune from the gold rush. The idea of coming to Alaska just to settle, to have a lifestyle is really something that, that comes much later in Alaska’s history.

The conditions to be faced on the [construction of the] White Pass & Yukon . . . were really horrible. Not only was there the engineering challenge of getting from Skagway at sea level to the top of White Pass, 2900 feet, in a very short, horizontal distance, but a lot of this construction was done during the dead of winter . . . because there was a rush to get to the gold fields. And during that time of course there are rushing rivers, there are steep cliffs that need to be overcome. The mud, the mud in Alaska can sometimes be described as bottomless. And all of those things compounded by winter, very short working hours, certainly periods of intense cold, made for some very, very extreme weather and working conditions. And of course the other side of those working conditions is that almost all of the material that was involved in the construction of these railroads had to be transported north from Seattle or Portland or other points on the west coast of the United States.

The logistical issues with the White Pass & Yukon were as challenging as the physical hardships that the men endured. All of the material had to be transported north from Portland or Seattle and hauled across the inside passage to Skagway and then of course hauled from Skagway, up over White Pass to wherever the railhead might have been.

Because of the White Pass & Yukon, Skagway really becomes the largest city in Alaska, at least for a time. There are a tremendous amount of people who flow through town. . . [T]here’s about 10,000 people there. . . [A]s contrasts to places like San Francisco which at that point had over 340,000, it’s still a pretty small town.

Private Enterprise and the Early Railroads

WALTER BORNEMAN: The White Pass is privately funded and it’s an example of a railroad that really responds to the economic pull of the mining frontier. In the White Pass’s case, of course, it’s gold in the Klondike and . . . to get folks there and of course to get the gold out.

The White Pass is certainly an economic success during the time of the gold rush. [A]fter that, of course, when the gold rush wanes, things get a little bit shaky for the railroad during the ‘ 20s and ‘ 30s. It still hauls some mining ore out of the Yukon, but really what makes the White Pass boom again, is the Second World War. The White Pass is a critical transportation corridor during the Second World War in terms of hauling men and materials north to build portions of the Alcan Highway.

Building the White Pass & Yukon RR

WALTER BORNEMAN: The greatest challenge of the White Pass is really the vertical elevation, getting from sea level at Skagway up to the summit of the pass at 2900 feet. And in order to do that over a very short distance, it required a tremendous amount of curves and uphill grades, tunnels, cuts and fills, some really pretty rigorous mountain railroading.

One of the key challenges on the White Pass is blasting the railroad grade across really mountainous cliffs en route to the summit. And all of this was done by men working with shovels and dynamite, horses, no modern equipment, no great big machines or anything, simply blasting shelves out of rock so that they could lay tthe railroad tracks up to the summit of the pass.

The White Pass was built on narrow gauge, a three-foot width between the rails. And it was built similar to a lot of mountain railroads that had already been built in the United States to reach various mining communities. The advantage to the narrow gauge was that it could climb steeper grades, turn tighter turns and in general was less costly to construct than it was to standard gauge.

Alaska railroad construction occurs toward the end of the great period of railroad construction in the United States during the period from the end of the Civil War to roughly the beginning of the 20th Century, 1900 or so. And Alaska comes in on the tail end of that, but what this means is that a number of the engineering innovations, both in terms of construction and building great bridges and things that have been pioneered in the United States, that technology are now available for railroading in Alaska.

There’s a tradition in American railroading of giving nicknames to the initials of railroads. And in the case of the White Pass in Yukon, the W.P.&Y.R. it was “wait patiently and you’ll ride” . . . [A] lot of people simply didn’t think that the railroad was ever going to be built. Well, thanks to Mike Heney, it was built and everybody rode.

Copper Mining and the Copper River & Northwestern RR

WALTER BORNEMAN: Mike Heney made his fortune building the White Pass and was an example of someone who had gone to Alaska and made money, not by taking gold out, but by being part of the greater mining rush. [He] wasn’t content just to take money out of the White Pass. He’s going to be back in Alaska a few years after that building yet another railroad. And I think the fact that he comes back to Alaska after having made his fortune the first time is indicative of the fact that there was something more to Mike Heney than just the quest for dollars. I think he really, really related to the engineering challenge of being able to push railroads through seemingly impossible terrain.

After the White Pass & Yukon, the next major railroad that’s built in Alaska is the Copper River & Northwestern. And like the White Pass, it too is responding to the economic pull of the mining frontier, but instead of gold, the mineral in the case of the Copper River is, in fact, copper.

What happens is that there are very rich copper deposits that are discovered at a place called Kennicott. And . . . the Alaska Syndicate that’s composed of people like the Guggenheims and J.P. Morgan is put together to develop that mineral prospect. The copper turns out to be one of the richest copper deposits in the world. So in order to take it out, or take the ore out of the Wrangell Mountains, they need a railroad. And Michael J. Heney is the man who basically oversees the construction of the Copper River & Northwestern railroad to get the ore out.

Copper in the early part of the 20th Century is in big demand because it’s a period of time that all of the United States, in fact, all of the world is really undergoing electrification. There are electric utility lines being extended all over the country, throughout all the major cities certainly and copper is a critical element of that. So there’s a big demand for copper at this time.

[A choice had to be made} over which route the railroad should take. There were some people who wanted to build north from Valdez, there were other people who wanted to start from a place Katalla, where the Bering coal fields were. But Mike Heney was really adamant that the best route was right smack up the Copper River. And there were certainly [difficulties] with that—big canyons, huge glaciers, but Heney liked the fact that it was water grade all the way from the coast up to Kennicott. He once wrote his dad that, “Rivers I can abide with because they make a decent path through the mountains.”

The engineering challenges of the Copper River are really similar to what went on with the White Pass. So Heney was the perfect person. And, of course, E.C. Hawkins is involved in this project, too, as the engineer. Once again, they made the perfect team to build from the coast, up this raging Copper River, through these glaciers and on to the copper mines at Kennicott.

Building the Copper River & Northwestern

The greatest challenges on the Copper River & Northwestern are really twofold. One is a place called Abercrombie Canyon: just below that there are two glaciers that come very, very close to the river, the Childs Glacier on the west, the Miles Glacier on the east. And there was barely enough room for the river to go between the two glaciers let alone a railroad. And what Heney and Hawkins had to do was figure out a way to bridge the river at that point and then continue upstream. And of course above there, not only did they have to blast their way through Abercrombie Canyon, but they also had to cross a number of other rivers, side rivers that were coming in between there and their final destination at Kennicott. The amazing thing about the Copper River & Northwestern is that in its 196-mile length, 15% of the railroad was either built on bridges or some kinds of trestles.

[The toughest bridge] was what came to be called “the Million Dollar Bridge.” Now in typical fashion it cost about 50% more than a million dollars. But it was constructed between the Childs Glacier and the Miles Glacier, over 1500 feet long, built in four major sections. And the amazing thing again, as so frequently happened in Alaska construction. was that this was done, a lot of it during either the dead of winter or in the spring when the glaciers on either side of the construction point were advancing.

It wasn’t just the raging rivers and glaciers that Heney had to contend with on the Copper River & Northwestern, but there’s a ferocious wind that blows down out of Abercrombie Canyon and across the delta. Well, the story’s told that after the line was completed, at Mile 27, the Flag Point Bridge, they hung a chain on the bridge and if the wind was blowing so hard that that chain stuck straight out, then engineers knew they better not take their train across the bridge.

Probably the most critical junction on building the Million Dollar Bridge was putting in the falsework for the construction of the third main piece. And that section of some 450 feet was actually constructed on falsework, wooden falsework that was built on the ice. And the challenge, of course, was to get the bridge completed and self-supporting so that the falsework could be taken down before the ice went out. If it didn’t, all of the bridge was simply going to be washed away. It was a very, very narrow race, but the engineers and construction crews won, and the bridge was completed only then to have the glaciers begin a very unusual and very rapid advance and at one point the glaciers were almost threatening to take the bridge out. It’s kind of interesting that you know you go to that site today and you see the glaciers, particularly across Miles Lake and say, well you know I’m not sure I really understand the problem, it looks a ways away. But in 1910-1911, that construction winter, the glaciers were much closer and much taller. So we’ve got some 200 to 300 foot face of a glacier towering within 1500 to 2000 feet of your construction site. That . . . makes for some pretty nervous workers in pretty tenuous conditions.

In the case of the Copper River & Northwestern, folks said that the initials stood for “Can’t run and never will.” Well the truth of the matter is, of course, is that the Copper River & Northwestern certainly did run; it hauled almost $300 million dollars worth of copper ore out of Kennicott and laid the foundation for what became the world’s greatest copper company, Kennecott Copper, and in the same time built a great legacy of mountain railroading.

Ultimately, the goal of Heney, Hawkins and the Alaska Syndicate was to extend the Copper River all the way north to Fairbanks and tap the interior of Alaska. Well, what happened of course is that after the copper played out there was simply no economic pull as strong as it had been to encourage the kind of tough engineering choices and challenges that would have been required to extend the railroad from Chitina all the way up the Copper River and over the mountains, the Alaska Range, into Fairbanks.

If there’s a tragedy of the Copper River, it’s that Mike Heney didn’t live to see its completion. When the line is finally completed to Kennicott in the spring of 1911, Heney is not there, he’s passed on. And what happens is that he had been involved in a shipwreck. In typical Heney fashion, he had tried to save people. He basically come down with what amounted to pulmonary pneumonia and became very, very ill. And it’s an example I think of the hard toll of working in those kind of conditions and doing that kind of transportation that really in the end cost Mike Heney his life.

[Heney died] very soon after the completion of the Copper River. And these were relatively young men, in their forties. And I think it’s indicative of the fact that tough weather, tough conditions really cut short a number of lives. And yet, Heney and Hawkins both had made their fortunes out of Alaska, but the land had demanded its due in the process and cost them both early deaths.

When they drove the copper spike to complete the Copper River & Northwestern, Heney’s photograph was on the first locomotive into Kennicott. And that was the workers’ way and certainly Hawkins’ way, who was quite broke up by Heney’s premature death, that was their way of honoring the man that again, through some pretty strong determination against insurmountable odds, he’d overcome those odds and made the railroad happen.

Despite the fact that the railroads were initially built to reach mining deposits, I think they certainly brought an element of permanence if you will to the territory. And it made transportation more year round, more dependable. I mean let’s face it, when you were relying on…on dogsleds, dependable though those dogs can be and rivers that froze up in the winter, transportation before the railroads and of course before the airplanes was often frequently very tenuous.

Best-Selling Novel and Hollywood Film based on Mike Heney’s Life

WALTER BORNEMAN: The Copper River & Northwestern really only operated for 27 years. The copper was very rich at Kennicott, but it was a relatively small discovery and a relatively small ore source, and what that meant is that after 27 years the railroad shut down. If anybody really knows about the railroad today, odds are they’ve heard of Rex Beach who was a novelist who actually spent some time–I think he was really a good friend of Heney’s or came to admire Heney’s determination on the site. And he wrote a novel called The Iron Trail which basically personified Heney and the folks involved with the construction of the Copper River & Northwestern and then of course it went on to become a [silent Hollywood] movie and quite popularized. But as in so many cases, I think at least, the history of the real people who were involved–like Heney–is even a more compelling story than the novelist version.

I can remember my first visit to the Million Dollar Bridge with my son who must have been about eleven at that point. And both of us were very amazed and fascinated, me more from a historical standpoint and I grasped the engineering power that had gone on there. But he was very impressed I think just to walk across it and see the raging river down below, see the glaciers that are still relatively close, not as close as they were during the construction period, but relatively close and . . . ask the obvious question, “Gee, dad, why was this bridge built? And I think that that’s the kind of history and that’s the kind of story that we need to tell and keep alive in terms of honoring these engineering achievements of the past.

Reaching the Interior: Fairbanks

WALTER BORNEMAN: The importance of getting to Fairbanks is that it’s really the economic center of interior Alaska. It’s undergone a fair gold rush of its own, but it’s also the focal point of not only the watershed of the Yukon in interior Alaska, but also a number of other little mining communities that are spread out from it.

The Federal Government and the Alaska Railroad Commission

WALTER BORNEMAN: For the first 50 years of American ownership, the federal government really has kind of an attitude of benign neglect against Alaska. And that sort of starts to change pretty significantly after the gold rush. And all of that wealth that William Seward first talked about when the Americans purchased Alaska in 1867, people started to say, “Oh yeah, there’s a lot going on up here, a lot of natural resources that ought to be developed.” And the Copper River and the White Pass are examples of railroads that were privately funded in terms of responding to very specific economic pulls of the mining frontier, gold and copper. But by the early part of the 20th Century and specifically about 1913, the government finally says, “You know I think we need to take a little bit more of an interest in Alaska.” And it’s Woodrow Wilson, after he’s inaugurated in 1913 as president who says, it’s time to unlock the storehouse of Alaska.

Wilson’s first step in terms of unlocking the storehouse of Alaska is to promote the Alaska Railroad Commission. And they’re basically charged with surveying a variety of routes from the Gulf of Alaska into the interior of Alaska. And Wilson sees that and the men who come to work for the Alaska Railroad Commission see that as a way of really taking transportation in the territory from simply roads and rivers to the next step to really be able to have railroad transportation into the interior.

The mandate to build railroads, Wilson’s mandate, really comes out of the Second Organic Act. And that’s the act that makes Alaska a full-fledged territory and really starts to get a little bit more federal involvement in the area.

The Alaska Railroad Commission that was charged with surveying potential routes for the Gulf of Alaska to the interior came up with really two important points–recommendations—and one salient requirement. Now the points were that it seemed to be logical to either extend the Copper River & Northwestern from Cordova up to Fairbanks, or to continue what was called the Alaska Northern Railroad from Seward, north to Fairbanks. Now, in either case, the requirement was [since] they simply did not see that there was a strong enough economic pull, the kind of copper and gold that had originally encouraged the White Pass and the Copper River . . . the requirement was that if a railroad was going to be built from the Gulf into the interior, there simply had to be some measure of government support and government funding for the project.

Part of the legislation that Wilson champions is the Second Organic Act, which basically makes Alaska a territory. And a key part of that is the section that provides for the creation of the Alaska Railroad Commission. And basically that’s Woodrow Wilson’s way of saying, “OK, we’re going to unlock this storehouse, and in doing that we’re going to provide the railroads and the transportation avenues to make it all happen.” What that really means is now for the first time the federal government is committed to spending a significant amount of money in Alaska. Initially for what’s to become the Alaska Railroad, they appropriate, even though they’re going to dole it out over a period of years, $35 million dollars, which is a significant amount of money at that point.

In the end, the choice of routes is left to the president, but the choice is really pretty obvious. The folks go to the Copper River and say, “Well how much would it take to buy your line and extend it north to Fairbanks?” The Guggenheim syndicate wants $17.7 million dollars for their line and the government says, “No, that’s way too much.” And you know Woodrow Wilson certainly, even though he favored government spending for these construction projects, was not about to accord the Guggenheims and the Alaska Syndicate the $17.7 million that they were asking, at least for the Copper River.

So the other choice is the Alaska Northern, originally called the Alaska Central, that’s built north from Seward and its price is much more reasonable, $1.15 million. Unfortunately, its roadbed . . . [is] in terrible shape in terms of spindly trestles and poorly built grades and it’s going to take quite a bit of work [and money] north of Seward to fix that grade up. But again, the choice is easy at that point and the federal government goes ahead and acquires the Alaska Northern with construction to continue on north from Seward.

The other reason of course that it was easy to choose the Alaska Northern is that there’s significant coal deposits at Matanuska, north of what’s then called Ship Creek, soon to be called Anchorage. And I think the planners and engineers were looking at the fact that not only was it cheaper to acquire the Alaska Northern, but they would have a ready source of fuel for their locomotives and a ready source of revenue for coal that could be shipped to southeast Alaska and other points if in fact they built north from Seward more directly to the Matanuska.

Frederick Mears and Building the Alaska Railroad

To implement this job of railroad construction, the Alaska Engineering Commission is created. And a man named Frederick Mears has the challenge of locating a suitable point from which to begin construction. Couple of choices. He could go to Seward and just continue work on the Alaska Northern north, or he could pick some middle ground and be able to work in both directions, north and south. Well, that’s exactly what he does. He goes to Ship Creek; it’s renamed Anchorage. And the importance of that is that even though there’s some challenges–tidal flats, a lot of differing tidal bores and things that roar up Turnagain Arm and Knik Arm–the good part of that is that Anchorage is right in the center of construction and from there he can both work south along Turnagain Arm to hook up eventually with the Alaska Northern, and, at the same time, he can build north, immediately tapping the coal fields at Matanuska and then of course continuing on further north to Fairbanks. So even though he’s criticized, Mears is at some point [vindicated] for basically staking out what’s a new town with Anchorage, [and] it gives him the flexibility to build in both directions at once.

Frederick Mears cut his teeth on the construction of the Panama Canal. So when he came north to work on the Alaska railroad, he was certainly well versed from the engineering side. It’s also true that a lot of the equipment that was used in the construction of the Panama Canal also came north to work on the Alaska railroad.

I think the difference between Frederick Mears and Michael Heney was that Mears was working as an army officer for what amounted to a bureaucracy and Heney was working for private individuals, [which had] a little bit looser chain of command. And I think he could do things that the government contractors couldn’t. In fact, one of the stories is that Heney put a keg of whiskey at the other end of a tunnel at one time as an inducement to his construction crews to hurry up and blast through it and, and get to their rewards.

Once Mears decides to locate the railhead at Anchorage, the town really booms. It’s no different than any other town that becomes a railhead, almost overnight from where there are vacant fields, buildings spring up and a population descends on the town. And it just booms. It’s important to be a railhead and certainly it’s economically significant to the surrounding area. And in Anchorage’s case, it was doubly important because there was construction going on both ways. Whatever happened, the railroad wasn’t going to leave Anchorage, all of the construction flurry was not going to just disappear . . . [I]t was building in both directions and Anchorage was always going to be a key spot.

In constructing the Alaska railroad, Mears really had two major construction challenges. One was to the south, basically completing the line around Turnagain Arm and hooking up with the Alaska Northern railroad. Very, very tenuous ground for construction along Turnagain Arm. Not only are there great tidal bores and waves that play havoc along the shore, but it’s very loose rock and muddy construction. So he had to complete that route to the south of Anchorage. North of Anchorage, the challenge was to get across some great rivers and continue on to Fairbanks. And of course the major crossing that had to be dealt with was the Tanana River and that was very close to Fairbanks, but that was the key link in terms of completing Anchorage to Fairbanks portion.

One of the things that I think Mears and Heney were very much alike in . . . [was] both of them really took considerable pride in their engineering achievements. I think both of them really responded to the physical challenges that they were trying to overcome. Mears’s [best] example probably is the Tanana Bridge. At one point there were folks who simply wanted to put a hasty construction across or maybe put a bridge that included a 200-foot center lift span, which would have been problematic forever I think in terms of steamboat traffic up and down the river. But Mears had a little bit broader vision and he decided to move upstream from the crossing to where the river was a little narrower and not just construct something that was either flimsy or of a temporary nature, but something that really till today remains a pretty significant engineering marvel, and that’s the 700 foot crossing of the Tanana River.

Mears, in his selection of Anchorage as the place to start and basically build in both directions, certainly was not [spared] criticism. One of his most vocal critics was John Ballaine who even though he’d sold the Alaska Northern Railroad to the government really thought that the railroad ought to begin from Seward and that all of its construction activities ought to be funneled through that port. Obviously, he had some commercial interests there that would have benefited from that. Now John Ballaine may have had a point, certainly Ship Creek, what became Anchorage, did not have the deep water port facilities that Seward did or even Skagway did. But Ship Creek and Anchorage really were . . . centrally located [and were] close to the coal fields and that’s why Mears chose to locate there.

But Ballaine becomes one of these people who is sort of a constant critic of Mears and everything that’s happening as the railroad extends north, in its construction north from Anchorage and Ballaine’s still around, second-guessing how they’re going to cross the Tanana River when Mears, looking ahead to the really big and long-term picture says, “OK, we’re going to build a pretty significant bridge here.”

There were many railroads built across Alaska. But the Alaska Railroad really came to symbolize the spirit of the land and it really became a key artery of its commerce. Now we can talk about the Copper River & Northwestern and the White Pass, they became legends. The Alaska Railroad became Alaska.

President Warren Harding Visits Alaska

Well, finally, after the Tanana Bridge is completed, what happens is that there is a presidential visit. Warren Harding, in 1923 comes north to Alaska with his wife Florence in order to dedicate the Alaska Railroad. Now it’s kind of interesting that, believe it or not, Florence and Warren Harding from Marion, Ohio, had always, the story goes, wanted to come to Alaska. They had had friends who had come to the Klondike, gotten rich, and there was a fascination with, particularly Florence, in visiting Alaska. I think that’s kind of indicative of the fascination that a lot of people have had with Alaska that, let’s go see what’s going on there, let’s see what’s so special about this land. So Warren and Florence Harding, even though Warren Harding was physically ill and just about politically in shambles with his presidency through one scandal or another, come north in July of 1923 and dedicate, drive the final spike for the Alaska Railroad at the Tanana Bridge. Alaska of course is a land of extremes and the Hardings happened to hit the dedication ceremony during one of the extremely hot periods of time. So here is Warren Harding, pretty physically down as it is, driving or at least attempting to drive the completion spike for the Alaska Railroad still in his suit coat and everything in what amounts to about 90 degree weather. So, whatever his physical problems, that exertion and that ceremony certainly didn’t help matters.

The Alaska Railroad’s Success is Delayed till World War Two

WALTER BORNEMAN: Interestingly enough, the Alaska Railroad is completed just about the time that Alaska enters a period of doldrums. It’s a period that I’ve called the calm between the storms, the twin storms basically being the mining rush and the Second World War. Things are relatively calm in Alaska in the 󈥴s and 󈥾s. In fact, for a period of time between 1910 and 1920, Alaska actually loses population. So the Alaska Railroad is completed but what really starts it on its way as the centerpiece of Alaskan commerce and artery of its commercial interests is the Second World War. When the Second World War comes along in 1941 the Alaska Railroad is suddenly catapulted into the forefront of national defense issues and begins to haul a tremendous amount of material from Anchorage all the way up into Fairbanks and the interior.

Alaska’s Boom and Bust Economy

WALTER BORNEMAN: Alaska, because it’s been so closely tied to the mining frontier, has always experienced boom and bust. It certainly experienced a boom during the late 1890s that resulted in the railroads being built to Kennicott and to White Pass. And it also experienced a period of doldrums, like the ‘ 20s and ‘ 30s, after the Alaska Railroad was completed. And certainly what makes another boom, unrelated to the mining frontier, is the Second World War. There’s a tremendous amount of military spending that takes place in the territory of Alaska and of course what happens to really fuel the post-war development is that so many servicemen who were stationed here or passed through Alaska en route to other destinations in the Pacific, come back here and say, “You know, this is a pretty great place. I’m going to settle here.” But that kind of settlement mentality really doesn’t occur in huge numbers until after the Second World War.

I think the economy of Alaska over the years has been a cycle of booms and busts. Many things have driven the booms and the busts, from natural resources, to military spending, to . . . tourism. But it’s very much a cyclical economy.

[R]ecently . . . some of the boom and bust, I think, has been evened out a little bit because the economy is diversifying. Mineral exploration and oil and gas production is certainly important, but it’s not the only thing. Tourism is certainly important, but it’s not the only thing. And then there’s sort of the third part of that trio of fishing–and, of course, a fair amount of government involvement with parks and recreation facilities. So Alaska’s economy today is much more diversified than it’s been historically.

“The Alaska Spirit”

WALTER BORNEMAN: I think Alaska brings out the best of the American spirit. There’s no question that there is an Alaskan spirit that sort of takes regular American get-the-job-done and overcome obstacles sort of to the final limit, if you will. And that occurred in a lot of engineering things. It occurred in a lot of things in Alaska just in terms of everyday life. Things are a little bit harder here, a little bit more tenuous. Maybe in the 21st Century, that doesn’t include big cities like Anchorage, but certainly it’s still true today out in the bush and it was true a century ago when a lot of these construction projects were taking place.

Resource Extraction vs. Preservation in Alaska

The debate that continues today over natural resources extraction and preservation-conservation really isn’t new. I mean it’s been going on in Alaska since the turn of the 20th Century. But I really think that if you look at the historical perspective and really work together from both sides, there really is a balance that can be struck. My goodness, we can’t just lock up the land, but neither can we, as Wilson said, unlock the storehouse without any kind of safeguards and concerns. So I’m very much as an historian, one who’s written about the history of Alaska and tried to write a balanced approach because quite frankly there have been two sides that have been going on for a long time that really haven’t come to any kind of agreement, they’re unlikely to come to any kind of agreement but they’re pretty evenly split. So I’m one who sort of takes the middle ground, the moderate position and says, “You know I think we need to look at both development, good sustainable industries, but also preserve what’s really in many cases one of the most unique places on earth.”

Alaska has played an increasingly important role in the development of the United States. There was a time that many people looked askance at its purchase and said, “Why in the world did we ever buy Alaska?” Well, the gold rush changed a lot of that perspective. And the Second World War brought along . . . increased awareness of how critical Alaska is to the defense of the United States, to peace in the Pacific, and of course continuing on with oil resources and Alaska’s a destination for tourism and everything. Alaska continues to be an important part and let’s take it well into the 21st Century, all you have to do is visit Anchorage at the International Airport and see the commerce that passes through there, bound for all over the world, across the pole and across the Pacific.
So years ago the comment was made that Alaska really was a crossroads—this in the context of the Second World War—but 60-70 years later, it remains so and will continue to be even more important in the future.