Anchorage Depot has been an Alaska Railroad centerpiece for 80 years
The Alaska Railroad Depot in Anchorage is located at 411 W. First Ave., on the south side of Ship Creek at the base of the bluff on which downtown Anchorage sits.
Early photos, taken in 1915 or 1916, show a one-story log building near Ship Creek identified as Anchorage’s first depot. Passengers could not have traveled far, though. The Turnagain Arm line extension connecting Anchorage with the tracks from Seward was not yet completed, and by fall of 1915 the end-of-rails northward was the Eagle River 13 miles away. By the end of 1916 trains could travel as far as the coal mines at Moose and Eska Creeks in the Matanuska Valley.
The log depot was evidently quickly replaced, as other photos from late 1916 and later show a larger, two-story wood-frame depot in the same location as the present depot. As with the current depot, it was oriented in an east-west direction. That second depot served Anchorage for 25 years.
By the mid-1930s the Alaska Railroad (ARR) had finally started showing a profit and it began upgrading the line in the latter 1930s. This process was spurred, in part, by Alaska’s military build-up just prior to World War II. Construction on Ladd Field in Fairbanks, now called Fort Wainwright, began in 1939, and work on Elmendorf Field in Anchorage began in 1940. According to William Wilson’s book, “Railroad in the Clouds,” the military’s transportation demands on the railroad set new traffic records each year from 1940-1944. By war’s end the ARR carried almost 3 1/2 times as much freight as it had during 1939.
ARR modernization included a new Anchorage depot, with the first section completed in 1941. According to Allison Hoagland’s book, “Buildings of Alaska,” the structure’s architect is not known. She hypothesizes though, that a likely candidate for its design would be William A. Manley, a well-known Anchorage architect whose firm, Manley and Mayer, designed a number of notable buildings around Alaska.
The 1941 depot, constructed of reinforced concrete with a stucco finish, was 218-feet-long by 45-feet-wide. It was three-stories tall except for stubby one-story extensions at the east and west ends. Its horizontal massing, minimalist exterior finishing, and lack of a cornice are in line with Art Moderne architecture. However, there are touches of Classical styling. For instance, the building is symmetrical, and the central portion of the building has a more elaborate exterior with curved pilasters mimicking columns at the central entrance, and vertical fluting between the window bays. As with Beau Arts Classical architecture, the ornamentation becomes less ornate towards the more “utilitarian” east and west ends of the building.
The first floor has 15-foot-high ceilings, and the public areas were finished with quarry tile flooring, ceramic tile wainscoting, and light maple woodwork. It housed the ticket office, and the waiting, baggage and freight rooms. The second and third floors housed railroad offices.
The volume of railroad traffic dropped after the war, but the ARR continued to play a vital role in the development of Interior Alaska, and in supplying military installations integral to the U.S. Cold War with the Soviet Union. Reflecting this continued importance, in 1948 the single-story extensions at the west and east ends of the depot were replaced with longer two-story additions, bringing the building length to 338 feet. The additions were designed to blend into the lines of the original depot.
The depot’s appearance has changed little since its completion, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. The ground floor of the building is still used as a depot and it is open to the public. However, the railroad’s administrative offices are now located elsewhere, and the office’s on the upper floors of the depot are leased out.
- “American Architecture since 1780: A Guide to the Styles.” Marcus Wiffen. The M.I. Press. 1969
- “Anchorage Depot, National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.” James Blasingame. National Park Service. 1999
- “Buildings of Alaska.” Allison K. Hoagland. Oxford University Press. 1996
- “Railroad in the Clouds: The Alaska Railroad in the Age of Steam, 1914-1945.” William H. Wilson. Pruett Publishing Company. 1977
- “The Alaska Railroad.” Edwin M Fitch. Federal Railroad Administration. 1968
- “The Alaska Railroad – 1902 to 1923: Blazing an Iron Trail Across the Last Frontier.” Helen Hegener. Northern Light Media. 2017