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Alaska Railroad
The Alaska Railroad

In 1902, young real estate man John Ballaine and a group of Seattle businessmen invested $30 million into the Alaska Central Railroad. The group built offices and a dock in Seward, but the line was stopped short by construction woes and only managed to lay about 50 miles of track by the time they went bankrupt in 1908. The Alaska Northern Railway Company acquired many of the assets in 1909, but also seemed to inherit their misfortunes. By 1910 it was running low on money and unable to add new rail or perform maintenance on existing equipment.

Meanwhile, the Tanana Mines Railway was organizing in response to reports of gold in the state’s Interior. In 1904, a rail yard and other support buildings were erected in Chena, but construction of the rail line was slow. The frozen ground of the region’s harsh winters was hard to work with, and the summer thaw made it too damp. A line to Fairbanks was completed in 1905, and the route eventually grew to include Chatanika. It was quite profitable until 1910, when new modes of transportation cut into revenue.

In 1914, Congress authorized President Woodrow Wilson to construct and operate a railroad in Alaska. Wilson chose a route beginning in Seward and authorized the purchase of the Alaska Northern line. In 1915, Anchorage was just a tent city without a name when laborers started showing up and laying the route’s first rails in Ship Creek. In 1917, the bankrupt Tanana line was also purchased so it could be incorporated into the route. The undertaking was a success and President Warren G. Harding drove the golden spike to signify the railroad’s completion in 1923. Another act of Congress authorized the sale of the railroad to the State of Alaska in 1985.

The Alaska Railroad is now a popular way for locals and visitors to see the state and boasts year-round routes and rail excursions that can be booked as part of a cruise itinerary or by independent travelers. Visitors can start their trips at many points along the line, including Fairbanks, Denali National Park and Preserve, Talkeetna, Anchorage, Seward or Whittier.

A family watches a train winding along the water

Looking for an adventure-packed itinerary without the chore of planning? The Rails and Trails package makes stops with a focus on backcountry adventures. The package is an exciting combination for independent travelers that can include hikingkayaking and rafting with rail travel and overnight accommodations in each community along the way.

Fairbanks makes a great starting point for a flight over the Arctic Circle and a birds-eye view of Alaska’s Far North region, an option in some of the railroad’s packages. From Fairbanks it’s a leisurely train ride to Denali National Park, an expanse of more than 6 million acres whose centerpiece is the magnificent 20,320-foot tall Mount McKinley. Travelers looking to add a rafting package to their trip can take the train to Talkeetna, a riverboat steamer station in the early 1900s with waterways perfect for the sport.

Also popular is the Alaska Railroad’s Spencer Lake whistle stop trip. Through a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, passengers disembark from the train for a 1.3-mile hike narrated by a ranger.

Click here for more information on the Alaska Railroad.

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