College Station and the Toonerville Trolley
|College Station in the mid-1920s.|
The four miles between the University of Alaska and downtown Fairbanks offers little impediment to modern travelers. However, when the university’s predecessor, the Alaska College of Agriculture and School of Mines, opened for classes in 1922, roads between the college and town were few. Photos from the 1920s show what is now College Road as merely a narrow track through the woods. Farmer’s Loop was a more developed but lengthier route to Fairbanks.
Alaska Railroad (ARR) tracks passed the campus, with a straight run into Fairbanks, so the college turned to the railroad for dependable transportation between campus and town. The railroad instituted commuter service using a small self-propelled narrow-gauge railcar. The Edison-Beach railcar pressed into service originally made daily runs on the Tanana Valley Railroad (TVRR) between Fairbanks and Fox.
The TVRR (built 1904-1907) was a narrow-gauge railway (3’ between rails), while the ARR (completed in 1923) was standard gauge (4’ 8 1/2” between rails). The ARR acquired the TVRR in 1917, renaming it the Chatanika Branch. It continued to operate as a narrow-gauge line but was integrated into the ARR’s standard-gauge operations.
The ARR’s standard-gauge tracks from Nenana joined the TVRR’s narrow-gauge tracks at Happy Station in the Goldstream Valley. From there into Fairbanks a third rail was laid beside the narrow-gauge tracks, converting it to a dual gauge railway. This allowed both standard and narrow-gauge trains to use the same roadbed. (The ARR removed the third rail after the Chatanika Branch closed in 1930.)
When the need arose in 1922, the ARR overhauled the old Edison-Beach railcar at its Anchorage shop and returned it to service on the campus to Fairbanks run. Nicholas Deely’s book, The Gold Dust Line, states that the railcar was affectionately known as the “Toonerville Trolley” (after a comic strip popular at the time). The trolley made round trips three times a day during the week, and twice on Saturdays (no Sunday service). The 15-minute ride cost 24 cents. Deeley states that the trolley was economical to operate, more-so than the similarly-sized Brill railcar that replaced it in about 1930.
The 12′ x 18′ wood-frame building shown in the drawing was the College Station depot. It was located just to the west of where the university power plant is now, downhill from the college president’s house. (President Charles Bunnell liked to keep an eye on the students’ comings and goings.)
In 1931 bus service to the college was initiated by Paul Griemann, who owned a Fairbanks garage. According to Terrence Cole’s book, Cornerstone on College Hill, President Bunnell tried to talk Griemann out of the enterprise, fearing the bus service would mean the end for the trolley. He was right—the bus service, coupled with increased operating costs for the Brill railcar, led the ARR to end its commuter service that same year.
Although scheduled railcar service ended, evidently the depot continued to be used, at least occasionally. Movies and photos from the mid 1930s show train cars stopped at College Station.
According to Fairbanks North Star Borough land records the depot building was moved in the early 1950s to 1780 Old Pioneer Way and incorporated into a private residence. There it stayed until 2013 when its owner, Nevada Bovee, razed the building to make room for a new home. Fortunately, she allowed Martin Gutowski, with Friends of the Tanana Valley Railway, to salvage a few of the structure’s boards that contained initials and names carved by college students. Martin passed the boards along to the University of Alaska Museum, so the Toonerville Trolley and College Station can live on in the memory of Fairbanks.
- Alaska’s Tanana Valley Railroads. Daniel Osborne. Arcadia Publishers. 2013
- Correspondence with Martin Gutowski, president of Friends of the Tanana Valley Railroad
- Fairbanks North Star Borough property records
- Tanana Valley Railroad, the Gold Dust Line. Nicholas Deely. Denali Designs. 1996
- The Cornerstone on College Hill. Terrence Cole. University of Alaska Press. 1994