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Alaska's Tanana Valley Railroad

A Guide to Fairbanks, Alaska

Rails to Riches

    The railroad played a great role in the growth and development in the state of Alaska. There was at one time over 20 railroads operating in the Alaska territory. Today, only two railroads remain: The White Pass and Yukon Route (WP&YR) and The Alaska Railroad (ARR.) The WP&YR still travels over its original route from Skagway in Alaska to Lake Bennett in British Columbia, Canada.

    The Alaska Railroad is the result of the remnant of two gold-rush era railroads, the Alaska Central, later known as the Alaska Northern, and the Tanana Valley Railroad. The Northern extended 71 miles north from Seward to Cook Inlet. The Tanana Valley extended from Chena, a settlement on the Tanana River, to Fairbanks, with a branch to Chatanika. The TVRR has evolved into a modern full-service carrier transporting passengers and freight to and from the Interior of Alaska to ports at Anchorage, Whittier and Seward.

    The Tanana Valley Railroad was organized as the Tanana Mine Railways by entrepreneurs Falcon Joslin and Martin Harrais from Dawson City, Yukon Territory, following gold strikes in the Chena and Chatanika river basins. They recognized the need for a year-round means of transportation to and from the mines.

    In 1903, Joslin and Harrais traveled to the Tanana Valley to evaluate building a railroad from the Tanana River to Fairbanks and to the gold fields. After returning to Dawson, they developed plans and secured financial backing from British investors. Construction began in 1904, but came to an abrupt halt due to unforeseen engineering problems. The terrain was deceptive appearing perfect for laying track, but it turned into a quagmire of swamps and small streams due to the hidden permafrost that thawed when the ground cover was disturbed. During the winter it re-froze and was hard as a rock and the tools couldn't budge the frozen ground.

    Initial supplies soon ran out and were not replenished until mid-May 1905. Until the arrival of Engine #1 around July 4, men and animals provided the horsepower for the construction.

    Engine #1 became the first steam locomotive in the Interior of Alaska and went to work immediately building the railroad. The mainline was completed to Fairbanks by mid-July and the golden spike, minted from gold from the surrounding area, was driven on July 17. Construction on the branch up the Goldstream Valley through Fox to Gilmore was completed in September.

    The railroad service and revenue continued to grow through 1909. At one time it operated three mixed trains daily each way, in addition to special schedules, saving the citizen over $300,000 a year in freight cost. The service was only slowed up by the occasional severe winters storms but were usually back on track within a couple of days.

    With the appearance of new transportation beginning in 1910 the revenues began to drop. Finally, on November 1, 1917, the TVRR was sold at bankruptcy sale for $200,000. It was then re-sold to Alaska Engineering Commission for $300,000 on December 31, 1917 becoming the Chatanika Branch of the Alaska Engineering Commission Railroad, which became the Alaska Railroad in 1923. At that time the equipment was renamed to reflect the new ownership and the Tanana Valley Railroad became a memory of days gone by. Alaska Railroad still operates today and offers passenger service as well as freight service.

    For more information, visit the FCVB web site at www.explorefairbanks.com.

Copyright Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau. Used here with permission.