Weekly Newsletter

Alaskan History and More

Finding a Route for the Rails

“The law specified the men who would serve on the Alaska Railroad Commission: an Army engineer, a Navy engineer, and a civil engineer unconnected with any Alaskan railroad. To insure that respected, learned Alfred H. Brooks would be included, Congress designated him by title.”– William H. Wilson, Railroad in the Clouds (Pruett Publishing Co., 1977) Names are in the following photograph.

On September 15, 1912, four federal railroad commissioners stepped ashore at Seward with a Congressional mandate to study and recommend the Alaska railroad routes which would best “develop the country and the resources thereof for the use of the people of the United States.”

The commission had only a few short weeks, as Congress wanted the findings reported to President Taft by December 1. They left Seattle on September 10, 1912, traveling to Seward and to the Matanuska and Susitna Valleys, then Fairbanks, Katalla, Valdez, and Cordova, studying the railroad and transportation routes along the way. After a side trip to study Canadian railroads, they returned to Washington in early December and turned in their report, “Railway Routes in Alaska,” on January 20, 1913.

During the summer of 1913 there was careful examination of the two primary options recommended by the Taft report, including thorough analysis of the Alaska Northern and Tanana Valley Railroads in the west, and the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad to the east, with both options ending in Fairbanks. There were also reconnaissance trips to the Iditarod and Kuskokwim areas, and a study of the potential for tunneling through the mountains at an old portage point at the head of Turnagain Arm to access an ice-free port at the head of Passage Canal.

In April, 1914 President Wilson announced his decision, selecting the western or Susitna route, beginning at Seward and including purchase of the Alaska Northern Railway, proceeding northward around Cook Inlet, across the Matanuska and Susitna Valleys, through the Alaska Range at Broad Pass, and crossing the Tanana River to end in Fairbanks.

Sixteen days after the president signed the order, Commission Chairman Edes – now Chief Engineer for the project – had selected Seward as his headquarters for railroad operations, Lt. Mears was landing men and supplies on the banks of Ship Creek, and Thomas Riggs had gone north to take charge of the survey parties working from Broad Pass to Fairbanks.

In support of their efforts to get underway with the building of the railroad, tremendous mountains of supplies and materials were being shipped to Alaska, and small armies of men were gathering. 

Excerpted from The Alaska Railroad: 1902-1923, Blazing an Iron Trail Across The Last Frontier, by Helen Hegener, published in May, 2017 by Northern Light Media. 400 pages, over 100 b/w historic photos, maps, bibliography, indexed.

More Information on this Book


If you missed my newsletter about the changes happening with Alaskan History, please read this post. Short version: The July-August issue of Alaskan History Magazine will be the last. I will keep producing this email newsletter on Alaska's history as I publish more books, and I will maintain the digital magazines at issuu.com, adding the four issues published this year. For now, access to the digital editions will be free.

Sneak Peek Dept.:

The Alaskan History Anthology, Volume Two will be in print soon. Volume One is being edited from the 2019 book, Alaskan History Magazine Anthology, and future editions will be added to the collection annually. Ordering information for both books will be in next week’s newsletter.

From the Archives

CR&NWRR Steamboats on the Copper River

Between 1907 and 1911 the Copper River and Northwestern Railway operated four steamboats on the Copper and Chitina Rivers in support of railroad construction and mining operations at Kennicott. Click here to continue reading.

Howdy There Dept.

Since I’m switching gears with my business, this seems like a good time to introduce myself to those who may not be familiar with this writer/editor/publisher. This is on the About/Contact page of my Northern Light Media site:

Hello! My name is Helen Hegener, and through my company, Northern Light Media, I’ve published over a dozen nonfiction books about the history of Alaska, the roadhouses, railroads, gold rush history and historic sled dog races such as the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest. I also published Alaskan History Magazinefrom May-June, 2019 to July-August, 2021.

Over the past several years I have given presentations about the subjects of my books at the Alaska State Fair, the Palmer Historical Society, Fireside Books in Palmer, Jitters Coffeehouse in Eagle River, the Talkeetna Roadhouse, the University of Alaska, radio, television, and many other venues. I have also written articles for Alaska MagazineLast Frontier MagazineAlaska DispatchMushing MagazineThe Frontiersman, and many others.

I’ve volunteered for several sled dog races, including the Yukon Quest, the All Alaska Sweepstakes, the Northern Lights 300, and the Copper Basin 300. I also organized and sponsored two ground-breaking Mushing History Conferences, in 2009 and 2010, which drew presenters and attendees from across Alaska and Canada to learn more about the colorful history of mushing from some of the most respected mushers, historians, researchers, documentarians, and authors.

You can contact me on Facebook, via email at helenhegener@gmail.com or with this contact form. All my books and fourteen back issues of the magazine are available on this site (Northern Light Media), at my Shopify storefront, at Amazon, IndyBound, and through your local independent bookstores.

I am an unapologetic traveller, and this bit from a hotel brochure, found somewhere in Canada many years ago, still resonates with me:

Until next week, be kind, be generous, and behave.