The Alaska Railroad, built by the Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC), began with the remnants of two gold-rush era railroads, the Alaska Central, which became the Alaska Northern, and the Tanana Valley Railroad. The Alaska Northern, a standard gauge railroad, extended 71 miles north from Seward to Cook Inlet. The Tanana Valley Railroad (TVRR), a 3 foot narrow-gauge operation, extended from Chena, a settlement on the Tanana River, to Fairbanks, with a branch to Chatanika. The TVRR became the northern terminus of the Alaska Railroad, which has evolved into a modern full service carrier transporting people and supplies to and from the interior of Alaska to tidewater ports at Anchorage, Whittier and Seward.
The Tanana Valley Railroad (TVRR) began life as the Tanana Mines Railway. Falcon Joslin and Martin Harrais, entrepreneurs living in Dawson, Yukon Territory, Canada, learned of the gold strikes in the Chena and Chatanika river basins. Residents of the area needed a dependable, year-around means of transportation to move people and supplies to and from the mines. In 1903, Joslin and Harrais traveled to the Tanana Valley to evaluate the possibility of building a railroad from the Tanana River to Fairbanks and the gold fields. Returning to Dawson, they laid plans and secured financial backing from British investors who had financed several small industrial railroads in the Dawson area and the White Pass And Yukon Route.
Initial construction began in late summer of 1904 at Chena with the erection of a sawmill, rail yard and other support structures. Roadbed preparation and track laying commenced, but soon came to a halt due to unforseen engineering problems. Ground that looked deceptively smooth and even, perfect for laying track, turned into a quagmire of swamps and small streams due to the hidden permafrost that thawed as soon as the ground cover was disturbed. When it refroze in winter, it was hard as rock, and tools designed for dirt and gravel wouldn't budge in the frozen ground.
Coupled with these unexpected engineering difficulties, the lack of special equipment and supplies needed for construction made progress proceed in spurts, dependent on the arrival of riverboats that were dependent on the ice breakup of the Yukon and Tanana Rivers! The initial shipment of supplies that came during the summer of 1904 quickly ran out, and was not replenished until mid-May of 1905. That year, Spring brought a flurry of activity with the arrival of countless shiploads of supplies and equipment for the railroad, and construction activity commenced with a renewed fervor. But, until the arrival of Engine #1 on July 4, men and animals provided the "horsepower" for roadbed construction!
Engine #1, which had been the first steam locomotive in the Yukon Territory, now became the first steam locomotive in the interior of Alaska. It went right to work 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 continued on the branch up the Goldstream valley through Fox. That branch was completed to Gilmore in September.
In 1907, the railroad was refinanced under a new name, the Tanana Valley Railroad and on May 15, 1907, construction began on the second phase of the TVRR, an extension of the trackage to Chatanika. The route was originally planned to go over Cleary Summit, but new mining activity in the Dome, Vault, Ridgetop and Olnes areas caused the railroad to be routed up the Fox Creek Valley to meet the needs of the new communities. On September 29, the construction crew reached Chatanika after building an additional 19.2 miles of railroad in four months, including over a mile of trestles and bridges!
Freight, passenger service and revenue continued to grow through 1909. At one time the railroad operated 3 mixed trains daily each way, in addition to special schedules. Using the railroad, instead of horse or mule-drawn wagons, the citizens of the area were able to save over $300,000 a year in freight costs. Occasionally, severe winter storms would bring operations to a halt, but the trains were usually back in operation within a couple of days.
Beginning in 1910, due primarily to the appearance of a new means of transportation, revenues began to drop. The railroad never recovered and finally, on November 1, 1917, the TVRR was sold at a bankruptcy sale for $200,000. The buyer resold the TVRR to the Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC) for $300,000 on December 31, 1917. The TVRR became the Chatanika Branch of the Alaska Engineering Commission Railroad, which became the Alaska Railroad in 1923. All of the equipment was renamed to reflect the new ownership and the Tanana Valley Railroad became a memory of days gone by.