Little Eska engine a reminder of Matanuska Valley’s coal-mining past
A small industrial locomotive in front of the railroad depot in Palmer is a reminder of the Matanuska Valley’s coal-mining past. Engine No. 5 is a narrow-gauge Baldwin 0-4-0T saddletank locomotive. The 0-4-0 represents the wheel configuration, with no leading wheels, four drive wheels and no trailing wheels. The T denotes a “tank” engine, carrying its water tank and fuel bunker on the locomotive itself, instead of on a tender.
No. 5 was manufactured in 1910 for the U.S government. According to signage at the Palmer Depot, the locomotive spent its early years working on dam and land reclamation projects in eastern Washington state — work ideally suited to narrow-gauge railroads.
Historically, U.S. narrow-gauge railroads had rails 3 feet apart, as opposed to standard-gauge’s 4- foot 8.5-inch spacing between rails. Narrow-gauge railroads used lighter rails and equipment, were less costly to construct and maintain, and could be built with smaller radius curves. This gave narrow-gauge advantages in mountainous terrain and for industrial uses such as logging, mining and construction.
The federal agency that built the Alaska Railroad was the Alaska Engineering Commission (AEC). When the AEC began constructing tracks from Anchorage to Fairbanks, it brought little No. 5 north.
Concurrent with the mainline to Fairbanks, the AEC constructed a branch line north along the Matanuska River to open land for coal mining. That branch line was completed by October 1917. The Matanuska line’s primary objective was Chickaloon, where the U.S. Navy wanted to develop a coal mine. However, smaller private mines sprouted up along the tracks, mainly at Moose Creek and Eska Creek near present-day Sutton.
A 1952 U.S.G.S report states that early in 1917, the Eska Mine, about three miles up Eska Creek, opened. Coal from the mine was initially sledded to the railroad tracks. The owners of the Eska Mine encountered problems, and the AEC, needing a reliable source of coal for its locomotives, purchased the mine in June 1917. It installed a narrow-gauge spur from the Matanuska line to the mine that same year. That spur was where No. 5 found a home.
The drawing shows No. 5 as it looked while operating on the Eska spur. Fresh from the factory it would have had a bell and perhaps a light in front of the smoke stack, but photos from 1919 show the engine sans bell or light. It also appears the engine did not have a number painted on it. An identifying number for the engine would have been superfluous on the short Eska spur. Or, perhaps the AEC did not paint a number on the little narrow-gauge tank engine so there would be no confusion between it and the AEC’s other No. 5 engine, a standard-gauge ALCO 0-4-0T locomotive that was shipped to Nenana in 1917.
The little Baldwin No. 5 served on the Eska spur until about 1925. The Eska spur had been converted to standard-gauge rails by then, and the AEC was constructing a narrow-gauge line up Moose Creek a few miles to the southeast, so No. 5 moved to the Moose Creek spur. When the lower portion of the Moose Creek spur was converted to standard-gauge track in 1926, No. 5 continued working on the upper narrow-gauge portion.
A 1942 flood washed out the lower portion of the Moose Creek spur and those tracks were never replaced, forcing mines along Moose Creek to use trucks for hauling coal.
In 1956 the now-abandoned No. 5 was hauled from Buffalo Mine at the upper end of Moose Creek to Palmer and set in front of the Palmer depot. It is now owned and maintained by the City of Palmer.
- A History of Coal-mining in the Sutton-Chickaloon area prior to WW II. Mary Cracraft Bauer & Victoria Cole. Alaska historical Commission Studies in History. 1985
- Alaska Engineering Commission photographs. Anchorage Museum collections
- Major Coal Towns of the Matanuska Valley, a Pictorial History. Fran Seager-Boss & Lawrence Roberts. Matanuska-Susitna Borough. 1991
- Signage at Palmer railroad depot
- The Wishbone Hill District, Matanuska Coal Field, Alaska. Farrell Barnes &Thomas Payne. U.S.G.S. 1956