Potter Section House near Anchorage offers glimpse into history of Alaska Railroad
|Potter Section House as it looked in winter 2018-2019|
Potter Section House is at Mile 115.3, Seward Highway, near the mouth of Turnagain Arm and just south of Potter Marsh. Sitting adjacent to the Alaska Railroad tracks, it is the last historic section house along the 470-mile railroad still in its original location.
Before a section house was built at Potter (named for nearby Potter Creek), a railroad construction camp sat there. Potter, with a fresh-water source, a beach where barges could land and sufficient space for warehouses, offices, residences and mess hall, was chosen as the headquarters site for the Alaska Engineering Commission’s Turnagain District. The district was responsible for extending the defunct Alaska Northern Railway’s tracks from Kern Creek, near the eastern end of Turnagain Arm, northwest to Anchorage.
A camp was erected at Potter in 1916, and an Alaska Engineering Commission map shows about 20 structures there.
Potter camp was active through 1917, when tracks reached Falls Creek near Indian. The district headquarters then moved to Falls Creek until the tracks to Anchorage were finished in September 1918.
With completion of the Turnagain line, “sections” were established for track maintenance. Potter, along with other former construction camps, became section house locations. Section houses also served as flag stops for passengers. According to the 1980 publication, The Preservation and Reuse of the Potter Section House, there were eight sections along the approximately 50 miles of rugged coastline east of Potter.
Crews for each section consisted of a foreman, his wife (or a cook), and a crew of six to eight section hands. The still-existing Potter section house was built in 1929. Little is known of the structure that stood at Potter before then.
The section house is a 1 1/2-story, 28-by-36-foot, wood-frame house, sheathed with shiplap siding. It has entrances at the northeast and southwest gable-ends. The first floor’s northeast portion housed a kitchen and dining area, and the southwest end, nearest the tracks, had three rooms reserved as the foreman’s quarters. On the building’s southeast side between the kitchen and foreman’s quarters was a washroom and the second-floor stairway.
The second floor featured a 16-by-35-foot loft that reportedly served as a waiting room for passengers and was probably also utilized as a bunk room.
In the drawing, the window on the left is the landing for the stairs. To its right is the first-floor washroom, which originally had an exterior window. At some point the window was replaced with a door, perhaps so that section hands did not tramp through the foreman’s quarters to reach the stairs. The doorway was later walled over, but its outline can still be seen.
As mechanization reduced the number of sections needed for track maintenance, Potter eventually became responsible for maintaining much of the track along Turnagain Arm. National Park Service documents state, however, that in 1978 the Anchorage and Girdwood maintenance stations assumed responsibility for Turnagain Arm, and the Potter section house closed.
Efforts began as early as 1979 to keep the vacant section house in situ adjacent to the railroad tracks to preserve its historic integrity and hopefully restore it. The building and land it sits on were eventually transferred to the State of Alaska, becoming Potter Section House State Historic Site.
Potter Section House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. The structure and associated outbuildings were restored in 1985-86, and on Oct. 3, 1986, Potter Section House opened as an interpretive center. A rotary snow plow, railroad kitchen car and maintenance car were also moved to the site for interpretive purposes.
The section house, no longer used as an interpretive center, is now the headquarters for Chugach State Park. Visitors are welcome.
- Patterns of the Past: An Inventory of Anchorage’s Historic Resources. Michael Carberry & Donna Lane. Municipality of Anchorage. 1986
- Potter Section House. Informational literature at Chugach State Park office. No date.
- “Potter Section House – National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form.” Michael E. Carberry. National Park Service. 1985
- The Preservation and Reuse of the Potter Section House: A Report to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. Municipality of Anchorage. 1980