Railroad changed Nenana forever
|Nenana depot as it looked in 2012|
In March 1914, Congress authorized the construction of a government railroad
in the Territory of Alaska. The northern terminus of the railroad would be in
Fairbanks, but there were two competing routes from ice-free ports at tidewater
to the Interior. There was an “eastern” route starting at Valdez or Cordova on
Prince William Sound, and a “western” route, starting at Seward or Portage Bay
on the Kenai Peninsula.
The future of the Athabascan village of Toghotthele, located near the
confluence of the Nenana and Tanana rivers, was unequivocally affected when
President Wilson chose the western route. His decision was influenced in part
by national sentiment against J. P. Morgan and the Guggenheim family, whose
Alaska Syndicate owned the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad that ran
between Cordova and Kennicott.
The western route followed the right of way of the bankrupt Alaska Northern Railroad north from Seward to Turnagain Arm, and then struck out across the
Matanuska-Susitna Valley, crossing the Alaska Range at Broad Pass, and heading
north to Fairbanks. The proposed railroad crossed the Tanana River at
Toghottele (now named Nenana).
The Alaska Engineering Commission (the government entity formed to oversee
the railroad’s construction) began work in 1915 at Ship Creek in the newly
formed town of Anchorage. By 1916, 60 miles of new track had been laid, 100
miles of roadbed graded and 230 miles of right of way cleared.
Some histories claim that the Alaska Railroad’s tracks reached Nenana by
1922, but this is not completely accurate. While the rail link between
Anchorage and Nenana was completed in 1922, the AEC had decided to have crews
work simultaneously from the south and north. Anchorage was the southern
construction headquarters, and Nenana was chosen as the northern headquarters.
Beginning in 1915, the AEC built a sizable construction compound in Nenana,
including offices, dormitories, power plant, machine shop, warehouses and
hospital. (All of these structures are now gone.) A white man’s community
sprang up around the railroad yard, and Nenana’s population quickly doubled. By
this time, Fairbanks’s sister city of Chena (at the mouth of the Chena River)
was dying, and many of that community’s buildings were relocated to the new
railroad town at Nenana.
So construction crews worked south from Nenana and north from Anchorage, and
in February 1922 the gap between the southern and northern segments was closed
with the completion of the Riley Creek Bridge (still in use) just outside the
entrance to Denali National Park.
A bridge across the Tanana River still needed to be constructed, but that
did not stop rail traffic from reaching Fairbanks. The AEC had acquired the
bankrupt Tanana Valley Railroad in 1917, and in 1919 it extended tracks south
to the north shore of the Tanana River. Until the Mears railroad bridge across
the Tanana was completed in 1923, passengers and freight were ferried across
the river when it was free of ice, and during the winter, temporary tracks were
laid across the frozen Tanana River.
With the completion of the railroad as far as Nenana, a depot was needed. A
single story station with passenger waiting room and freight storage room
(similar to the historic depot still standing in Seward) was built in 1922 near
the waterfront. In 1937, a second story containing the personal quarters for
the railroad agent was added.
By the 1980s, the depot was no longer being used, and it was transferred to
the city of Nenana in 1987. Now the Alaska State Railroad Museum, it is open
during the summer free of charge, and is a lovely place to spend a morning or