Alaska Railroad Adventure, 1947

My grandparents moved to Alaska in the late 1940s. At that time, the state was very much still a rugged frontier, and everyone had an interesting story to tell. Grandma took notes, and shared them with me, asking me to publish them so the rest of the family could have easy access to these stories.

In this post, my grandparents set out into the wilderness on a train trip through central Alaska in 1947. Along the way, they encounter mountain climbers in the process of making history, and even set up a temporary dental clinic in a bathroom to help locals in need. As usual, these stories are presented in my grandmother’s own words with no editing on my part. I did, however, hunt down a few relevant links and images. You can find more of my family’s stories at McKinley Family.

I probably should have split this into two posts because it’s so long, but I felt like the most fascinating part was the second half.  Incidentally, I ended up working on this railroad in 1992. One of these days I’ll have to write up my Alaska Railroad stories as well.

Once again, in her own words, Doris McKinley.

doris on trip to mt mckinley national park with the lions club

Doris McKinley - adventuring

The only Railroad in Alaska is United States Government owned and runs from Seward, the port of entry, thru Anchorage to Fairbanks, a 471 mile life-line to the interior. It was built many years ago of Government Surplus Materials after the construction of the Panama Canal, and is in dire need of major repairs. The schedules are notoriously slow. If an engineer wants to flirt with a reprimand, a sure way to do it is to bring his train in on time! The speed limit for passenger trains on the straight-away is 25 miles per hour.

Alaska Railroad Map - Seward to Fairbanks

Alaska Railroad Map - image credit Alaska Railroad

While awaiting completion of the dental offices in the new Sogn Building, my husband and I took a most interesting trip on the railroad, stopping at Curry, Mt. McKinley Park, and Healy. When we left Anchorage, we left all activity except strictly railroad behind. There are no railroad junctions or highway crossing along the entire route. Just wild hinterland!

As we were passing a rather extended, level, open area I was excited to see a complete rainbow. Both ends touching the ground – we looked but could not find pots of gold!

Several old fishermen boarded the train at Anchorage with all their paraphanalia. Then at various streams 30 to 60 miles out, they signalled the engineer, the train stopped, and they got off. A few days later, when they were ready to return, they would stand by the tracks, flag the train and ride in to Anchorage. – an easy way to get to camp!

We enjoyed association with a young family who made the trip to Curry in our coach. There were two lovely daughters, 9 and 11 years. The husband had recently been hired as a freight engineer on the run from Curry to Healy (a rather hazardous section of the road). The family had just arrived from Southern California, and expected to spend the summer at Curry.

We found, there, a large green painted frame building of perhaps 100 rooms which was hotel and depot combined. Inside was a comfortable lobby and well appointed dining room. We arranged for rooms, planning to stay a few days. After lunch we walked out to inspect the town. We were surprised to find that the “town” consisted only of the railroad round house, power house, five houses provided for certain employees’ families, and the hotel. Across the tracks was an emergency airplane landing strip (which almost every community has prepared) and up the hill, a ski jump and cabin.

Curry Alaska Hotel and Depot

Curry Hotel and Depot -- photo credit: Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, John Urban Collection

Curry is a popular weekend destination for Anchorage ski and winter sports enthusiasts. Behind the hotel, lawns and gardens were lovely to the edge of the glacier fed, angry, rushing Susitna River. Incidentally, we learned there is no fish life in this river – nor any other that is glacier fed, because of the minerals and silt carried down from the mountain. Spanning the river was a steel suspension foot bridge, 400 feet across. Our party made the crossing, stepping gingerly, for with each step nearer the middles, the bridge swayed more, and the river underneath rushing by had a dizzying effect. We almost turned back.

However, were were rewarded. The footpath led up a very steep green hill, well covered with grass, flowers and trees. As we climbed and rested, we enjoyed the gree rolling hills across the rivere – so much like the beautiful hills of West Virginia.

We were at Curry Thursday and Friday, June 19 and 20, and were informated that a party of 80 people were coming from Anchorage on Saturday (the longest day of the year) to see the midnight sun. They would cross this foot bridge and climb three ridges, about 3 miles, to a point high enough to afford a good view. I was keenly disappointed not to be able to make this trip.

Of course, we were well aware of the sun every night, for in Anchorage it set about 10:00 P.M., and was up and shining brightly by 2:00 A.M. The intervening hours were light, as very early twilight here in summer. It was easy to eat late, and stay up far too late.

Our room at Curry was on the second floor overlooking the tracks. Several extra freight trains had been made up at Seward with military supplies for Fairbanks, and Curry inspectors found a number of defective cars, marking them “Bad Order.” Really, we found it very interesting to be close to the tracks in the near daylights so that we could observe the movement of the trains. We picked up some railroad vernacular.

Inasmuch as the Railroad carries no dining cars, two meal stops are provided between Fairbanks and Anchorage. Curry, its fine hotel dining room sparkling with white linen and silver, and Healy, we afterward learned, with its workingman’s quick lunch. Both served good food tho definitely lacking fresh vegetables. Curry always served a seafood cocktail and full course dinner, and Healy a delicious plate lunch. Both stops were seriously understaffed.

Curry had five girls who waited tables in fresh white uniforms, made up bedrooms for usually 10 to 15 guests, and did all the laundry for Curry, Mt. McKinley Park Hotel with its 50 to 100 guests, and the Railroad Hospital in Anchorage. (They can never make an impression on that laundry for it come in faster than they can possibly finish it.) Even the matron in charge of the dining room worked in the laundry, as well as anyone else around the hotel they can inviegle to help. Seriously, they offered me a job for the day.

We were amused by the situation one girl found herself in. Her boyfriend had worked at the hotel all winter, and enjoyed it so wrote her in North Dakota, urging her to leave her job, and come to Curry. He had the word of the other waitresses that the work was not hard, instead was pleasant and pay excellent. (That was several months earlier when they had a couple more girls and traffic was not so heavy.) She found herself in a round of work that seemed to have no end – not even a day off! She did a lot of talking – but I have a feeling she is still there.

Mt. McKinley Army Recreation Camp Brochure -- image credit: Mark Moderow, Alaska Lost Ski Area Project, ALSAP.org

We left Curry Friday afternoon and arrived at Mt. McKinley Park for dinner. We stepped off the train at an attractive new depot. A fine bus with livried chauffeur was waiting to drive us to the hotel. As we were all settled in our places, the bus turned and followed a graveled road around a low hill, and stopped in front of a large rambling frame builting – not two blocks from the station!! This was the famous Mt. McKinley Park Hotel, only this year released by the Army for civilian use.

The Hotel Lobby was beautiful with immense plate glass windows, fine leather furniture, and waxed linoleum. Our room was very modern with steel furniture, draperies, and complete bathroom. Here, we found many guests, including officers and their wives from Ft. Richardson near Anchorage and Lang Field near Fairbanks. Vacation spots are not numerous, so it was not too surprising that wherever we went we found business associates, whether at a casual dinner or on a 300 mile trip. Here was a Colonel and his wife, whom Lee had met at a banquet, and later had driven them to the Matanuska Valley for a days’ outing. Also, a young man at the desk with whom Lee at regularly at Ketchikan when he made his first trip to Alaska a year ago in August. His wife was with him and working as a waitress. They were planning to go to the University at Fairbanks in the fall.

McKinley Park Hotel dinnerware

McKinley Park Hotel china -- image credit: Lee Whitney, Alaska Lost Ski Area Project, ALSAP.org

Chicago University, in conjunctions with several other U.S. institutions, sponsored a scientific expedition this summer known as “White Tower Operation” whose mission was to scal the two peaks of Mt. McKinley with the idea of bringing back scientific data concerning weather, radar, geology, plant life, etc. from this highest point of North America. The leader was Bradford Washburn, Curator of Natural History at the Boston Museum. He was accompanied by his wife, who has the distinction of being the first and only woman to scale Mt. McKinley. Both were of small stature, though obviously strong. They were the parents of three very young children.

While we were at Mt. McKinley Park Hotel, two men came in who were the first members of the White Tower Operation to come down off the mountain. One, an R.K.O. news reporter, Wm. J. Stirling, a novice at mountain climbing, and the other, a well experienced young man from Seattle, Bob Craig who was due in Seattle within a few days to attend at a friend’s wedding. He was a tall young man, perhaps 22 years, who the year before during another climb near Juneau met with an accident and broke his back! He recovered, however, just in time to make this climb. Like a good Alaskan, we was not to be easily deterred from his purpose.

The expedition was planned with the idea of making it as safe and foolproof as possible. Christensen Air Service of Anchorage made repeated trips to the mountain, dropping food and other supplies, or landing on the great Muldrow Glacier. However, Bob said this was one of the hardest climbs he had ever made. Often it was necessary to back-track in order to move all the supplies.

The expensive Radar equipment which had been set up in a shack was blown off the mountain and lost. New equipment arrived late, so the Radar scientists, who were the last to leave the mountain, installed the euqipemnt in a more permanent building, took readings, and left it for future observations. This accomplishment seemed to give the men great satisfaction.

We returned to Anchorage in the same coach with Mr. Stirling and Bob Craig, so became quite well acquainted with them. We entertained them at dinner in Curry, loaned them the use of our truck the following morning in Anchorage, and I personally drove them to Ft. Richardson to meet their plane for Seattle and the wedding. Bob, during the school year, was studying for his Doctor’s Degree in Philosophy. His mission on this trip, however, was the study of minerals, rock formations, etc. in the interest of geology.

Barbara Washburn - first woman to climb Mt. McKinley -- image credit: Museum of Science, Boston, MOS.org

When Bob Craig checked out of the Anchorage Hotel, he left a note for Mr. And Mrs. Washburn, leaders of the White Tower Operations, suggesting that they call Dr. McKinley. A few days later, we saw them in the Westward Coffee Shop, where we frequently ate, and spoke to them. They laughling said they did not call because they suspected Bob of a joke – they were so very conscious of the name “McKinley” that they really didn’t believe there was a Dr. McKinley. However, during the balance of the week, we enjoyed several short visits with them.

Every member of the Expedition was most complimentary to both Mr. and Mrs. Washburn and found them to be good companions. She said that when she was so exhausted from the thin air and her exertions that it seemed she could not take another step, she thought of the men with their 60 pound packs, and then her pack of 30 pounds did not seem so heavy, knowing, too, that her companions on the rope could not move if she should falter. The climbers always worked in parties of three tied to a rope. Bob Craig had good reason to value the safety of the rope, when, as he was lead man a crust of snow broke and he dropped into a 60 foot crevasse. His companions finally were able to rescue him. It must have been a harrowing experience, but he modestly passed over it as of not importance or interest.

A couple weeks later, two young men secured a room in the house where we were living in Anchorage. We were surprised to find them part of the White Tower Operation, and it seemed a coincidence that they should find a room in our house. We visited with one of the men and invited them to our room for a few minutes, he said he’d call “Shorty.” When they returned later, one man ducked his head to come in. He must have been 6′ 7″. His sandy red beard just covered his chin and sideburns. Of course he slouched to make himself a more normal height. He was truly a comical sight. An artist, his mission was to sketch a record of the trip. No doubt, as time goes on we will see paintings of Mt. McKinley by the artist Brown. Am sorry I can’t recall his first name [George Brown].  We were anxious to see his sketches which were done in oils, and he promised to show them the following day – then discovered they were among baggage already at the airport. We were disappointed to have missed this unusual opportunity.

To get back to Mt. McKinley Park Hotel. The Hotel is located at the edge of the Park, and sixty miles from Mt. McKinley, which is not visible from the hotel. Now, a good gravel road has been built into the park where, on clear days, the mountain can be seen and a bus makes regular trips to Camp Eielson, maintained by the hotel.

It was only ten miles from McKinley Park to Healy, but ten of the most interesting miles I have ever traveled. The railroad followed a gushing mountain stream, and in one area a mountain is gradually moving toward the river. A maintenance crew with heavy machinery is constantly at work cutting a new road bed back into the mountain, and relaying the track. We understand it moves about the width of the tracks each year. At another place the ground breaks away and the tracks are laid on a trestle.

Healy stop was not so pretentious a building as Curry, though it was teeming with activity. It is the Railroad layover and as such, the Railroad uses every available room for its crews. As we stepped in to the lobby, we saw a long queue of passengers lined up paying for their meals before going into the lunch room. Our host and hostess, Mr. and Mrs. Marshall, greeted us just as the rush was over and showed us to a pleasant room directly across from their apartment on the first floor. The only other rooms on the first floor were the lavatories. Our room was marked “Guest Room” and was maintained for Dr. Brady, the Railroad Physician. We were welcomed because my husband had brought along dental supplies and equipment so that he could set up an office and do emergency work and examinations. (Remember we were some 300 miles from Anchorage, and the nearest dentist.) The Railroad gives sick leave to its employees and transporation to Anchorage for dental work and sickness. A practical though not unusual way to get to the vity for recreation.

Mr. Marshall showed us every courtesy and supervised turning the ladies’ lavatory into a dental office. A novelty to say the least. However, it worked out very well and was quite convenient. Mrs. Marshall entertained me in her apartment while Lee was working. One young mother stopped in while awating a dental examination, a graduate of Alaska University in Home Economics, with a year of post graduate work in the States, she found “a good life” in that remote community.

I was much impressed with the Marshall’s cordiality and friendliness to us as well as to every Railroad employee. They worked under tremendous handicaps because their facilities were far short of the demands placed on them. On case to illustrate: A carpenter received an order from his superior at McKinley Park Station, “Permanent job – bring all your things.” After he checked out, Mr. Marshall placed in the room a man who had been occupying an army sleeper, a make-shift arrangement. The next train from the South brough the carpenter. A mistake had been made, but he had lost his room and was forced to accept the sleeper, however, with the promise that he should have the next available room.

As we traveled down the track on our return to Anchorage one late afternoon, we had a perfect view of the two peaks of Mt. McKinley. In fact, we watched them for nearly half an hour. It was majestic and from that distance, it appeared to rise from level ground. We stood on the back platform getting frightfully dirty, but enjoying the beauty of the sunset. This was a delightful conclusion for an interesting trip.

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