Chitina Auto-Railer and the end of the line for Copper River and Northwestern Railway
Mines in the Wrangell Mountains, 65 miles east of Chitina and only a few miles south of McCarthy, were world-class copper producers during the early 1900s. However, by the 1930s the copper reserves were running out, and the world was in the grip of a depression.
The price of copper had been gradually dropping from a 1917 high of 37 cents per pound. In 1929 copper sold for 18 cents per pound. By 1931 the price had dropped to 5.5 cents per pound.
In 1933 the Kennecott mines temporarily suspended operations, retaining only a skeleton crew to maintain the facilities. The mines were owned by the Alaska Syndicate, which also owned the Copper River and Northwestern Railway (CR&NW). The railway was expensive to maintain and operate, and for most of its 27-year life ran at a loss. It also suspended operations in 1933.
The temporary closure of the mines and railway were major blows to the Chitina/McCarthy area. Although regular train service ceased, railway speeders provided some service, and airplanes filled in the gap. The Alaska Road Commission (ARC) had built an airstrip at McCarthy in 1927, and according to government reports, airplanes brought about half the passengers and freight into McCarthy during this period.
By 1934 the price of copper had risen to 9 cents per pound, enough to let the mines open, albeit at a reduced level, The CR&NW also resumed operations, but with fewer scheduled trains — trains that also pulled fewer ore cars. It never again operated during winter.
The high-grade copper deposits at Kennecott were the only reason the mines showed a profit. Exhaustion of those deposits, coupled with high transportation costs and continued low copper prices forced the mines and railway to close permanently in 1938.
The CR&NW abandoned the line, but left the railbed and related structures intact. It sold off most of its rolling stock. However, realizing the impact the line closure would have on the residents between Chitina and McCarthy, the ARC assumed responsibility for that section of line, and the CR&NW left several speeders and hand cars for its use.
In April 1939, O.A. Nelson, who owned Chitina’s general store, bought a Chevrolet “Auto-Railer” self-propelled rail bus to run on the Chitina to McCarthy line. The auto-railer is shown in the drawing. According to the Alaska Museum of Transportation and Industry the auto-railer, assembled by Evans Products Company of Detroit, is a 1935 Chevrolet truck with a 1934 Wayne B-1 bus body.
The railway bridge across the Copper River just north of Chitina was destroyed by flooding in the spring of 1933, never to be replaced. Nelson then ferried the auto-railer across the Copper River to the still extant tracks, where it stayed, running passengers and freight to McCarthy and points in between, as well as transporting hunters to and from the Wrangell Mountains. An old photo of the auto-railer show it pulling a small flatcar.
McCarthyites took advantage of Olsen’s auto-railer as well as other speeders until the bridge across the Kennicott River just outside McCarthy washed away in 1942. With their link to the rail line severed, most residents abandoned McCarthy.
1942 was also when the ARC, faced with wartime responsibilities elsewhere in Alaska, stopped maintaining the tracks. After that individuals maintained the tracks as best they could, but by the 1950s most sections of the line were unusable.
The rails between Chitina and McCarthy were torn up for salvage in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was not until the rough jeep trail along the old rail bed was converted to a road in the early 1970s that McCarthy was revitalized as a recreation destination.
Merle “Mudhole” Smith, who had spent his early years with Cordova Air Service stationed at McCarthy, rescued the auto-railer from the scrap heap. It eventually found its way to the transportation museum in Wasilla, where it is now on display.
- “Cultural Resources Survey Report for the Relocation of McCarthy Road.” Rolfe G. Buzzell. Alaska Department of Natural Resources. 2005
- “Historic McCarthy, the Town that Copper Built.” M. J. Kirchhoff. Alaska Cedar Press. 1993
- Information on Chitina Auto-Railer from the Alaska Museum of Transportation and Industry. 2022
- “The Copper Spike.” Lone E. Janson. Alaska Northwest Publishing. 1975