The Alaska Railroad celebrates a century of service

We were at the Railroad Depot for the festivities.
Published: Jan. 9, 2023 at 5:04 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Since the days of the Klondike Gold Rush, Alaska has worked to improve and increase transportation infrastructure in the last frontier. The Alaska Railroad has played a huge role in that pursuit and it now celebrates a century of service.

Completed on July 15, 1923, the Alaska Railroad has had a long life full of developments, and the Alaska Railroad Corporation celebrated 100 years of operation on Jan. 6.

The Alaska Railroad began as an idea in 1903. “A small group of railroaders started a private line that started in Seward,” said Christy Terry, the director of external affairs at Alaska Railroad Corporation. 11 years later, President Woodrow Wilson commissioned the construction of the Alaska Railroad running from Seward to Fairbanks. “They were just interested in looking at the options for mining and military purposes,” Terry continued.

When the tracks were completed, President Warren Harding drove the ceremonial rail spike into the tracks officially beginning operations for the railroad.

Since then, the railroad has expanded it’s operations to include cargo transportation for individuals, the oil industry and others. “We’ve morphed into transporting over 500,000 tourists on our passenger trains throughout the seasons,” Terry said, adding that the Alaska Railroad is one of the few railroads that manages both freight and passengers. The first passenger line was introduced in 1947 when the first Aurora engine was commissioned for service. The Aurora engines are the iconic blue and gold trains we see today.

In 1985 the state purchased the railroad from the federal government for around $22 million.

For the centennial celebration, the Alaska Railroad Corporation commissioned two artists to create works that embody the history of the Alaska Railroad. Noah Nolywaika from Nenana created a picture collage that featured historical moments such as Harding’s driving of the ceremonial spike, and an old photo of the Nenana Train Depot. Nolywaika says the inspiration for his work came from his childhood memories as he passed the depot “every week on [his] way to church.”

The other artist that was commissioned was William “Art” Chase from North Pole. Chase put together a pastel painting of the various engines or locomotives that have served on the Alaska Railroad. The work that Chase submitted for the centennial was a piece that he had been sitting on just for the 100 year celebration. Chase has also created other art for the Alaska Railroad. He spoke about his history with the Alaska Railroad when he was working with Alaska 557, a restoration company, which worked to bring back the idea of a steam locomotive on Alaska’s tracks.